Thursday, July 31, 2008

Dallas Public Defender to lose 2 more positions

An informant brings word that the Dallas Public Defender Office may soon lose two more spots because county commissioners are requiring courts to assign felony PD lawyers 40 felony cases each month. Judge Carter Thompson and Judge Susan Hawk are each cutting a felony trial PD effective in August. See the related agenda items 10(a) & (b) (pdf, pp. 174-179)

A report commissioned by the county from the Texas Task Force on Indigent Defense said that caseloads recently required in Dallas County were three or more times higher than “nationally recommended standards” and substantially higher than caseloads at other Texas public defenders. TFID warned earlier this month that maintaining PD caseload levels that high "can pose a serious threat to the indigent’s right to competent counsel."

There's also some good news for lawyers at the Dallas PD: The appellate division, I'm told, will survive in the county budget at least another year, though with a quarterly review of their statistics and workload expectations that may still give the agency trouble down the line.

Self-paced learning at TYC the "least effective" approach

Though it's a long and substantive document, anyone interested in an inside look at what's going on with education services at the Texas Youth Commission should consider the new report (pdf) from the Ombudsman's office a must-read. (I'm particularly hoping the Sunset Commission staffers are paying close attention.)

Bottom line, based on interviews with dozens of students, teachers and staff as well as analyzing agency-generated data, UT-Austin Professor Michael Krezmien depicts a completely dysfunctional education system at TYC, with the few bright spots dragged down by overall organizational failure and an utter lack of focus on educational services.

While the contents of the report could and likely will fill up several posts, I wanted to provide an overview of the main points, particularly since initial news coverage so far hasn't delved too deep into the substance. This harsh conclusory paragraph sums up the main flaws with TYC's approach to education services:
Despite the fact that a substantial percentage of the youth have reading and learning deficiencies, these students are expected to learn through a process of independent reading. Despite the fact that a substantial percentage of the youth have limited reading comprehension skills, they are expected to acquire new information primarily through self‐directed reading. The current model of educational practices at the TYC is basically devoid of what current educational research has consistently identified as “best practices” for instruction. There is little to no direct instruction and little to no classroom discussions. Students are not exposed to new knowledge in multiple ways, nor are they provided with instructional approaches that are interesting or engaging. Students have limited engagement with teachers, and the classes typically lack direct instruction, questioning, and discussion. Students are seldom given opportunities to respond to new information or to questions about newly learned information. Students are seldom provided opportunities to relate newly learned information to the world or to their own prior knowledge. Student engagement was poor across settings and classrooms. Although there were instances of excellent teaching and innovative instructional approaches, the primary instruction practice (“self‐paced” independent desk work) is the least effective instructional approach available.
In addition, the education TYC offers to special ed kids and students with disabilities, according to Professor Krezmien, is out of compliance with federal law. He reports that TYC has identified 40.4% of students as having a disability under the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act of 2004, however these students' "transitional plans were generic and inadequate. Generally, a majority of special education students did not receive special education services in accordance with the IDEA."

The Professor's data shows how TYC has become a dumping ground for the illiterate and the mentally ill just like happens with adult prisons. TYC has four times as many special ed students as a typical public school, three times the number with learning disabilities, and 18 times as many students with emotional disturbances.

TYC uses only two educational outcome measures, says Krezmien: Scores on a standardized test upon entry and exit, and the number of students who get GEDs. He found the standardized test inadequate for assessing students with so many particularized special needs and learning disabilities. Most kids who get GEDs do so within 9 months of arriving at TYC, which Krezmien says indicates they likely entered TYC with sufficient skills to pass the test.

Meanwhile, many students cannot reasonably be expected to ever get a GED and there's a lack of outcome measures to track their progress or that values choices, e.g., to enter vocational programs. Speaking of which, the report heaped praise on TYC's vocational programs, but lamented that only about 10% of students were eligible.

Moving youth during the school day requires adequate JCO staffing or else cuts into instruction time, according to the report. "We observed instances where the movement of youth took as long as 30 minutes, despite an allocation of only 5 minutes to movement. ... We observed numberous instances of decreased access to education as a consequence of youth movement practices."

Krezmien's overall assessment of educational quality was poor, as expressed in these excerpts:

"We found classes that were typically organized based on correctional needs, which resulted in classrooms with students of different ages, different academic abilities, and in different courses. The scheduling practices negatively impact the educational program and limit instructional opportunities. We found the instructional practices to be generally poor. We found inconsistent curricula across facilities, and sometimes within a facility."

"The absence of a unified curriculum aligned with the State standards, and flexible to meet the needs of high and low performing students as well as students with disabilities is inappropriate. ... Students frequently move across facilities that have different curricula that are not integrated. This negatively impacts student learning, student credit accrual, and teacher responsibilities as they attempt to match a student’s transcript to programs with different curricula."

"The primary instructional practice observed at TYC education programs was broadly considered “self‐paced” and individualized instruction. This usually consisted of students working in worksheet packets independently or students working with paper assignment sheets and in text books independently. There was no direct instruction in most classes, and limited opportunities for student‐teacher engagement.

"Many of the observations revealed a lack of instructional activities whatsoever. There were numerous instances of teachers working at the computer while students slept, talked with each other, or worked independently."

"The 'self‐paced' model of TYC facilities is an ineffective approach to education. There is no empirical evidence demonstrating the effectiveness of the practices implemented. The approach is not appropriate to the TYC population of learners."

"[N]one of the education programs in the security setting met the TYC education standards."

"We found the staff at the TYC institutions to be one of the strongest assets of the TYC education programs. However, we found that school cultures varied greatly across the facilities. In most facilities, teacher morale was low."

Overall Krezmien has produced an incredibly damning portrayal of the agency, made more so by his use of TYC's own written standards, outcome measures and federal law as evaluation benchmarks.

Today was the day Richard Nedelkoff originally proposed to the Governor the agency should come out of conservatorship, but that's clearly not going to happen. This publication evidences stunning levels of dysfunctionality at one of the agency's core missions - educating youth in its charge.

Kudos to Ombudsman Will Harrell for pursuing this evaluation and to Professor Krezmien for an outstandingly thorough and detailed assessment (including 75 specific recommendations). They've provided a much needed window for state leaders and the public on a critical and under-emphasized topic.

Wednesday, July 30, 2008

Jail costs, new criminal court driving Travis County tax hikes

From news reports I've seen, most jurisdictions in the state currently contemplating property tax increases are doing so to pay for pretrial detention at overcrowded jails and staffing overbuilt detention centers. Here in Austin, I've already discussed how the city budget has become bloated with public safety costs, and today the Statesman brings word that Travis County, too, will likely raise taxes to pay for mostly criminal justice related expenses:
The increase would pay mainly for a new county criminal court, increased fuel costs, a 3 percent pay raise for most county employees and 31 corrections officers to staff a new detention building at the Del Valle Correctional Complex.
Anti-tax activists in Texas for years have focused their ire on the "Robin Hood" school finance scheme and rising property taxes at public schools. But as far as I can tell, jails and other criminal justice-related expenses are driving local tax hikes in most Texas counties which have announced them.

At a time when 37% of arrests by Austin PD are optional (under state law, officers could use their discretion to write tickets for most of these offenders if top brass and local DAs would approve it), raising taxes to pay for staffing an overcrowded jail strikes me as a particularly bitter pill to swallow.

Where are all the anti-tax agitators when you need them? In my hometown of Tyler, the no-new-taxes crowd gets the connection, but clearly Austin, Lubbock and other jurisdictions remain willing to jack up property taxes ad infinitum to pay for jail costs, even when they could pursue other options.

Smith County commissioners fixated on jail building despite clear voter message

Hoping the third time will be the charm, this November Smith County voters for the third year running will get to vote on a jail bond proposal on the ballot that will boost the average property tax hit by $31.33 per year, from $381.11 to $412.44, the Tyler Morning Telegraph was told in an editorial board meeting pitching plans a new jail.

Three different jail proposals on two different ballots were overwhelmingly voted down in 2006 and 2007, but the commissioners court hopes a scaled down jail costing about $60 million will pass muster when more ambitious expansions failed before. Reports the Tyler Morning Telegraph ("Officials unveil scaled down jail facility for November ballot," July 30):
A new jail bond proposal on the November ballot will ask Smith County voters to approve a $59.6 million plan for 694 new beds in a jail tower adjacent to the existing downtown facility. Administrative offices would be built next to the new tower.

In a Tuesday meeting with the Tyler Morning Telegraph’seditorial board, Smith County officials presented the new plan, which calls for keeping both existing jail facilities —downtown and Low Risk. The plan is less than half the cost of the $125 million bond package voters rejected in 2007.

The new plan was put together by a committee that included Bobby Curtis, a leader of the group that opposed the 2007 bond proposition.

“We’ve worked on this for seven months, and I think it’s a great plan,” Curtis said. “I think the taxpayers will pass this. It’s a bare-bones plan. I think these tax dollars are well-spent.”

State Sen. Kevin Eltife, R-Tyler, was also part of the committee that developed the plan.

“This is a common-sense approach that solves our jail problem,” Eltife said. “It’s looking to the future; we’re building only what we need now, but we have the ability to build another tower when needed. I think it’s very smart long-term planning.”
Whether it's smart long-term planning, a new jail will inevitably be a lot more expensive and require greater tax increases than this article portrays. The biggest costs from jail building over time aren't from the debt payments for brick and mortar but from additional staffing requirements for jail expansion.

To meet minimum state staffing standards of one guard per 48 inmates, 15 guards would be required on each shift for three shifts per day to supervise 694 jail inmates. So for a full week 63 officers would be needed to staff such a jail when it's full, and more would need to be hired in order to supervise those employees, cover absenteeism, etc.. Assume an extra 25% are needed for such purposes and Smith County could easily need as many as 80 new deputies in order to staff such a facility.

Conservatively estimating $30,000 salaries for 80 deputies and ignoring, recruitment, training, equipment, insurance, and other additional costs for the moment, just staffing a 694 inmate jail could cost $2.4 million per year, much more if any significant amount of that work is done using overtime.

While some prominent jail bond opponents from the last campaign have signed off on the new plan, I suspect more than a few voters will continue to oppose costly jail building when other options to reduce the jail population aren't being pursued. Tyler District Judge Cynthia Kent recently told the commissioners court that “We cannot jail-build our way out of this problem.” For my part, until I see more details of the proposal, for now I agree with Judge Kent's assessment when she wrote about the new plan:
Insanity has been defined as "continuing to do the same thing and expecting different results." Smith County has ignored the needs of the justice system, judges, courts, and citizens and has since 1984 generally addressed jail overcrowding by building more jail bed space. I predict this new jail construction plan will cost millions of dollars, if approved by the voters, and once constructed the new jail will be overcrowded the first day it is opened. Sounds crazy to me.
In a sense, the jail overcrowding crisis has been a mitzvah for Smith County because it gave local pols incentives to pursue alternatives to incarceration that otherwise would not have been politically possible. But officials in my hometown have far from exhausted their options to reduce that burden beyond jail building, and they should do so before asking voters to sign off on more tax hikes for expanding the jail with no apparent end in sight.

RELATED: See a local Smith County blogger's reaction at

See prior Grits posts tracking Tyler jail bond debates

Wednesday Morning Roundup

I've got a busy day today but wanted to point out these stories that deserve Grits readers attention:

History's Judgment
Years after his death, DNA exonerations have tarnished the legacy of legendary Dallas District Attorney Henry Wade, according to a widely published AP report, declaring that "The new DA and other Wade detractors say the cases won under Wade were riddled with shoddy investigations, evidence was ignored and defense lawyers were kept in the dark." This will make some of the old-timers in the Dallas DA's office grumpy, but it's well worth a read.

Whistleblower Defended
Probation officers in Bexar County held a rally Monday in defense of fired union head Sheri Simonnelli, who was terminated after revealing erroneous urinalysis tests were being used to falsely accuse probationers.

High speed chases cause injuries, traffic deaths
When the Senate Criminal Justice Committee held a hearing earlier this month to assess causes of and trends about police officer deaths, traffic accidents were identified as the most common cause of on-the-job officer deaths - often occurring while driving with lights and sirens running, whether in a high speed chase or on the way to the scene of a crime. Driving accidents also generate danger for the public, not just officers, as evidenced by a police chase in Houston this week ending in the death of a local physician, a bystander not involved in the chase. Some dangers inherent to police work cannot be avoided, but more and more departments have implemented limits on high speed chases that significantly reduce danger to officers and the public. Reacting to a series of unfortunate traffic deaths, the San Antonio PD in 2001 created a policy setting a "speed limit for pursuing officers of no more than 10 mph over the posted speed limit, prohibited chasing people for traffic violations and ruled that officers must come to full stops at red lights at all times." (SA Express News, 4-7-01 - not online). High speed chases accounted for more than 7,000 deaths nationwide between 1982 and 2004.

Texas Drug Courts
Via StircrazyinTexas I ran across this comprehensive list of drug courts in Texas including contact info - there are more operating than I realized!

Commissioner wants off Waco jail privatization train

After previously vowing with his colleagues to consider only privatization-centered options as solutions to McLennan County's jail overcrowding problem, Commissioner Joe Mashek reversed course this week and called for ending the use of privatized jails, reported the Waco Herald Tribune ("Idea of county-run facilities debated as solution to overcrowding," July 30):

Mashek’s proposal would see the county again running the downtown jail, which has been leased to a private detention company since 1999. County jailers have argued for weeks that private companies hire lower-paid, less-qualified employees who pose safety risks for the public and inmates, as well as potential liability issues for the county.

The jailers also have voiced worries about losing their jobs if privatizing is pursued for the overcrowded State Highway 6 jail, now run by county employees.

The county’s contract with Community Education Centers, formerly CiviGenics, to operate the jail on Columbus Avenue expires Oct. 1. Mashek’s call for the county to take over operations of the 329-bed downtown facility could give the county more time to study long-term solutions to the problem, Mashek told commissioners Tuesday.

He told commissioners it seems the county is rushing into building a new jail when it might not be necessary at this time. He proposed the county form a committee to study the problem while taking back the downtown jail to give the county more breathing room.

“I feel that this step will give us a four- to five-year window to make a sound decision,” Mashek said. “There are too many questions left unanswered and other options that should be explored before making such an important decision on this major and expensive project.”

According to the Tribune Herald, "Precinct 2 Commissioner Lester Gibson sided with Mashek during the sometimes spirited, 45-minute discussion," so the previously avowed consensus for pushing privatization options appears to have momentarily evaporated.

Previously the commissioners court laid out four options to address jail overcrowding, all involving some measure of jail building and/or privatization, so Mashek's shift toward backing publicly managed jails represents an important shift in the local debate.

Earlier I'd suggested several strategies to reduce McLennan jail overcrowding without new construction. Machek's proposal would buy the county time to implement such solutions and avoid the jail becoming a bottomless pit for taxpayers.

Related Grits posts:

Tuesday, July 29, 2008

TCJC on probation officer turnover, 'revisiting treatment basics,' and whether a public defender can work in Harris County

There was so much good stuff in this month's e-newsletter from the Texas Criminal Justice Coalition I wanted to share these portions for the poor, uninformed souls who don't subscribe to their email list or regularly visit their website:
Find Out Why There is Turnover Among Texas Adult Probation Officers
Don't miss out on the Probation Advisory Committee's latest report, titled 2008 Texas Adult Probation Turnover Intention Study: Line Community Supervision Officers and Direct-Care Staff, which analyzes the reasons for voluntary turnover among Texas adult probation officers. Also check out TCJC's summary of this report here. (Grits' note: recommended)

Felony/Misdemeanor-Friendly Career Fair Coming Up

The Mid-Cities Human Resource Association and Tarrant County Re-Entry Initiative are hosting a Felony and/or Misdemeanor-Friendly Community Career Fair on Friday, August 15, 2008, from 9:00am - 4:00pm. Click here for Jobseeker and Employer registration, including event location, and terms and condition. Registration ends Friday, August 1, 2008.

Revisiting the Basics of Treatment
Are you a drug treatment provider who wants to learn more about effective treatment strategies? Check out the Institute of Behavioral Research's Summer 2008 Newsletter , which focuses on helping providers adopt a 'systems' perspective that emphasizes interim stages of early engagement and change as signposts for improving therapeutic effectiveness.

For more information, visit their website.

Indigent Defense Sym
posium in Houston: Considering Options for Ensuring Access to Quality Representation in Harris County
Harris County Commissioners Court is looking into the feasibility of creating a public defender's office to provide indigent defense services in the nation's largest urban jurisdiction without one. To facilitate a larger public discussion on indigent defense and the issues at stake in Harris County, the University of Houston Law Center will host the upcoming September 5th symposium, Achieving Quality in Indigent Defense - Proposals, Prototypes, and Policymaking.

This conference will bring together experts from Texas and around the nation to consider the potential for ensuring access to quality defense representation for those unable to afford a lawyer in Harris County. The registration fee for the symposium is $25 and it will qualify for CLE credit.

Visit the Center For Children, Law & Policy website for more information about the speakers and to register for the event.

For more information about the feasibility and effectiveness of public defender offices in Texas, the Task Force on Indigent Defense recently published its updated Blueprint for Creating a Public Defender Office in Texas. This 2008 report looks at existing public defender offices from diverse jurisdictions and discusses advantages and disadvantages that each county should consider when examining their own indigent defense delivery system. In addition, the report provides an initial public defender feasibility worksheet and a step-by-step guide to creating a public defender office.

Guards and contraband smuggling in prisons and jails

I'm not sure I've ever heard of a Rogaine-related smuggling offense before, but a former guard from a federal prison in Beaumont just received a two-year prison sentence after he "accepted money from inmates in exchange for marijuana, MP3 players, Rogaine and tobacco."

Cell phones are a more common and lucrative commodity. The incident reminds me of a recent New York case I noticed in which:
Two correction officers were fired for sneaking booze, cigarettes, marijuana and rolling paper to accused cop-killer Lee Woods. Another officer, a woman, is under suspicion of having sex with Woods and giving him contraband.
But of course, in state prisons the mother of all prison contraband cases is still unraveling at the Terrell unit south of Houston. The Back Gate recently posted these TV news reports on the topic to YouTube:

Low pay contributes to smuggling by staff; an extra $250 for bringing in a cell phone can mean a lot for employees scraping by on $2K or so per month. But there are also policy measures that would make a difference - notably searching staff on their way into the unit.

At the legislative hearing captured in the second YouTube video above, a CO predicted that if surprise searches were implemented at his unit, on any given day 8-10% of guards would turn around and walk away rather than submit to a search. Who knows if that's a correct estimate, but it's a disturbing one. If true, given TDCJ's staffing crisis it almost means the agency can't afford to rigidly enforce anti-contraband laws or some units won't have enough warm bodies left to stay open.

There's no more secure environment than a prison. If smuggling can't be stopped in that setting, no wonder it's such a struggle to keep drugs out of schools!

Abrogating Mexican murderer's rights puts Americans at risk abroad

Presidential candidate Barack Obama's perhaps premature victory lap overseas emphasizes the extent to which one of the major implications of the fall elections will be repairing America's image in the world after eight years of our government thumbing its nose at other nations.

By his second term, even President Bush began to shift policies hoping to repair our worldly image. Perhaps the most overt example was his advocacy on behalf of the consular notification rights of Jose Medellin, a Mexican national who raped and killed two teenage girls and is scheduled to be executed next week. The President maintains authorities should have notified Medellin of his right to contact the Mexican consulate. As described in an editorial from the Waco Tribune Herald ("Texas should honor treaties," July 29):

The Texas Court of Criminal Appeals defied Bush, the World Court and international opinion by refusing to hear the Medellin case.

Although Article VI of the Constitution says that “all treaties made . . . under the authority of the United States shall be the supreme law of the land, and the judges in every state shall be bound thereby,” the U.S. Supreme Court ruled 6-3 that since Congress failed to provide a method to implement the treaty, Texas does not have to abide by the treaty.

Even if the effort in Congress succeeds in ensuring that the treaty is honored nationwide, it will not come before Medellin’s Aug. 5 execution date.

The case against Medellin is strong. Nothing will be lost if it is reconsidered in line with the treaty.

A lot could be lost, however, if other countries with questionable legal systems follow the Texas example by ignoring the treaty and refusing to allow Americans arrested in foreign countries from consulting with the American Consulate for legal assistance.

The Medellin case needs to be reconsidered.

Many folks think of Waco as a parochial place, but this opinion piece promotes a worldly wise perspective: Anyone who's traveled extensively in countries with "questionable legal systems" will appreciate the importance of consular notification rights. I've traveled a lot in Mexico and Turkey over the years, for example, and both are places where I'd be pretty darn scared to be arrested without access to the American consulate. (Take a look, for example, at recently revealed interrogation techniques used by Mexican police.)

Though I'll be surprised if it happens, I agree with the Tribune editorialist that the Board of Pardons and Parole and Gov. Perry should "quickly intervene." If Texans want our own rights to notify the US government upon arrest respected by foreign criminal courts, we simply must reciprocate. Governor Perry and the parole board should stay the execution at least until Congress has time to act. There's simply no need to risk giving other countries an excuse to disdain America or her citizens' rights.

UPDATE: Says the Dallas News in its own editorial, "For the good of the country, we join Attorney General Michael Mukasey and Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice in urging [Governor Perry] to grant a stay of execution."

Austin budget crunch caused by massive police raises

Belatedly realizing the city's bloated public safety budget necessitates draconian fee hikes and slashing basic services, the Austin city council must now change course and "think first of the Austin taxpayers," said the Austin Statesman in a Sunday editorial. Police and firefighter unions must not be given the "keys to the vault" during meet and confer negotiations, said the paper. Here's how they described the budget impact of rising police pay:

Under the proposed budget, branch libraries will have to close on Thursdays or Fridays, and the Parks and Recreation Department will be short staffed. Also, trash collection fees will rise 40 percent and water bills by 7 percent. But that picture will darken considerably if the police, fire and EMS unions continue to demand — and receive — raises above those given other city employees. After five years of public safety's 2 percent premium, there is no good argument to continue it.

A recent city report found that Austin's per capita spending on the police department grew 84 percent over the nine years ending in 2006. That was twice the per capita increase of most other Texas cities. ...

In the past five years, the City Council has spent $53 million just on the extra raises for public safety employees. That has propelled police, firefighters and EMS employees into the top pay ranks not only in Texas but around the nation.

Editorial writers said the proposal to boost pay even higher is, "in a word, outrageous, and City Manager Marc Ott's negotiators should unceremoniously reject it." I tend to agree, but would add that the advice comes many years too late.

Even so, the Statesman said, "The unions are negotiating from a position of strength ... They are powerful sources of campaign money in city elections and helped elect a majority on the council." That's true, and it's been that way in Austin for quite a while. Perceived as liberal, Austin councilmembers tend to fear being labeled soft on crime and so in recent times have thrown money at public safety unions hoping to deter such criticism.

I remember well the City's decision in 2001 to give police a 23% pay raise over three years, then in 2004 when dozens of citizens testified against the current contract containing even more extravagant raises. So that's eight years running with fat pay hikes well beyond what other city employees received.

Ironically, that strategy arguably reduced overall public safety resources. Rather than increase the number of officers to keep up with an expanding population, over the last decade Austin police became the highest paid officers in Texas, and when adjusted for the cost of living, the highest paid in the nation. Not only that, the 2004 contract in particular made it more difficult to discipline bad cops and gutted police oversight mechanisms.

The City Council can shut the barn door now, and should, but the horse has already run away.

Related recent Grits posts:

Monday, July 28, 2008

Smith County will create pilot mental health court

When conservative Smith County in Deep East Texas decides to implement a mental health court, it's safe to say the trend toward creating courts with specialized probation caseloads is now in full swing everywhere in the state. Reports the Tyler Morning Telegraph ("Pilot program for mental health court approved," July 28):
Smith County commissioners today laid the groundwork for a pilot mental health court, which will seek to divert non-violent mentally ill arrestees from the criminal justice system.

“It’s a crisis every county in Texas is facing now,” said Dr. David Self, chief forensic psychiatrist for the Rusk State Hospital. “Far too many mentally ill people are finding their way into the criminal justice system.”

Budget cuts at the state and federal levels have reduced resources for care for those with serious mental illnesses, he said.

“If they’re not being served in mental health system, they’re finding their way into the criminal justice system,” Self said. “Jail populations are typically 25 to 33 percent persons who are experiencing mental illness. Smith County falls right in there.”

And jails aren’t where the mentally ill should be, he added.

“Jails don’t do a good job of treating the seriously mentally ill, but that’s not their fault,” Self said. “That’s not what they’re designed for.”

Most mentally ill inmates are in jail on non-violent misdemeanor offenses, he said.
Valerie Holcomb, with the Andrews Center, said such inmates are much more expensive to incarcerate.

“It costs twice as much to keep a mentally ill inmate (in jail) and they stay in jail three times longer,” she said.

But a mental health court, which would focus on intensive supervised probation, can save the county money. ...

“We’re all focused on the jail population, and that’s a nice side benefit, but the focus of this is getting these people proper care,” said Commissioner Bill McGinnis. “And that’s what I’d like to see.”
Smith County officials are among a handful of Texas trailblazers regarding specialty courts for the mentally ill. District Judge Marc Carter operates a mental health court in Harris County, and Grayson County officials are also pursuing the idea. Some other jurisdictions have created specialized public defender offices to handle these clients.

In a related story, the Temple Daily Telegraph reports that Bell County officials are similarly struggling with a lack of mental health services and the resulting pressure on the jail to provide those services ("Mentally ill don't belong in the jailhouse," July 27):

A 2003 state budget crunch took more than $100 million out of the community MHMR system. But rather than this being an anomaly, it looks more like a pattern. In 1994, Tietje said his budget was $16.5 million. It was slashed to $12 million in 1995, a 25-percent cut.

“A result of that budget cut, we lost a Fort Hood work program that served 200 people,” Tietje said.

Closely supervised program participants cleaned buildings and restocked the commissary on base.

Budget constraints have also contributed to the closing of a three-quarter-way house in Gatesville that helped get people back on their feet. It had 30 beds and was a place where people could stay and look for work while they stabilized on their medications.

“It was a structured environment that made sure they got meds and food,” Tietje said.

And the Gatesville center has not been the only facility that has been shuttered.

Clinics in Bell, Coryell, Hamilton, Lampasas, and Milam counties have all been closed.

Said District Judge Martha Trudo:

“We do not do a good job of taking care of the mentally ill in Texas. There are tremendous waiting lists, doctors won’t see them unless they get picked up and put in jail. Then we are obligated to do it.

“A lot of people can function and work if they have support.”

Regular readers know I'm a big fan of using stronger probation mechanisms like specialty courts to overcome barriers to success for offenders with addiction or mental illness. Traditional probation sets these offenders up to fail without recognizing the special circumstances and problems that brought them before the court in the first place. But clearly a much better solution would be to provide better mental health care on the front end to keep folks out of jail in the first place.


Rozita Swinton's Bad Call

Newsweek supplies the most extensive background yet published in the mainstream media about Rozita Swinton, the hoaxer whose prank phone calls sparked the Great Eldorado Polygamist Roundup. Give it a read.

Though Grits focus on the topic has recently lagged, see more news from the Eldorado case:

Allowing invited graff best way to reduce unwanted graffiti

Last summer Grits featured a series proposing a three-pronged approach to graffiti enforcement based on restorative justice principles consisting of enforcement, rapid cleanup and provision of space for invited graffiti art. Everybody does the enforcement part, or tries; some municipalities have embraced the rapid cleanup idea; however scarce few have committed resources to providing spaces for invited art. In my view, all three legs of the stool must be in place to significantly reduce uninvited graffiti.

While writing that series, I was struck by the lack of significant public policy research on the subject given how long graffiti has been with us and how much the practice costs taxpayers. So I was pleased to see a report from the Denver Post ("New study on graffiti, crime correlation," July 20) about a criminologist's project to research graffiti and evaluate the effectiveness of government responses:
[Criminologist Noah] Fritz, a former crime analyst at an Arizona police department, will be the first one to say he doesn't have all the answers.

He knows that graffiti in Denver runs the gamut from obvious gang communication to the artful mural on the back of the garage. He knows that graffiti here, and probably nationally, is largely misunderstood and that painting over it sometimes dares the taggers into a cat-and-mouse game.

What he hopes to probe -- with the help of his criminology students -- is: how graffiti in a neighborhood correlates to crime (he'll layer graffiti-defacing maps over crime data); why do kids do it (he'll interview 18-year-olds who may know taggers and compile personal stories) and whether there's anything the city can do about it (a communal graffiti wall? A celebration of graffiti as art?) that would deter taggers from defacing private property.

Last fall, about 25 Metro students walked the perimeters of the census blocks included in the project, taking pictures of everything, even the smallest of graffiti scratches. ...

The students picked the blocks scientifically and are taking the summer and most of next school year to analyze the types of graffiti. Then they will look at possible crime correlations.

Fritz also wants to see if the graffiti elimination project underway is working. Most of the mapping research was completed last October. Fritz wants to see whether this October there are fewer marks.

"I think it's important, when a government entity puts resources into a project, to see if their strategies are effective," Fritz said. "We always try to be more efficient, but we should be thinking more about whether they are effective."
Key to addressing graffiti (it cannot be "solved," only managed) is recognizing Fritz's important observation that removal alone potentially "dares the taggers into a cat-and-mouse game." As Proximo from Dallas Sidebar put it, there is a "subversive component" to tagging - an element of youthful rebellion that drives the activity. As I wrote this spring, "Playing cat and mouse with law enforcement feeds into a cycle of gamesmanship taggers enjoy, and bored teens with a spray can will inevitably win those matchups just because there are too many of them and police have better things to do."

That's why I think creating invited graffiti spaces must be part of the solution. Indeed, it's often the solution private property owners come up with themselves after feuding with graff writers for years. From the Post:

Mike Allard said he thinks he has found one solution.

The manager of Headed West, a tobacco shop on South Broadway, battled the "gangbangers in Englewood" for months as they tagged the sides of his store. Businesses are fined if they don't paint or wash over graffiti in three days.

So a year and a half ago, he hired some former graffiti artists to draw a mural on both sides. Allard is now battling the city about signage laws but says the store hasn't been tagged since the drawings went up.

"If you don't consider the sides of our building art, then I don't think you can understand art," Allard said.

Fritz and Allard are on the right track, but Fritz's idea of a communal graffiti wall to me doesn't go far enough. One wall, after all, won't provide enough space for a long-term solution.

Mainstreaming graff artists with talent should be an overt goal of public graffiti policy. Make me philosopher king and I believe cities should have civilian graffiti coordinators who manage cleanup crews made up of probationers and coordinate making public and private spots available for invited graffiti art.

Our current approach to graffiti essentially punishes victims. Taggers are seldom caught or prosecuted, so the main way municipalities enforce anti-graffiti ordinances is by fining property owners, essentially victimizing them a second time.

I drive by spots every day that are either covered with graff or where the city is constantly painting over new graffiti - overpasses, storm drains, utility boxes in the right of way, light poles, backsides of road signs. We routinely see graff on these spots, anyway. In most of these cases I'd prefer Mr. Allard's solution - inviting graff artists to do a nicer, more significant piece that will "ride" for much longer than typical outlaw graff.

In many cities, authorities have identified the most prolific local taggers, though it's virtually impossible to arrest them. But knowledge of who they are opens up opportunities to solicit invited graff. Bottom line, in an era when graphic arts skills are in high demand, graff artists with talent should be brought out of the shadows and encouraged, where possible, instead of shamed and prosecuted.

A local graffiti coordinator could assist private interests to hook up with graffiti artists, inviting higher quality graff to preemptively fend off more routine, destructive tagging. Businesses whose walls are tagged repeatedly, homeowners with fences facing the street, utility companies whose boxes are constantly defaced - after years of scrubbing or painting over unwanted graff, I imagine quite a few property owners may be ready to decide, "if you can't beat 'em, join 'em."

In its most fully developed form, perhaps a citywide web-based database could be accumulated of spots where property owners want to invite graffiti and graff artists could submit a sketch of what they want to do for approval by the landowner.

None of this will eliminate tags used for gang communications; for that brand of tagger, the rapid cleanup component and the risk of criminal prosecution remain the only viable tools. But given the immense sums cities routinely spend on graffiti cleanup now with little result, to the extent more artistically inclined graff writers can be diverted to invited venues it would save taxpayers money, reduce the volume of criminal graff, and increase the amount of public art in our cities. That result seems like a win-win all around.

See related Grits' posts on graffiti law and policy solutions:

Sunday, July 27, 2008

Offer online comments to the Sunset Commission on TYC, juvenile probation, and jail standards commission

Once every 12 years Texas state agencies undergo what's known as a "Sunset" review where the Legislature evaluates the agency as a whole and decides whether it still serves a function or deserves to be eliminated. Most agencies are routinely continued, though some agencies are permanently "sunsetted," or eliminated. But the Sunset bill that must pass to continue the agency frequently becomes a vehicle for substantial reforms and adjustments identified through the evaluation process.

Agencies submit their own staff reports, then the Sunset Commission staff prepares its own report with input from the public and ultimately a public hearing before the members of the bicameral commission.

The public input period ends on July 31 (this Thursday) for three criminal justice agencies undergoing Sunset evaluations this year: The Youth Commission, the Juvenile Probation Commission, and the Commission on Jail Standards.

Here's an easy to use online form for providing comments to the Sunset Commission. I encourage anyone with specific concerns about an agency under review to use it. You can access agencies self evaluation reports for more background; they're quite informative and may answer some of your questions or at least give you the agency's position on issues you care about.

Deadlines for comments for the Department of Public Safety and the Commission on Law Enforcement Officer Standards and Education has already passed, but Sunset staffs' final report has not bee issued so if you had any specific suggestions for them, it couldn't hurt to submit it anyway.

For more information see the Sunset Advisory Commission's website.

TDCJ publishes FY 2007 prison stats

The Texas Department of Criminal Justice just published its annual statistical report (pdf) for Fiscal Year 2007 containing a great deal of data relevant to topics frequently discussed on this blog. Let's walk through a few highlights.

In broad overview, at the end of FY 2007 TDCJ held 152,661 offenders in prisons and state jails and supervised 431,495 people on probation and 103,122 parolees. Tack on the 71,000+ currently incarcerated in county jails, and Texas' criminal justice system presently has more then 3/4 of a million people under its control - about one out of every 21 adults.

Just under half of TDCJ inmates were convicted of violent offenses (49.7%). Another 17.1% of inmates committed property crimes (mostly burglary) and 19.6% are incarcerated for drug offenses, mostly possession only; 3.8% are incarcerated for DWI.

TDCJ received 73,525 new prisoners in FY 2007 and released 72,032, representing significant growth but a much slower rate than in recent years. The youngest offender who entered TDCJ last year was 15 years old; the oldest was 88.

The good news: the parole board clearly has plenty of leeway to manage the inmate population. Of those incarcerated in prison (as opposed to state jails or SAFP programs), a whopping 66% are currently eligible for parole.

The six largest counties account for just more than 50% of TDCJ residents:
Harris 19.5%
Dallas 12.5%
Tarrant 7.3%
Bexar 6.4%
Travis 3.4%
El Paso 1.6%
An interesting capital punishment note ... Texas only recently implemented an option of Life Without Parole (LWOP) as an alternative to the death penalty in capital cases. In 2007, TDCJ received 51 new capital convicts - 37 of them received sentences of LWOP, while just 14 went to death row.

I may extract another post or two out of this information in the coming days, but wanted to share the full report (pdf) with readers ASAP. Let me know in the comments what other data you find informative or useful.

Criticisms aired of Nacogdoches private prison proposal

In Nacogdoches recently, the head of the local economic development corporation told officials the prison would be so nice people would "want to break in." But a newly formed local group and students at Stephen F. Austin University are opposing plans to open a new private immigration detention center in that county.

Some criticism of the idea comes from surprising quarters: "Prisons are an inherently governmental function," says East Texas Congressman Louis Gohmert," And I struggle with whether or not we should have private prisons at all."

In the Nacogdoches Daily Sentinel, reporter Andrew Goodridge yesterday offered up one of the best media analyses I've seen in quite a while on the pros and cons of private prisons for rural communities ("Dollars and Sentences: Prisons more than just an issue of economics," July 26). Citing quite a bit of academic research on the subject, Goodridge concludes that:

recent research shows that prisons aren't necessarily the economic boon they were once thought.

And in rural areas, prisons have, in some cases, proven to be more of a hindrance to economic development than a help.

Goodridge cited other research questioning cost saving claims of private prisons, including a recent criminology article that declared there's:

"no reason to believe that private prisons can or are saving money as compared to public prisons."

A 2001 Bureau of Justice Statistics report also states that "savings simply have not materialized."

What's more, writes Goodridge, "Because these prisons are privately owned, they do not have to comply with the Freedom of Information act, and they tend to refuse access to records and files."

These excerpts are just a taste from a longer, substantive piece that deserves to be read in its entirety. (Our pal Bob Libal from the blog Texas Prison Bidness was among the many sources quoted.) Scant few local media outlets provide their readers with this level of background and detail before officials make decisions about jail and prison privatization, so Goodridge and Sentinel editors deserve credit for going the extra mile.

SEE ALSO: Recent coverage of private prisons in Texas from Mother Jones, via Texas Prison Bidness.

Saturday, July 26, 2008

Jail deaths due to medical neglect seem too frequent this year; Should state regulators do more?

Inmate deaths in county jails may be bubbling to the surface as a statewide issue of concern in 2008. Several recent cases collectively give me the sense that we're starting to see patterns that inevitably will become more common with so many people locked up. Most famously, the feds are investigating the Harris County jail after 12 inmates died and two more committed suicide during a 12-month span, but that's just the tip of the iceberg to judge by recent revelations.

In Potter County (Amarillo), a double murder suspect hung himself in the jail recently, and more troubling, a mentally ill probation revokee died after two use of force incidents, apparently spending at least two to three days in what a doctor said would have been excruciating pain leading up to his death without receiving proper medical attention. Reported the Amarillo Globe News ("Potter Sheriff defends lockup," July 24):

Michael Lee Dick, 33, was found dead in an isolation cell Saturday during a routine check. A preliminary autopsy Tuesday revealed he died of peritonitis caused by a perforated ulcer that could have caused severe pain in the hours leading up to his death.

The condition is irritating and can cause excruciating abdominal pain, said Dr. Kuldip Banwait, a gastroenterologist with Amarillo Endoscopy Center.

Jail staff is required to check inmates at least every 30 minutes, Boyter said, and Dick was on a 10-minute watch.

"As far as I know, he really didn't show any signs of medical problems," Boyter said.

The first time an officer checked on Dick in the isolation cell he was fine and sitting on the bed, Boyter said. He was lying on the bed 10 minutes later, so the officer went into his cell and found him unresponsive.

Banwait said peritonitis is an inflammation of the lining of the abdominal cavity. The lining supports abdominal organs and serves as a conduit for their blood vessels. He said someone suffering from peritonitis could die quickly.

"It depends on how young the person is," Banwait said. "It could be two to three days if not treated."

An Amarillo police lieutenant told a TV station, "we know that there was force used on him two different times and we know that injuries can linger, but we were told it wasn't an injury caused by assault but medically, but we are still investigating." Whether Dick's death resulted from injuries at the hands of officers or a pre-existing medical condition that jailers ignored, the county jail is still on the hook.

We still haven't learned much about the recent death of a 21-year old woman in the Travis County jail.

Meanwhile, in East Texas we find a case where a woman being held pretrial on a drug case in Henderson County was released on personal bond, driven immediately to the hospital and left there where she died eight days later. Reported the Athens Review:
Henderson County Sheriff Ronny Brownlow on Wednesday responded publicly about allegations he is retiring early in connection to the death investigation of a former county jail inmate. ... The 10-year sheriff said Wednesday that his plan to retire dates back at least until last fall, when he began serious discussions about it with those close to him.

Brownlow sent a letter to county officials earlier this month informing them of his intention to step down from office on July 31 — roughly five months before the official end of his term. The letter is dated July 8.

The announcement came during a time when information regarding the death of 56-year-old Debra Lee Newton began to surface. Newton was arrested on a charge of possession of a controlled substance on Feb. 18. Sometime in April, she allegedly became ill while incarcerated in the Henderson County Jail.

On April 25, the sheriff’s department asked that Newton be released on a personal recognizance bond. That request was granted, and Newton was taken to East Texas Medical Center Athens. She died eight days later, on May 3 — prompting allegations of impropriety on the part of sheriff’s department officials in their handling of Newton.

Henderson County District Attorney Donna Bennett’s office subsequently asked the Texas Rangers to investigate the circumstances of the death. That investigation is ongoing with Athens-based Ranger Trace McDonald. Lt. Pat McWilliams, a public relations officer, said the sheriff’s department welcomes the investigation.

“... We’re certain there’s no conspiracy and that the patient received adequate medical treatment,” McWilliams said last week.
Maybe there was "no conspiracy," but clearly the patient did not receive "adequate health care." She was in her death throes already when they released her on personal bond after two months in jail to take her to hospital. Surely it was clear she needed significant medical care well before that panicked, last-ditch decision!

At a time when the Texas Commission on Jail Standards is undergoing Sunset review, this news makes me wonder whether the state's inspections adequately assess county jails' healthcare delivery or even track the number and causes of jail deaths. That's a lot of deaths recently attributed to inadequate jail medical care. Will it just be tolerated?

Police union backs using citation authority at Austin PD

It pleased me to see the Austin Police Association came out in favor of using citations instead of arrests for low-level offenders in an article on the topic in this week's Austin Chronicle:
Given the stresses on the city's budget, "if we really want to be fiscally responsible, we have to have all these options on the table," said Austin Police Association Vice Presid­ent Wuthipong "Tank" Tantaksinanukij. "This is really talking about, in reality, expanding the resources available to officers. We're open to anything that will help us do the job better and free up the manpower of our officers."
APA's parent union, the Combined Law Enforcement Associations of Texas, also backed the original legislation at the Legislature.

See more from the recently formed group Austin Public Safety Solutions, and also related recent Grits coverage:

Friday, July 25, 2008

Baylor studying neuroscience and the law

Having written a couple of posts recently on the intersection of cutting edge neuroscience and the law, I was pleased this afternoon to run across the website of the Baylor College of Medicine's Initiative on Neuroscience and the Law. Especially useful, they've posted their conference materials (pdf) and webcasts of each presentation from their conference in May.

Jail costs driving tax hikes in Lubbock

According to the Lubbock Avalanche Journal ("Lubbock County jail costs may sharpen tax bite," July 25), taxpayers in the Hub City must pay higher taxes to keep the county jail full and fully staffed:

The Lubbock County sheriff doesn't think the county can support its new jail without raising taxes.

Sheriff David Gutierrez and some of his top staff on Thursday asked county commissioners to allocate more than $20 million dollars to fund the jail, as well as nearly $8 million to support the county's law enforcement division.

"I don't know how you can do anything with this budget if you don't do something with taxes," Gutierrez told commissioners.

Eyewitnesses and the 'feeling of knowing'

I'm increasingly convinced that recent advancements in neuroscience will, in a very few years, begin to revolutionize several fundamental sets of assumptions on which the criminal justice system is presently based - most immediately regarding eyewitness identification and the reliability generally of witness testimony.

In Dr. Ginger Campbell's Brain Science Podcast #42, she reviews a book by Dr. Robert Burton - On Being Certain: Believing you are right even when you are not - focusing on a question that comes up frequently in cases resulting in DNA exonerations involving erroneous eyewitness identifications: How is it that witnesses can believe to their core they are testifying accurately but identify alleged perpetrators who absolutely didn't do it?

How can one be certain, in other words, and at the same time utterly and profoundly wrong?

According to Dr. Burton, "certainty" is really the equivalent of an emotion - it's a feeling, not a conclusion, that has "involuntary neurological roots." We don't know what makes us feel certain because in a literal sense by the time we do, the information no longer exists. When our synapses fire, they release and extinguish all the information about why they fired in the first place - the conscious mind, OTOH, merely notes whether they did or they didn't. Those subterranean "hidden" impulses underlying our thoughts and behavior constitute what psychologists consider the subconscious or unconscious mind.

There is no physiological distinction between the processes in our brain that generate conscious or unconscious thought, says Burton. That distinction has a philosophical but not necessarily a biological basis; for the mind, conscious and unconscious thought are an intermingled process that simultaneously includes both types of brain activity. According to this view, the "feeling of knowing," i.e., certainty, is an unconscious impulse that attaches itself onto conscious ideas and makes us believe them.

From the research Burton cites, you get the sense that people's certainty in their beliefs routinely outdistance the accuracy of their memory, a notion which has important implications when evaluating eyewitness testimony. Burton detailed the results of a study performed following the Challenger space shuttle disaster, where an academic interviewed 106 students the day after the tragedy then again 2.5 years after the event about their memories of where they were, who told them, how they reacted, etc. Half the respondents made errors compared to their original recollection, and a quarter of the accounts were significantly different than students originally remembered. Fewer than 10% remembered all the details the same. Many students whose stories had changed, however, maintained a high degree of confidence in their later, false recollections ... even after being shown their original answers in their own handwriting.

This "feeling of knowing" is "not under conscious control." Citing the example of a baseball player who physically must begin to swing before the pitcher releases the ball but says later he reacted to the trajectory, Campbell says, "Our brain makes us think that it knows things that it can't really know." (Many optical illusions similarly rely on the brain's ability to force itself into such moments of cognitive dissonance, thinking it knows things that cannot be.)

Burton calls this sense of being right "thought's original yes-man." But what is the genetic benefit of a feeling of knowing that's sometimes actually false? Burton says the feeling stems from the brain's pleasure-reward system in the upper brain stem, using dopamine as its key neurotransmitter. The pleasure-reward mechanism activated by certainty, he says, connects to parts of the brain that manage both emotion and cognition.

This sense of certainty could be an evolutionary adaptation to confronting abstract choices that have no clear cut answers in the face of perilous threats, says Campbell. Without this internal reward system endorsing the correctness of our actions, we could be paralyzed by fears and uncertainty in the face of immediate danger. All the talk of evolutionary adaptations, she and Burton emphasize, are speculative explanations, but it's a reasonable hypothesis for why our biological reward system might be hardwired that way.

The brain dynamics involved with certainty are essentially similar to patterns of addiction, said Burton, with the brain getting satisfying rewards in the form of a dopamine boost that reinforce certainty just like addicts get a dopamine jolt from drugs through the same expectation-reward mechanism.

In other words, Drs. Campbell and Burton think people can be addicted to their own beliefs in the same way an addict might be hooked on heroin or meth. Burton wonders if humans may have an "addiction to the pleasure of the feeling of knowing." Burton thinks neuroscience should "let go of the myth of the autonomous, rational mind" able to overcome its own subconscious prejudices, insisting that "The feeling that a decision is right is not the same thing as providing evidence that it is right." Indeed, when the beliefs in question are memories, as evidenced by the Challenger experiment, they may be simultaneously quite mutable and firmly believed.

The feeling of knowing cannot be dismissed, says Campbell, just because it occurs in parts of the brain where its functions are obscured. However, Burton's findings dictate that a feeling of certainty should not be considered a substitute for corroboration. "In real life we constantly make decisions with incomplete information," she says in conclusion, "but we also seem to have a tendency to feel certain about these choices."

What are the implications of these findings for the raft of DNA exonerations that followed erroneous eyewitness identifications? For starters, perhaps juries would be less swayed by a witness testifying with "certainty" if it were widely understood that that's really an emotion instead of a conclusion? What's more, when a person feels "certain" they're more likely to overlook alternative explanations and less likely to question their own assumptions.

I'm sure there are many other implications for this research in the criminal justice arena - what else comes to mind?

Dr. Campbell's podcast was a bit on the long side (about an hour) but well worth listening to in its entirety. She does a great job of breaking the subject down for the non-expert listener, and Burton's book sounds interesting as well. I can't help but believe some of these ideas will percolate up from the hard sciences into the law and the courts before too very long.

Assassination of Mexican prison warden highlights out of control border security crisis

Just more than halfway through 2008, Ciudad Juarez across the river from El Paso has witnessed more than 500 drug-related murders out of 1,800 or more this year nationwide. The most recent victims were a prison warden and his bodyguard:
A group of hitmen armed with automatic weapons ambushed the head of a giant prison in a northern Mexican city on Thursday soon after he received threats on his life from suspected drug gangs, said police.

Salvador Barreno, 66, was leaving work at the largest jail in Ciudad Juarez when a group of men with assault rifles chased down his car, killing him and a bodyguard who was driving.

The car was riddled with more than 80 bullet holes, according to local media. Barreno made it to a hospital but died in surgery. His bodyguard was killed instantly.

The prison director had been receiving threats, likely from powerful drug cartels, before his murder, police said.

Last week Alberto Varela, the head of security at the same prison, was killed in a similar attack after his name appeared on a death list pinned on police offices in May.

Drug gangs have hung banners with the names of dozens of policemen around the city near the U.S.-Mexico border this year and have made good on some of their threats, murdering more than 10 of the officers picked out.
This is all happening right at America's front door, though you wouldn't know it from the US response. Increasingly sophisticated and dangerous drug traffickers in Mexico have begun using car bombs and submarines, murdering or kidnapping police officers, and engaging in open public shootouts both with rivals and police, all the while bribing American peace officers and even expanding their violent tactics onto US soil.

More and more I fear that this crisis will be allowed to fester until it's magnitude is so great it can only be resolved through martial law and draconian violence. Things are getting pretty scary down on the border and President Felipe Calderon's government appears increasingly impotent in the face of cartels' firepower. On the US side, new enforcement expenditures by states and the feds have either done nothing to reduce the crisis or made things worse.

If politics were about issues that matter instead of issues that poll well, we'd see cartel violence and US drug policy become a central debate point in the US presidential race. We appear to be at a turning point, and right now things are turning decidedly in the wrong direction.

Reform commission urges abolition of California youth prisons, shifting juvie justice to counties

Earlier this year Senate Criminal Justice Committee Chairman John Whitmire urged "abolishing" the Texas Youth Commission and moving most juvenile justice functions to the counties. His proposal enjoyed a mixed reception, largely because the political will seems lacking to pay for adequately beefing up capacity at the counties.

So I was particularly interested to see that in California, the "Little Hoover" commission this week endorsed exactly that approach - essentially abolishing California's juvie prisons and forcing counties to carry the entire load. California already moved all but 1,500 or so juvenile offenders back to the counties in response to a court decree in 2007. (See the report.) From the commission's letter to the Governor:
In shifting responsibility to the counties for hundreds of California’s youth offenders, the state recognized that its juvenile justice system cannot be reformed without radical change.

Though prompted by cost concerns, the realignment of responsibilities to the counties was the right policy move, one previously recommended by this Commission and others. Many counties have demonstrated that they can provide programs and treatment to youth offenders who need to turn their lives around in settings that allow them to reintegrate more successfully into their communities.

Once realignment is complete, the number of youth offenders in state hands will shrink to fewer than 1,500. The annual cost of providing services to each ward, however, next year will rise to $252,000. This startling figure reflects the overhead expenses of a system built to serve a far larger population, the cost of reforms required under a court-supervised consent decree and the complex needs of these seriously troubled youth. Californians may fairly ask what they are getting for this outlay and whether other strategies can better deliver public safety and youth rehabilitation. The state has made slow, yet undeniable, progress. Still, advocates for youth offenders, frustrated by the pace of reform, have asked a court to place the juvenile justice system in receivership.

Whatever the court’s decision, the state’s costs per ward likely will increase as juvenile programming and treatment services are expanded and its crumbling facilities continue to age. The state’s master plan for renovating or replacing its juvenile facilities, promised to legislators, is long overdue. The delay may mean that the cost of bringing California’s facilities in line with current programming requirements or replacing them is unaffordable, particularly in light of the current budget deficit.

The prospect of ever-higher outlays for an ever-smaller juvenile population in state custody should prompt policy-makers to extend realignment to completion. The Commission recommends that the state begin planning now to ultimately eliminate its juvenile justice operations and create regional rehabilitative facilities for high-risk, high-need offenders to be leased to and run by the counties.
California is using block grants to counties to enforce use of best practices via contract, in much the same way the Texas Legislature made new money available to adult probation departments through grants that must be used for progressive sanctions and diversion tactics. That's worked surprisingly well in Texas, with a few notable exceptions. But in neither state are counties prepared to take on the offenders currently housed in state lockups. According to the Little Hoover report:
County probation departments are in no position to immediately take on the remaining serious, violent and older youth offender population, as they are still adjusting to the abrupt implementation of the 2007 realignment legislation as well as the uncertainty of state funding given California’s estimated $15 billion deficit for 2008-09.12 Counties could, however, take on this responsibility, given time and resources to plan, develop and contract for programs; adequate time to establish regionally based facilities; and, given a dedicated source of money to pay for these programs and facilities.
The commission suggested that, with assistance, counties could be prepared to take over all incarceration duties for juveniles by 2011.

Texas faces a similar problem to California in terms of its skyrocketing cost per youth, though California's costs are so high ($250,000 per year per kid) they sound like a caricature. The last I heard, TYC's cost per youth had risen to around $60-65K per year. By reducing the number of youth but slightly increasing the amount of overhead (because of new oversight), Texas like California has seen its cost per kid soar since TYC entered conservatorship, a fact which Sen. Whitmire and others have cited as a reason to get rid of the agency entirely.

If Texas is serious about heading down this road, we should all be paying attention to California's experiment. They're already shifting juvie justice responsibilities downstream to the counties and where they find trouble, there's a good chance Texas will run into some, too.

See related coverage from AP and the Sacramento Bee, via Sentencing Law & Policy.

Thursday, July 24, 2008

Today in History: O. Henry leaves prison, launches literary career

Here's an interesting historical footnote for the literary minded among you; today's the anniversary of the release from prison of one of Texas' great short story writers:
July 24 - O. Henry is released from prison on this day in 1901. William Sydney Porter, otherwise known as O. Henry, is released from prison ... after serving three years ... for embezzlement from a bank in Austin, Texas.

To escape imprisonment, Porter had fled the authorities and hidden in Honduras, but returned when his wife, still in the U.S., was diagnosed with a terminal illness. He went to jail and began writing stories to support his young daughter while he was in prison.

After his release, Porter moved to New York and worked for New York World, writing one short story a week from 1903 to 1906. In 1904, his first story collection, Cabbages and Kings, was published. His second, The Four Million (1906), contained one of his most beloved stories, The Gift of the Magi, about a poor couple who each sacrifice their most valuable possession to buy a gift for the other.

Additional collections appeared in 1906 and 1907, and two collections a year were published in 1908 until his death in 1910. He specialized in stories about everyday people, often ending with an unexpected twist. Despite the enormous popularity of the nearly 300 stories he published, he led a difficult life, struggling with financial problems and alcoholism until his death in 1910.
Via Focus News Agency.