Wednesday, March 31, 2010

Dallas launching latest TX veterans court

Following Houston's lead, Texas' second most populous county will experiment with the veterans court model authorized by the Texas Legislature last year, reports Christy Hoppe at the Dallas News ("Dallas County creating court for veterans with combat trauma," March 31):

Soldiers who survive combat only to fall into addiction and depression could face a different kind of justice in Dallas County starting next month.

Specialized courts are starting up in major counties to identify military veterans who show signs of post-traumatic stress disorder or head injuries that could have sparked their crimes. Harris and Tarrant counties already have such programs, and Bexar, Travis and El Paso counties are joining in.

"The veterans have unique problems that come from their service not only in Iraq and Afghanistan, there's still some from Vietnam," said state District Judge Mike Snipes, who aims to hold the first Dallas veterans docket in April.

The courts, fashioned after drug courts, will be run by certain judges in each county. They will oversee the cases of veterans in which treatment and therapy can replace jail time and probation, and veterans can address their problems without compiling a criminal record.

"We're seeing more and more examples of people coming out of there with post-traumatic stress disorder, unique mental difficulties that have to do with combat-related issues," Snipes said Tuesday. He was in Austin for a forum on the special courts, which included information from other states that have already started such programs.

In 2008, Texas' prison system reported that 4,500 offenders entering the state's prisons had served in the military. That's about 6 percent of all new prison inmates.

The Legislature authorized counties last year to start the specialized dockets in existing courts, but didn't provide money for them. And so counties and interested judges have been scrounging for seed money.

Texas' first specialized court docket was held four months ago in Harris County. In one of the first cases heard, a man arrested for evading arrest after a minor traffic accident told the judge that he saw police lights and panicked.

The incident happened two years after he'd returned from patrol duty in Iraq. He was diagnosed with post-traumatic stress disorder, and he had no prior criminal record.

Houston state District Judge Marc Carter said he has heard 20 such cases since he began holding hearings for veterans – many of them dealing with addiction, which is how some have tried to cope with the stress.

Veterans courts are essentially similar to mental health courts that (in theory, at least) use evidence-based strong probation methods, except with a more exclusive list of eligible participants. They're well-intentioned but also new and unproven. Veterans are underrepresented among offenders and it's unclear that their common background has any particular criminogenic relevance that would justify segmenting them out as a class. These specialty courts are an experiment, though, that quite a few Texas jurisdictions have now embraced, so we'll find out over the next few years one way or another how well they work.

See related Grits posts:

No consequences whatsoever for deputy constable tazing great-grandma

Tony Plohetski at the Austin Statesman reports:

A Travis County grand jury has declined to indict Deputy Constable Christopher Bieze on a charge of injury to an elderly person after he used his Taser stun gun on a 72-year-old woman last year.

The incident, which was captured on a patrol car video camera, generated national attention. Kathryn Winkfein, who was stopped by Bieze on May 11, later appeared NBC's "Today" show.

In October, Winkfein accepted a $40,000 settlement from Travis County, although she had sought more than $135,000.

Bieze had stopped her on Texas 71 in western Travis County on May 11 for allegedly driving 60 mph in a 45-mph construction zone. Winkfein, a 4-foot-11 great-grandmother from Granite Shoals, told Bieze that she wouldn't sign the citation, video records show.

That led to a confrontation during which Bieze used his Taser on Winkfein, who was later jailed, charged with resisting arrest and released.

An internal investigation found that Bieze had violated no policies, and he was not disciplined.

Supposedly he violated no policies, violated no laws, and yet the officer demonstrated a complete lack of discipline and restraint, basically using force on the angry 4'11" woman because she "dared" him, not because she posed a threat to him or anyone else. This is one of several incidents that have led many to believe deputy constables should not be involved in day to day police work. For a refresher on the case, here's Stephen Colbert's take:

The Colbert ReportMon - Thurs 11:30pm / 10:30c
Current Events - Tasers
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Cornyn among sponsors of federal Criminal Justice Reinvestment Act

I don't closely track federal legislation, so I'd failed to notice that Texas Sen. John Cornyn is among the sponsors of the Criminal Justice Reinvestment Act, which was approved by the US Senate Judiciary Committee earlier this month. See a "lobby packet" (pdf) supporting the bill from the Council of State Governments' Justice Center. Go here for the bill text. Here's a description of the legislation from a press release dated November 16, 2009 when the bill was filed:
United States Senators Sheldon Whitehouse (D-RI), John Cornyn (R-TX), and Patrick Leahy (D-VT) introduced today the Criminal Justice Reinvestment Act of 2009 to help states and localities better understand how to manage the growth in prison and jail populations and increase public safety. The legislation would authorize grants to analyze criminal justice trends and to design and implement policies to better manage prison spending. Congressmen Adam Schiff (D-CA) and Dan Lungren (R-CA) also introduced companion legislation today in the U.S. House of Representatives.

"This bill will help state and local governments spend their limited corrections budgets in a more targeted, rational way to both manage inmate population growth and protect public safety," Senator Whitehouse said.

"The Criminal Justice Reinvestment Act will help states find the best ways help better manage prison spending. The experience of states like Texas with this type of program has been uniformly positive and should be replicated," said Senator Cornyn.

"In recent years, federal and state governments have passed many new criminal laws creating more and longer sentences for more and more crimes," said Senator Patrick Leahy (D-Vt.), the Chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee. "While it is important to ensure that serious crimes result in significant sentences, we must work to make our criminal justice system as effective and efficient as possible. We have an obligation to help states cope with overburdened criminal justice systems and rising recidivism rates. The Criminal Justice Reinvestment Act will help jurisdictions to deal with the increased costs facing our correctional systems across the country, while also improving public safety and reducing recidivism."

"In California, we are all too aware of the costs of failing to end the revolving door in and out of prison," said Congressman Schiff. "If we don't do a better job reducing the rate of return to custody, we will have little or no money to invest in education, health care and other critical priorities. The Criminal Justice Reinvestment Act will employ proven strategies that drive down costs as they drive down recidivism, and thereby improve safety in our cities and neighborhoods."

Over 2,200,000 American adults are incarcerated in state and local prisons and jails; the prison population alone nearly tripled between 1987 and 2007, from 585,000 to almost 1,600,000 inmates. States, in turn, have increased spending on corrections by $40 billion in the past 20 years. Despite the continued growth of the inmate population, about half the states plan to cut corrections budgets for FY2010 amid budget shortfalls.

The Criminal Justice Reinvestment Act of 2009 would create a two-part grant program for governments to analyze criminal justice trends, develop policy options to address growth in the corrections system, and implement and measure the impact of the policy changes. Through Phase 1 grants, government entities will be able to conduct a comprehensive analysis of corrections data, evaluate the cost-effectiveness of state and local spending on corrections, and develop policy options suggested by the analysis. Phase 2 grants will provide funds to help government entities implement those policy options and to measure their effectiveness. Model programs in Rhode Island and Texas have already shown that this type of analysis can dramatically reduce unnecessary spending.

It sounds like this legislation seeks to build on Texas' recent successes at reducing its incarceration rate, and one notices the bipartisan sponsorship at the national level on this topic even in these ultra-partisan times. Perhaps this means there's political momentum and even potential federal support for building on recent successes and reducing the prison population even more.

Tuesday, March 30, 2010

Driver surcharge boosting Texas joblessness

As the Public Safety Commission prepares to set the public hearing date for the Driver Responsibility surcharge rules at their meeting Wednesday, it's worth pointing out once again that the economic harm from this program far outdistances the revenue it generates.

Though the program never met expectations, failing to collect nearly 2/3 of assessments, surcharges remain a significant revenue source. But no one should lose sight of the fact that they pale in comparison to state revenues generated from property and sales taxes. Creating jobs and expanding the tax base must be the long-term engine for getting out of the current economic slump. For that reason, the state has a strong self interest in ensuring that employed, low-income Texans are able to pay off outstanding surcharges and keep their jobs.

The effects of surcharges on low-income drivers have been studied in detail. Amanda Marzullo at the Texas Fair Defense Project points to a 2006 survey (pdf) from the the New Jersey Motor Vehicles Affordability and Fairness Task Force. They studied the surcharge's impact on drivers with licenses suspended due to their own Driver Responsibility Program, which levies the same license surcharges as the Texas DRP.

According to that survey, of persons with suspended licenses whose annual income was under $30,000: (1) 64% were unable to maintain their prior employment following a license suspension; (2) only 51% of persons who lost their job following a license suspension were able to find a new employment; (3) 66% reported that their license suspension negatively affected their job performance; and (4) 90% of persons whose license was suspended within this income bracket indicated that they were unable to pay costs that were related to their suspended driving privileges. In addition, of those who were able to find a new job following a license suspension-related dismissal, 88% reported a reduction in income.

That makes Driver Responsibility surcharges a major cause of job loss, significantly exacerbating the current economic downturn. Roughly 1.2 million Texas drivers have lost their license because they defaulted on DRP surcharge debts. No doubt a significant number make less than $30,000 per year.

The rules published in the Texas Register only impact drivers with incomes below 125% of federal poverty guidelines - around $10,000 per year for an individual. But the New Jersey study found that drivers with three times that income were losing their licenses and their jobs because of the DRP. In most cases, though not “indigent” under proposed DPS definitions, such levies remain beyond the means of many, though they are often able to make some sort of payment. Texas is both leaving money on the table and harming the economy in the big picture by not crafting payment programs to accommodate them.

UPDATE: A commenter reminds me I should have mentioned that the public comment period for the proposed rules ends Monday April 5, so get yours in if you're going to. Comments may be submitted to Rebekah Hibbs, Driver License Division, Texas Department of Public Safety, P.O. Box 4087 (MSC 0300), Austin, Texas 78773; by fax to (512) 424-5233; or by email to

Keep in mind the PSC cannot abolish the surcharge, so the focus should be on asking them to do all they have authority to do. The main things folks should be asking for are:
  • Create an Amnesty program to clear up noncompliance backlog
  • Use accurate documentation for indigency application process
  • Make language comply with 2011 statute waiving surcharges for indigents
  • Create incentives to encourage compliance for other low-income drivers
For more background, see these related, recent Grits posts:
See also recent press coverage:

Tuesday Morning Roundup

Here are a few items that would merit full blog posts if I had more time to focus on them:

Who gets an appointed lawyer?
The Abilene Reporter News had a story over the weekend about the process of evaluating defendants for eligibility to receive court-appointed lawyers.

UTMB on why UTMB prison healthcare is great
Since I'd said some critical things about UTMB prison healthcare, here's an article from UTMB's house publication giving a more positive perspective.

Drug war refugees
An AP story, "Fear now a way of life in border towns," tells of "Mexican families fleeing the violence" in Juarez and elsewhere who "have moved here or just sent their children." Writes Paul Weber, "At schools in Fort Hancock and nearby Texas towns, new security measures and counseling for young children of murdered parents have become a troubling part of the day." The Wall Street Journal reports on college students literally caught in the crossfire between the military and cartels in Monterrey. These stories makes me wonder what if any accommodations US immigration officials give for asylum seekers fleeing Mexico's drug war (probably none, I imagine), or if there's any sort of witness protection arrangement for Mexican citizens to come to the US for safety?

Third rule of Fight Club: If someone yells "stop!", goes limp, or taps out, the fight is over
The Odessa American has more detail on the fight orchestrated by TDCJ supervisors between a prisoner and guard at the Lynaugh unit southwest of Fort Stockton: "'offender Clark struck officer Acosta once in the mouth, knocking him to the ground,' the report said. The report suggests the blow ended the fight."

A curious medical condition
Is "excited delirium" a real medical condition or just a term manufactured by law-enforcement friendly coroners to excuse deaths caused during police restraints? Two pending cases involving deaths at the Dallas County jail may explore the question. "The American Medical Association does not recognize excited delirium as a condition, though the National Association of Medical Examiners does." The term always seemed bogus to me: I know of no other medical condition that occurs only while in custody of law enforcement.

Smarter deployment can offset cuts to cops
Handwringers in Houston are worried the new mayor, Annise Parker, will reduce the number of officers on the streets, giving me the opportunity to once again point out that smarter policies can boost police coverage even in a bad economy.

Jail in Houston tax increment district won't generate revenue
I still don't understand how anybody can justify building a jail booking facility with tax increment financing, which is what's being proposed in Houston as part of a larger deal involving construction of a pro soccer stadium. The jail not only doesn't generate tax revenue but the land it's built on will no longer be available for taxation. So how will a tax increment finance district generate revenue from a jail to pay off the bonds? Will the soccer stadium and improvements to the Astrodome really carry the whole load? I smell a bailout down the line.

Study: Judges seldom challenge police perjury

A law prof out of Kansas "concludes that trial judges are perpetuating police perjury by failing to denounce police dishonesty with their rulings. " Studying federal judicial rulings in a single district for two years, Melanie Wilson found that "defendants rarely assert police dishonesty and, when they do, often buttress their arguments with corroborative evidence, trial judges are highly unlikely to rule that the police have lied. In other words, trial judges 'habitually accept the policeman‘s word.'" MORE: See also another, related paper by Wilson in which she argues that, "Because our legal system treats the police as if they were impartial fact gatherers, trained and motivated to gather facts both for and against guilt, rather than biased advocates attempting to disprove innocence, which is the reality, the criminal justice system lacks the appropriate structure to expose and effectively deal with police lies that distort the truth about criminal or unconstitutional conduct."

CA considers medical parole as solution to rising prison health costs

Over at Sentencing Law & Policy, Doc Berman notices that California is considering medical parole to reduce health care costs, excerpting an article that holds up Texas' example: "36 other states have a version of medical parole, including Texas, which is putting about 100 to 170 inmates a year into that status," says a Golden State legislator pushing the idea. In California, according to the Sacramento Bee:
the prison system could save $213 million over five years by paroling just 32 inmates identified as severely incapacitated. Twenty-one of those 32 inmates are in nursing facilities or hospitals outside prisons, which requires spending for expensive guard time – including overtime – as well as huge health care costs.

These 21 inmates' average annual health care and guard costs total more than $1.97 million apiece – a total of $41.4 million a year for 21 individuals, said Kelso aide Luis Patiño. "These people are not even capable of realizing they're being punished," Patiño said. "Society becomes the victim, because it's paying the cost."

I mentioned in the comments to Berman's post that, while Texas began using medical parole more frequently in response to similar stories of high-cost inmates, there is still more savings to be had on this front than we've so far achieved from the policy. "The last number I heard: Only about 10% of those recommended for medical parole are approved by the parole board. Many TX offenders recommended for medical release pass away before the parole board gets around to their case. Around 40 inmates per month die in Texas prisons, a number which has been going up along with healthcare costs as the prison population gets older."

State Sen. John Whitmire in committee hearings has cited data (which I've never seen) suggesting Texas' most expensive inmates cost the state upwards of $1 million per year in medical bills. And TDCJ has said Texas could save up to $49 million per year by using parole more aggressively for older, nonviolent offenders with high healthcare costs.

From state government's perspective, medical parole makes a lot of sense. States pay 100% of prisoners' healthcare costs. On the outside, if a parolee is indigent the state pays just 1/3 of Medicaid costs, including hospice, etc.. And if they're 65 or older and Medicare eligible, state government can unload their whole healthcare bill on the feds. From taxpayers' perspective at 30,000 feet, that's a distinction without a difference: It all ultimately comes from their wallets. But for state governments trying to balance their budgets, the strategy makes a lot of sense.

UPDATE/CLARIFICATION: I spoke this morning with Larance Coleman at the Texas Senate Criminal Justice Committee who told me that the estimate by a California legislator of 100-170 Texans receiving medical parole each year is way too high. Perhaps, he said, over the life of the program that many have been released. Coleman said he gets monthly reports that include the number of medical releases approved by the parole board, and generally they average around 2 per month. I'm guessing the 100-170 number is how many TDCJ recommends, but the board turns down 90% of them.

MORE: From California Corrections Crisis.

Monday, March 29, 2010

Garland drug cop had informants sign blank payment forms

Tanya Eiserer at the Dallas News had another story last week about Officer Dennis Morrow, once considered the "quarterback" of the Garland PD narcotics unit, who's been accused in court by fellow officers of lying in drug cases ("Garland police officer admits to questionable practice with informant," March 26):

Garland police Officer Dennis Morrow admitted during a hearing Thursday that he sometimes had informants sign pay sheets without immediately filling in the amount he paid them – a practice deemed questionable by law enforcement experts – but he denied ever stealing any money.

Under questioning by Dallas County prosecutor Tim Gallagher, Morrow testified that he did realize that having informants sign blank pay sheets could create an appearance problem for him.

"You could [infer] all kinds of different things," Morrow testified.

You sure could! Why else would you have an informant sign a blank pay sheet if not because the officer intends to write in a higher number and pocket the difference? Seriously, try and think of one good reason; I can't. Eiserer continues:

Although Morrow contends he did nothing wrong with the pay sheets, the lead investigator in the Dallas fake-drug scandal said in an interview after the hearing that the officer's actions could prove to be problematic.

David Eldridge, a retired narcotics supervisor with the Texas Department of Public Safety, said that such a practice is "fraught with danger. Both he and his department that's permitting him to do this are headed for problems."

During Morrow's testimony Thursday, he said that there were rare occasions when a witness wasn't present when he gave money to a confidential informant, but that he always notified a supervisor when he did so.

He also said he sometimes would go to a motel office with an informant and give the manager the money the informants had earned from helping with drug busts.

"If they owed the motel guy $180 for the week, then we'd give it to them and they would give them what was left over," Morrow testified.

Both practices, Eldridge said, are troubling.

"That's what gets these guys in trouble is not properly documenting how the money is spent," he said.

It sounds like, to put the best possible face on it, Garland's policies related to handling confidential informants are pretty loosey-goosey. Best practices would require a supervisor present when making payments to informants, or at least another officer as a witness. And the idea of having informants sign blank pay forms? There's no excuse for that besides gross negligence or overt malfeasance. Keep an eye on this one - I wouldn't be surprised to see dozens of drug cases unravel in Garland before it's done.

See Eiserer's prior coverage:

Science answers raise public policy questions on addiction

I've wondered in recent years if research by neuroscientists may eventually result in the conceptual uncoupling of addiction from criminality, forcing society to view it as a public health problem instead of reason for arrest and imprisonment. After all, nobody calls the cops when some tub of lard buys a grocery-cart full of junk food at the supermarket, but as it turns out a new study shows that:
high-fat, high-calorie foods affect the brain in much the same way as cocaine and heroin. When rats consume these foods in great enough quantities, it leads to compulsive eating habits that resemble drug addiction, the study found.

Doing drugs such as cocaine and eating too much junk food both gradually overload the so-called pleasure centers in the brain, according to Paul J. Kenny, Ph.D., an associate professor of molecular therapeutics at the Scripps Research Institute, in Jupiter, Florida. Eventually the pleasure centers "crash," and achieving the same pleasure--or even just feeling normal--requires increasing amounts of the drug or food, says Kenny, the lead author of the study.

"People know intuitively that there's more to [overeating] than just willpower," he says. "There's a system in the brain that's been turned on or over-activated, and that's driving [overeating] at some subconscious level."

So if addiction to cocaine and cheesecake relies on the same biological mechanism, will public policy eventually treat them similarly, and if so which path will we choose? Indeed, there are more similarities between junk food and controlled substances than first meets the eye, reports CNN:

The fact that junk food could provoke this response isn't entirely surprising, says Dr.Gene-Jack Wang, M.D., the chair of the medical department at the U.S. Department of Energy's Brookhaven National Laboratory, in Upton, New York.

"We make our food very similar to cocaine now," he says.

Coca leaves have been used since ancient times, he points out, but people learned to purify or alter cocaine to deliver it more efficiently to their brains (by injecting or smoking it, for instance). This made the drug more addictive.

According to Wang, food has evolved in a similar way. "We purify our food," he says. "Our ancestors ate whole grains, but we're eating white bread. American Indians ate corn; we eat corn syrup."

Obesity, like drug addiction, is both bad for the individual and costly for society. If both problems stem from the same source, will we change drug policy to treat controlled substances like we do fatty foods, where the emphasis is on personal freedom, tax policy and public education, or will we treat fatty foods like illegal drugs, policing individual consumption and enforcing penalties for producers and consumers of unhealthy products? Or are there distinctions besides brain chemistry that justify different legal approaches for heroin and Twinkies? What do you think?

Sunday, March 28, 2010

Should California pursue Texas-style university-based model for prison healthcare?

Here's a little more detail on California's deliberations about shifting prison health care to the state university system, modeled after Texas' example and promoted by a company affiliated with UTMB, from the Associated Press:
The University of California will form a special committee to study whether it should take over inmate health care for the state's troubled prison system, the chairman of the university system's Board of Regents said this week.

Regents Chairman Russell Gould announced the committee, which university officials said will study issues including the cost, effect on labor relations, and the university's liability in inmate lawsuits. Health care has been so bad in the state's 33 adult prisons that a federal judge appointed a receiver in 2006 to make improvements.

A study by a company affiliated with the University of Texas has criticized the receiver for running up costs as part of the improvement effort. It projected California could save more than $4 billion over five years and $12 billion over 10 years by shifting control to the University of California.

Federal receiver J. Clark Kelso would not comment, said spokesman Luis Patino.

NuPhysicia, the UT-affiliated company, said the university system could improve care and efficiency by hiring the prisons' doctors, dentists and other medical workers, and by providing other care through video hookups that link university physicians to their patients. The study also promoted electronic record-keeping and centralized hospitals to cut costs.

NuPhysicia grew out of the telemedicine programs at the University of Texas medical branch, where UC's senior vice president for health services, Dr. John Stobo, was president. Stobo was the non-executive founding chairman of NuPhysicia's board of directors, which has raised conflict-of-interest concerns.

The Board of Regents said Stobo never received money from NuPhysicia and cut all ties to the company when he left Texas in 2007.

Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger supports the UC proposal as a way to bring costs for inmates' care closer to those in other states. California currently spends $2.4 billion annually on prisoners' medical care, close to a quarter of the prison system's $11 billion budget.

"This is radical surgery on a broken system that will save the state billions," said Schwarzenegger spokesman Aaron McLear.

The NuPhysicia study said California spends more than $41 a day on health care for each of its roughly 160,000 inmates, compared to less than $16 per day in New Jersey and around $10 in Georgia and Texas. All three states have similar arrangements with university systems there.

The company's telemedicine systems could yield the biggest cost savings in its California proposal by reducing face-to-face meetings between doctors and inmates.

Until UC System vice president John Stobo, who was NuPhysicia's board chair when he was president of UTMB, chose the company he helped found to advise the university, NuPhysicia was marketed as a telemedicine service provider, not a policy consultant. But now this private company, which spun off from UTMB with the university as a formal partner (with a 35% stake), is promoting a telemedicine based system in California that, oh by the way, is the primary service they were created to market. Fancy that.

The model NuPhysicia is promoting: Providing video hookups at prisons so doctors at university medical schools can "examine" patients from afar without ever sullying their schedules with prison visits. That's what Texas does at our state prisons, but the system hasn't been as great a success as one might hope. The system failed so miserably at the Dallas County Jail it cost UTMB their contract. When UTMB managed Dallas jail healthcare, as Grits noted in 2006, "For every month spent in the Dallas County Jail, you're more likely to get a staph infection [3.4% chance] than you are to hit 'snake eyes' when playing craps in a Vegas casino (~2.77% chance). Wanna roll the dice?"

Later in 2006, UTMB officials told the Sunset Commission that doctors providing care via telemedicine to state prisoners see 60 patients in eight hours, typically in shifts from 4 a.m. to noon. As a doctor in the Texas Senate pointed out at the time, that amounts to roughly 7 minutes per patient:

Sen. Bob Deuell from East Texas, who is a medical doctor, sounded skeptical of the telemedicine system. He questioned during the Sunset hearing how high the quality of care could be for patients who only saw their doctor that short a time and only over a video feed.

Those sorts of official descriptions of Texas' system led this blog to observe in 2007 that "'Telemedicine' is the physicians' version of fast food, a cheap, industrial, low-quality product that promotes dehumanized social relations for both health workers and customers." It's arguably good for some things and not others, but nobody's taken the time or done the outcomes-based testing to determine the difference. Instead, the tactic is treated as a cure-all when at best it should be a supplement to traditional hands-on care.

I've thought from the get-go that UTMB should make telemedicine work better in Texas before exporting the idea elsewhere. At a minimum, before California follows Texas down this particular garden path, it'd be good to see independent evaluations of UTMB's system instead of only self-interested, vendor-driven analyses from NuPhysicia.

There's also a more fundamental question regarding the conflicting missions of med schools and corrections agencies and whether joining these institutions at the hip could negatively effect the culture of either or both institutions.

Has UTMB's stewardship of prison health services worked well in Texas? Can we sufficiently document positive results to the point where we may confidently suggest exporting these methods - particularly telemedicine? Color me skeptical. After all, Texas hasn't worked out all the kinks in our own system. California officials should look long and hard at this proposal and get a second opinion before taking Dr. Stobo's and NuPhysicia's advice about copying Texas' model. A university-run prison health system hasn't solved all Texas' problems and has sometimes created a few.

See related Grits posts:

Texas "more liberal" than Massachusetts?

By one measure, Massachussetts criminal justice columnist James Alan Fox thinks Texas is more "liberal" than the home of Ted Kennedy and Michael Dukakis:

What a shocker! And for Massachusetts liberals like me who are proud of our state's tradition of social progressiveness, what an embarrassment! When it comes to punishing juveniles, Texas is apparently more enlightened than Massachusetts--Austin more liberal than Boston.

In case you missed it--and I admit that I did as well--the Lone Star State legislature voted last year to abolish life without parole (LWOP) for juveniles. Actually, the legislation passed with little attention, as Texas had rarely sentenced juvenile offenders in this way. Prior to the change in criminal code, only four Texas inmates were serving LWOP for offenses committed while under age 18.

If it's any consolation to folks from Massachussetts, we're kind of embarrassed by y'all, too. And I'll go Mr. Fox one better on his lamentations about losing the mantle of social progressivism on juvenile justice: Texas is in the process of depopulating our juvenile prisons: Under Governor Perry, the Texas Youth Commission reduced its inmate population by more than half in the wake of the sex-abuse scandal that broke in 2007; even more impressive, releasing the majority of Texas' youth inmates had no observable effect on juvenile crime rates. The state will close two juvie prison units in August.

Further, Texas has expanded investments in treatment and community corrections options for juveniles in recent years, created abuse hotlines at state and county lockups, and expanded investigative staff to handle abuse reports.

And it hasn't only been juvenile justice which witnessed reform. On drug policy under Rick Perry's watch, Texas increased its number of drug courts from 7 to 74, most of them with startup funds from the Governor's office. The state passed landmark legislation mandating probation instead of incarceration on the first offense for low-level drug crimes (less than a gram cases). He signed off on major investments in diversion programs that eliminated the need to build 17,000 new prison beds by 2012. And Perry shut down Texas' network of drug task forces after a series of high-profile scandals beginning with the Tulia debacle, eliminating jobs for hundreds of narcotics officers.

Can any Massachusetts pol say as much?

Does all that make Texas more "liberal" than Massachussetts? Not by a longshot. There are strong fiscal and social conservative arguments to be made for each of those positions. What's more, Governor Perry has vetoed a great deal of additional reform legislation that actually casts him on the obstructionist end of the spectrum compared to the GOP-controlled Texas Legislature. Despite the record described above, there's not much that's "liberal" about Texas' incumbent governor.

Years ago I quit applying such strict ideological labels on criminal justice politics. Excepting a handful of hot-button culture war issues, in practice, ideological predilections by both liberals and conservatives usually cut both directions. There are small government conservatives who promote scaling back incarceration and big government liberals who insist there's no social problem which criminal enforcement can't resolve. The whole "left-right" continuum hardly applies on these questions - people's real-world views simply don't conform to those artificial constructions on criminal justice politics.

What we've witnessed for most of my adult lifetime in Texas is a bipartisan "tuff on crime" consensus that both liberals and conservatives could support for different reasons. That's changing now to a certain extent, driven in equal parts by reactions to scandals and immediate budget needs. And if it makes folks in Massachusetts feel inferior, that's yet another good argument for continuing down a reformist path.

Saturday, March 27, 2010

The first rule of Prison Fight Club: Guards, don't get your ass kicked by the inmate forced to fight you

The Texas Department of Criminal Justice has answered CBS 7’s open records request regarding a fight between a Fort Stockton correctional officer and an inmate.

The report states Officer Edgar Acosta and offender Lee James Clark were involved in a minor scuffle in the hallway.

When additional staff arrived, Clark complied and was taken to administrative segregation.

Officer Acosta then spoke with several supervisors, and was escorted to the same segregation room where Clark was waiting unsecured, and the two were left alone.

The men began fighting, and Clark struck Officer Acosta in the mouth, ending the fight.

Sources close to the case tell CBS 7 that the officers involved originally tried to cover up the incident; however that claim has not been verified by the Texas Department of Criminal Justice.

Since the incident, two correctional officers have resigned, and two more have been relieved of duty.
The most remarkable thing about this story: Before Officer Acosta was taken to square off with the inmate in ad-seg, he "spoke with several supervisors" who apparently approved what was happening. That's a pretty telling statement about the culture of the place: This isn't just a rogue officer, if that's accurate; in the best case it's essentially a rogue unit. Worst case: There are more, similar instances at this and other units waiting to be discovered like odious, rotten Easter eggs that reporters were never told about. It's difficult to believe, given the complicity of Acosta's supervisors, that this was an isolated incident.

Friday, March 26, 2010

Statewide abuse and neglect data from juvie detention

The Texas Juvenile Probation Commission meets this morning, though prior obligations later today mean I won't attend. Here's the agenda, though, and the backup packet for boardmembers including minutes from their last meeting. One interesting item in the packet was this chart depicting reported allegations of abuse, neglect, exploitation and other serious incidents:

Abuse, Neglect, Exploitation & Serious Incidents, FY 2005 - February 2010

It's hard not to notice the massive jump in the numbers from 2007 to 2008. I don't know what accounts for that but would love to hear readers' speculation on the reason(s) in the comments. Most of these incidents took place in detention or secure placement, with complaints of physical abuse involving restraints topping the list. (The report also includes county by county totals for FY 2010 through February.)

Statewide in FY 2010 so far, according to data presented to the board, 172 kids attempted suicide in juvenile detention facilities, there were 57 incidents of youth on youth violence, 46 incidents of youth sexual contact (don't know how many involved staff), and 32 attempted escapes. Six juvenile probation employees statewide were fired for cause so far in FY 2010, five more resigned as a result of pending allegations, and another 21 were suspended, reprimanded, retrained or put on probation as a result of on-the-job discipline.

As an aside, I think the practice of putting the board's packet of backup material online before each meeting is an excellent idea that should be replicated both by other agencies and by legislative committees. All that material is already being prepared electronically, it's already public information, and it would help the public more easily follow what's going on. TJPC is one of the few agencies that does this, much to their credit, but if I had my way it would be required of everybody.

Thursday, March 25, 2010

Private jail contractor dumps Johnson County: Promised immigration beds never materialized

As the Webb County Sheriff pushes construction of a massive new jail for the purpose of housing federal immigration prisoners, their commissioners court should look to Johnson County to understand how that might not pan out like they hope. According to a story in the Cleburne Times-Review ("CEC bailing out," March 24):

Johnson County Law Enforcement Center should have a new private subcontractor no later than Sept. 15 after the recent decision of Community Education Centers to end its agreement with the county to run the jail.

CEC signed a three-year contract with the county in September 2008.

CEC used an escape clause, County Judge Roger Harmon said Tuesday, extending the county six months notice of contract termination.

CEC warden James Duke could not be reached for comment, but CEC officials told Johnson County commissioners that the corporation was losing money in its operation of the jail.

Johnson County entered the contract with CEC on the assumption that a near-endless wave of immigration detainees would fill up as many jail beds as they could build. As it turned out, that wasn't the case:

CEC expected to make the bulk of its money by filling unoccupied beds with immigration detainees.

“The average population is 450 to 500,” Duke said last year. “There are empty beds. That’s attractive to us. We take those empty beds and help the county get contracts with other entities such as Immigration Customs Enforcement. Corrections 2 [block] has 176 beds. We put ICE detainees in those beds. ICE pays Johnson County, and the county reimburses us.

“The county makes $5 off every detainee. The county makes money, and we make money.”

That wasn’t the way it worked out, Harmon said. ...

“When CEC contracted with us, we were running about 600 inmates per day,” Harmon said. “Nobody knows why, but the numbers recently have been running around 400 per day. Incarceration numbers are down statewide and nationwide, from what I understand. You wouldn’t think it would be that way with high unemployment, but it is.”

As of March 1, according to the Texas Commission on Jail Standards, Johnson County had just 338 inmates in the jail, so the supposed profitmaker has now become a money suck. By contrast, Cameron County entered into a similar scheme and encountered the opposite problem: Their jail has so many federal prisoners they now must send pretrial detainees three hours away to be housed by other counties at higher costs. So Texas counties have been burned by these deals coming and going. It's never as simple or cheap as it sounds up front when it's pitched. Never.

RELATED: Just to have mentioned it, Texas Prison Bidness had a couple of recent posts related to the private prison contractor now leaving Johnson County:

Excellent coverage of Travis County specialty courts

From Jordan Smith at the Austin Chronicle, check out this must-read series of stories on Travis County specialty courts:
A key criticism of specialty courts from the National Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers was voiced in the first bulleted article: "'Judges make poor social workers.' The money spent handling social issues in the courthouse would be better spent on front-end services that might make it less likely that these populations would actually end up in trouble with the law."

That's undoubtedly true. But we live in an era where legislative bodies have sought to impose criminal justice solutions on common social problems - from addiction to mental illness - that would be more wisely addressed in other arenas. Until that changes, specialty courts which rely on strong-probation best practices IMO will in many cases continue to get better results and provide better options for defendants and, ultimately, the state than the traditional adversarial system.

NACDL also fears that collaborative approaches favored in such courts in some ways diminish defendant's rights, and while I can see their point, on that question I think the jury's still out. After all, in a plea-mill type system such as ours where less than 2% of all cases go to trial, those adversarial rights aren't getting routinely exercised anyway.

Plus enforcing those rights via the criminal defense bar hasn't stopped the conviction of innocent people, mass incarceration or the erosion of civil liberties. The adversarial system is important, especially when the lawyers are competent and adequately resourced, but it's not the only possible model nor the end-all be-all of justice, nor has it always worked as well as one might hope. That's partially why, as Jordan Smith notes, "in Austin there are surprisingly few" critics of specialty courts: It's not like the old methods were working so damn great to begin with.

Time to test Skinner DNA evidence

Karl Keys at Capital Defense Weekly sums up the news of the Supreme Court's stay in the Hank Skinner case aptly: "As always, Rob Owen rocks. My suggestion to the Texas AG’s office, test the material now & moot the issue if Mr. Owen & crew are wrong."

That's exactly right. If SCOTUS was going to let Skinner be executed without the evidence being tested they'd have let it happen last night. This matter could be put to rest in 30 days time one way or another.

It's time to test the evidence - past time, really. Do it to save face for the state of Texas, if nothing else. Don't further encourage the impression that Texas judges and prosecutors are biased, bloodthirsty, and can't manage capital cases without killing an innocent person. In D.C. they're holding panel discussions on the topic, why give fodder to those stereotypes?

A footnote: Governor Perry failed two important tests yesterday by failing to commute Skinner's sentence and forcing the Supreme Court to manage his business:

First, after he signed Timothy Cole's posthumous pardon last week, the open question remained, "Has the Governor learned anything from this experience about making sure innocence claims are fully vetted?" In the Skinner case, we got a quick answer: "No way." The attitudes that allowed innocent people to be convicted and potentially executed on his watch are still firmly entrenched.

Second, for a Governor so full of himself when he champions "states rights" and the Tenth Amendment, in this case he ignored the adage that with rights come responsibilities. Texas should be handling its own business on the Hank Skinner case, SCOTUS shouldn't have to intervene over and over because neither the Governor nor the courts have the courage to do the right thing. Governor Perry is calling for expanded state power but simultaneously demonstrating that he can't be trusted to use it wisely - that even matters of life and death will be measured according to their political calculus as opposed to the interests of justice.

If you don't want federal courts running your business, Governor Perry, then act more responsibly and it won't so often be necessary.

RELATED: Mark Bennett has a terrific breakdown of the procedural details of the writ under consideration at SCOTUS.

Wednesday, March 24, 2010

Most Huntsville school board members work(ed) for TDCJ

I'd not realized until reading this post from the Medill Innocence Project on the Hank Skinner case that Texas Board of Pardons and Paroles Chair Rissie Owens is also an elected member of the Huntsville school board. Upon further review, though, she's definitely among their trustees according to their website, which somewhat oddly lists her occupation as "Protective Servicesman. Texas Board of Pardons and Paroles."

I'm not surprised, upon further reflection, to discover Owens indulging her local political ambitions. She's well-spoken, charismatic, and tough enough to stand her ground in a fight. She might well make a damn good school board member. Though I disagree with her on a number of key points on parole policies, I've always thought she'd make a strong political candidate. I just didn't know she'd already run for office and won. I guess I considered her slot chairing the parole board to be pretty much a full-time job, and then some.

Rissie's husband, Ed Owens, for years was a TDCJ administrator overseeing the institutional division which operates state prisons, then was appointed conservator of the Texas Youth Commission at the height of its turmoils before retiring soon thereafter. Putting all that together, that makes Ed and Rissie Owens quite the Huntsville power couple!

Upon further investigation, four of the seven Huntsville school board members have current or past relations with the prison system. In addition to Owens, Pamela Baggett is Senior Warden at the Holliday Unit, and David Standlee and Riley Tilley are current and former TDCJ employees, respectively.

RELATED(?): In the comments, somebody provided a link to a provocative but thoughtful essay from the Prometheus Institute (which I'd never heard of), titled "Ten Reasons Why America's Schools Are Like America's Prisons." In Huntsville, it follows, there are 11 reasons, since the same people are running both institutions. ;)

Petitions vs Dallas constable, Hockley Sheriff highlight obscure civil removal process for county pols

After I wrote in support of Dallas county prosecutors filing a civil removal petition in Dallas against Constable Jaime Cortes, a Grits commenter opined that it "would be interesting to read a post about that obscure recall process." I agreed, I just knew nothing about it and had never heard of it being used before. Having been made aware of it, though, I couldn't help but notice its remarkable recent use in a case involving the Hockley County Sheriff. Reports AP:
A West Texas sheriff facing removal from office for alleged incompetence and official misconduct testified Tuesday that he believes the county official seeking his dismissal was out to get him.

Christopher Dennis, the county attorney in Hockley County, filed a complaint in August seeking Sheriff David Kinney's removal.

"Definitely out to get me; I don't know why," the suspended sheriff told jurors. "I thought it was very improper to put the investigator who helped him put this (case) together" in as Kinney's interim replacement. "He was part of putting all this garbage together."

Kinney's comments came during questioning by plaintiff's attorney George Thompson on the opening day of the sheriff's civil trial in Levelland, about 30 miles west of Lubbock. In a civil trial, the plaintiffs can call the defendant as a hostile witness.

In his opening statement, Thompson told jurors that Kinney oversaw a sheriff's office that had drugs and weapons in "drawers all over," instead in the property room.

He also told the panel that Kinney had lied to federal investigators looking into allegations that his chief deputy was involved in a methamphetamine ring. Kinney told investigators he would not tell Gordon Bohannon he had spoken with them about their probe.

"I think the evidence is clear he did inform" the chief deputy that he had talked to the FBI, Thompson said. "When you add it up, time and time again it's gross negligence, gross ignorance."

Kinney testified that he had told Bohannon about his talk with federal authorities. He also said he "did not agree" that his actions in supervising Bohannon and other deputies showed he was incompetent.

Bohannon is awaiting sentencing after pleading guilty to federal charges for his part in a meth trafficking ring.

Court documents show Kinney claims he was unaware of the meth ring involving his deputies. He has vowed not to resign, saying he did nothing wrong.
I've no idea how common this procedure is, but it's a potent tool against corruption in the hands county prosecutors that, until recently, I had no idea they possessed. Civil removal proceedings ... who'da thought?

For the record, here's the law governing civil removal petitions for county officials. It's a bizarre little statute in the Local Government Code I'd never noticed before.
Sec. 87.013. GENERAL GROUNDS FOR REMOVAL. (a) An officer may be removed for:
(1) incompetency;
(2) official misconduct; or
(3) intoxication on or off duty caused by drinking an alcoholic beverage.
(b) Intoxication is not a ground for removal if it appears at the trial that the intoxication was caused by drinking an alcoholic beverage on the direction and prescription of a licensed physician practicing in this state.
Those are remarkably broad categories. Parts (a)(3) and (b) about off-duty intoxication being grounds for removal except for drinking on the "direction and prescription of a licensed physician" are particularly odd aspects of the law. Is inebriation something being commonly prescribed among leaders in county government? I wasn't aware. As John Lennon observed, these are strange days indeed.

As for "incompetency," I can hear the wags already saying that if that justifies removal then they should pretty much all go. For the record in this statute:
"Incompetency" means:
(A) gross ignorance of official duties;
(B) gross carelessness in the discharge of those duties; or
(C) unfitness or inability to promptly and properly discharge official duties because of a serious physical or mental defect that did not exist at the time of the officer's election.
I had no idea "gross ignorance of official duties" was grounds for removing county officials. That happens all the time! How many district judges have I known who, once elected, didn't realize they automatically sat on the board of directors of the local probation department? How many county commissioners are all about roads in their campaigns, only to get elected and spend all their time talking about jail functions they know nothing about? Politics is a learn-on-the-job kind of deal and to some extent, "gross ignorance" is the price of term limits and anti-incumbent voter sentiment.

Still, I didn't realize average citizens could initiate such a potentially powerful petition against county officials. A district judge must then sign off and after that, it's up to the county attorney as to whether the case is vigorously prosecuted (not the District Attorney, according to LGC 87108[d]). After that, it's up to a jury. But as demonstrated by this case from Hockley County, removal petitions represent a potentially robust source of relief when confronted with allegations of corruption, misconduct, or even non-doctor sanctioned drunkenness, for whatever reason.

I'm interested to learn more about this mechanism; particularly how often it's been used in the past, under what circumstances, and how many of those efforts succeeded.

'The Rights of Minors in the American Criminal Justice System'

The title of this post is the subject of an upcoming one-day symposium at the UT law school in Austin about which I received notice from several different sources this week, but my favorite was from a juvenile probation director who instructed me, "get your ass down there and listen then report to we great unwashed folk out here in the boondocks." Who could pass up an invitation like that? Here are the details:
Please join the Texas Journal on Civil Liberties and Civil Rights in conjunction with the American Journal of Criminal Law for a symposium on Juvenile Justice: the Rights of Minors in the American Criminal Justice System next Monday, March 29, 2010 starting at 9:00 a.m. in the Eidman Courtroom, at the University of Texas School of Law. The School of Law is located at 727 E. Dean Keeton, Austin, TX 78705. The event is free and open to the public.

List of events:

9:00-9:10: Welcome

9:15-10:30 Meeting the Needs of Juvenile Offenders: The Legal and Policy Response

--featuring Deborah Fowler of Texas Appleseed, Richard Lavallo of Advocacy Inc., and Marc Levin of Texas Public Policy Foundation

10:45-11:45 Dealing with Serious Juvenile Offenders in the Juvenile Justice System

--featuring Riley Shaw of the Tarrant County District Attorney’s Office and Kameron Johnson of the Travis County Juvenile Public Defender’s Office

12:00:1:00 Lunch in the Sheffield Room - Keynote speaker: TBA

1:15-2:30 National Juvenile Justice Reform Initiatives

--featuring Michele Deitch of the University of Texas School of Law and LBJ School of Public Affairs, Jody Kent of the National Campaign for the Fair Sentencing of Youth, and Cynthia Totten of Just Detention International

5:30-7:30 Happy Hour at 219 West, located at 219 West 4th St., Austin, TX 78701

Webb County Sheriff's speculative jail scheme ignores risks

The Laredo Sun, in an article that reads mysteriously like a badly written press release, reports that the Webb County Sheriff is pushing county commissioners to build a speculative new jail in hopes of turning a profit by housing federal immigration prisoners:
If the county government built a new prison, the project would practically get paid on its own because the current jail could generate several million dollars if federal prisoners are housed in it.

"This building is just right for federal prisoners because the federal court is very close and U.S. Marshals would like to spend less on the transportation of prisoners and have more security," Sheriff Martin Cuellar informed.

He also mentioned that the federal government currently pays almost $50 per day for each federal prisoner, but there is no room in the county jail for these prisoners.

"'These are prisoners that generate revenue but we can not have many of them because we need the space for local and state prisoners, the jail easily reaches its capacity of 572 beds," he indicated.

Cuellar stressed that this new prison project should have been worked on, therefore he has requested the support from the Commissioners Court to find a suitable site.

Cuellar also plans to make improvements in the prison control center in order to offer greater security for employees and prisoners.

The next day, County Commissioners approved the Sheriff's request to seek donated property for the project and established a committee to study a new jail.

It would be a mistake, though, for Webb County to overbuild beyond its own needs or seek to turn a profit competing with private prison vendors. That can too easily backfire, just like it did in Cameron County, which overbuilt its jail, took on large federal detention contracts, and now gets paid $36.35 per day to house federal inmates and must pay $48 per day to house their own, local pretrial detainees three hours away in another county.

As it turns out, Webb County has problems staffing its jail at current inmate levels because the commissioners court hasn't hired enough guards. But a bigger jail with more jailers will cost less?

The Sheriff is selling Webb County commissioners a pig in a poke: There's no such thing as a free lunch or a free jail.

Execution looms with DNA evidence untested: Will SCOTUS, Governor intervene on Hank Skinner?

Today is the deadline. One of three things will happen today in the Hank Skinner case: He will be executed later tonight, the US Supreme Court will stay his case and order DNA testing on potentially exculpatory evidence, or Governor Rick Perry will commute the sentence for 30 days to allow the evidence to be tested. Which will it be? Your guess is as good as mine, so please record yours in the comments.

For my part, I think Sam Millsap is right: DNA testing only works if the justice system chooses to use it. After the Governor signed Timothy Cole's posthumous pardon last week, after all the DNA exonerations in Dallas and around the state, much less after witnessing the imbroglio over post-execution innocence claims in the Todd Willingham case, I think it's high time Texas stopped fooling around with these cases (as though they were engaged in a juvenile game of political chicken with the capital defense bar) and start to make sure, at least, that the state is killing the right guy before putting him down.

In addition, I'd like to see Texas clean up its own mess, which in this case would mean Governor Perry temporarily commuting the sentence long enough for the evidence to be tested. Do I think that's likely after the Board of Pardons and Paroles recommended against it? Not really. It would be a surprise, albeit a welcome one, if the Governor did so.

MORE: Excellent post from Mark Bennett at Defending People: "Nope, No Balm in Gilead. Sorry."

UPDATE: SCOTUS stayed the execution, for now. What's next? According to Lyle Denniston at SCOTUSBlog:
Lawyers on both sides have completed all of the filings in the case on that issue, so the Court is expected to schedule it for Conference within a matter of weeks. In the meantime, the postponement granted Wednesday will stay in effect until the petition is acted upon and, if granted, until it is decided. If review is denied, the postponement will expire automatically and the state could then schedule execution anew. If review is granted, a ruling would not be expected until next Term, starting next October.

Tuesday, March 23, 2010

UTMB-linked consultant advising California on prison healthcare

Here's a development that may interest our pals at the blog California Corrections Crisis: George Reamy, who is a UTMB-based candidate for the Texas Faculty Association executive board, has several recent posts up about a Texas telemedicine company linked to UTMB that is now advising California on its troubled prison system.
Former UTMB President John Stobo is now senior vice president for health sciences and services for the University of California system, reports Reamy. Perhaps relatedly, California hired as consultants to help fix their court-driven healthcare problems a company called Nuphysicia, which is a partnership between UTMB, a private equity firm, and several UTMB physicians.

Reamy points out that when Dallas County contracted with UTMB under Stobo to provide medical services at the jail, it led to a series of successful lawsuits that ultimately cost them the contract. It's also interesting to me that Nuphysicia was hired as a cost-cutting consultant; when they were launched, the project was pitched as being a telemedicine service provider.

Comments due soon on Driver Responsibility rules

Decision time is drawing close. There's an item on the Public Safety Commission's just-released March 31 agenda (pdf) to set a public hearing for proposed revisions to the Driver Responsibility rules.

For those who'd like to share their views with the PSC on the rules, the public comment period for the proposed rules ends April 4, but that's a Sunday so presumably that will be extended to April 5. "Comments on the proposal may be submitted to Rebekah Hibbs, Driver License Division, Texas Department of Public Safety, P.O. Box 4087 (MSC 0300), Austin, Texas 78773; by fax to (512) 424-5233; or by email to"

In the big picture I believe this program should be abolished, but the Public Safety Commission can't do that. They do, however, have authority to go much further than DPS staff did in the proposed rules published in the Register. I've been working with Amanda Marzullo at the Texas Fair Defense Project to suggest amendments to the proposed rules that are within the agency's power, and here are the main things we think folks should be asking for:
  • Create an Amnesty program to clear up noncompliance backlog
  • Use accurate documentation for the application process
  • Make language comply with 2011 statute waiving surcharges for indigents
  • Create incentives to encourage compliance for other low-income drivers
Last summer DPS proposed an aggressive Amnesty program for the 1.2 million drivers who've lost their license because of the surcharge, letting them pay a smaller amount to regain their license and get back into compliance. That's been dropped from the current proposal but it's arguably the most important part because a) it helps resolve the backlog of noncompliant drivers and b) would actually generate revenue from people who aren't paying.

With 1.2 million drivers noncompliant, if 1/3 of them took advantage of an amnesty program and paid an average of $250 each to get their driver's license back, that would generate $100 million in additional revenue (400,000 x $250) from drivers who otherwise weren't likely to pay. Why leave that money on the table?

As for using accurate documentation, the proposed rules suggest using income tax returns to determine indigency, but that can reflect outdated information. For example, since I lost my job last year as a result of the economic crash, looking at last year's tax return would tell you little about my current income. We'll be proposing standards drawn from other programs to reflect current income.

On the indigency program itself, oddly DPS chose not to waive surcharges for indigents, which will be required by state law beginning in 2011, instead merely reducing surcharges for drivers with incomes below 125% of federal poverty levels (FPL). That seems like a strange decision - to change the rules knowing they must be changed again in a year's time. There's a strong argument to be made for doing the job once and getting it right the first time.

Finally, 125% of poverty is pretty low (around $10,000 for an individual) and there are many low-income individuals above that threshold who still have trouble paying those fees. For these individuals, the Legislature authorized the PSC to create an "incentive" program to encourage compliance, and we think the PSC should create such incentives for individuals between 125-300% of FPL.

I'm glad the Public Safety Commission is finally taking up this issue, but the proposed rules don't go nearly far enough. The PSC should exercise authority granted it by the Lege in 2007 to more decisively fix this broken program.

See recent press coverage:

Concerns about 'spillover' from Mexican drug fighting belated, naive

It's becoming hard to know what to think about news out of Mexico about crime and the drug war. What few reports we get from northern Mexico sound goddawful, and we know we're not getting the whole story, by a longshot. But friends who've traveled recently in Mexico reported few concerns for safety, and thousands of spring breakers just returned without incident. Meanwhile murder rates in southern Mexico are lower than they've been in years after long-stewing land disputes were essentially resolved by force in favor of large landowners.

That said, recent news has been filled with reports of drug violence in the north and in Acapulco, events which have Governor Perry and others talking about "spillover." But that's a misnomer, one which Jerry Brewer at corrects:
The simple fact is that DTOs [Drug Trafficking Organizations] have been on U.S. soil for quite some time. They have established highly sophisticated smuggling infrastructures within the country. And for distribution they utilize, among others, U.S. street gangs, prison gangs, and outlaw motorcycle gangs. Much of this assimilation by Latin American gangs has been from within U.S. prison walls.
Bingo. People don't get it. The Mexican Ambassador was dead right when he told the Houston Chronicle that Texas officials' statements about spillover are “disingenuous or naive.”

“The term ‘spillover' would, at least in my eyes, seem to be a bit of a false dilemma,” [Ambassador Arturo] Sarukhan responded. “You speak of ‘spillover' as if you had the pristine waters of Alaska contaminated by the spill of the Exxon Valdez. That is, there was nothing there before the Exxon Valdez created the accident.

“To assume that in Texas there are no distribution networks, drug traffickers don't have safe houses, they don't have banks, they don't launder money, is disingenuous or naive at the least,” he told reporters and editors from the Houston Chronicle and San Antonio Express-News. “So ‘spillover'? They're already there.”

This idea that the border is some defensible wall, or ever could be, is a farcical myth. That's never been true and in the era of globalism, cannot be. There's too much cross-border trade and traffic, too many entangling business and family relationships. When DTO fighting begins to "spillover" into the United States, it probably won't be along the border but in Houston, Dallas, New Orleans, Phoenix, Atlanta, Chicago, Los Angeles - all the big-city transportation hubs where these organizations have deep, longstanding networks. And once they're underway, those wars will largely be fought by proxy; their local face will largely be that of homegrown gangs and crooks, not necessarily Spanish speaking Mexican capos. We will have finally met the enemy and it will be us.

With that in mind, any possible solution must recognize and embrace that interconnectedness instead of pretending we could ever become "Fortress America" and simply wall the border off. Anyone who has spent much time in border towns (before the last few years, anyway) knows that day-to-day life there is more tightly bound with folks across the river than outsiders know. Post-NAFTA, the rise of the maquiladora industry added a layer of daily business interconnectedness that includes many of America's largest companies.

The Fortress America crowd would demand that border communities sacrifice those relationships in the name of security, but the better approach is to leverage them. We've only seen hints of that possibility along the Texas border, where instead our leaders' focus has been on pork barrel politics and installing web cams so citizen volunteers could monitor stretches of wilderness for immigrants in their spare time. However, Andrew Selee, director of the Mexico Institute at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars in Washington, D.C., told the Dallas News' Alfredo Corchado that there may be another model to consider out of California in San Diego/Tijuana, where he said:
It was startling to see some of the cross-border cooperation going in between agencies in Tijuana and San Diego. Not just federal government agencies, but also city and county police departments, nongovernmental organizations, and business networks. It gave us hope. In Tijuana, they seem to have limited the role of the military to pursuing high-value targets and worked on strengthening courts and police to make it harder for criminal organizations to operate. I'm not sure that's the magic bullet, but it seemed like there were lessons there that might work well elsewhere along the border, especially in Juárez and some of the other cities along the Texas border.
There are challenges to doing that in Juarez, where, for example, there's a good chance relying on local police would mean handing enforcement over to the control of a DTO that for many years had thoroughly corrupted them. (Officials say they've fired the corrupt officers - which was a large proportion of the force, but quien sabe?) Of course, that's sometimes also been true on the US side. Still, perhaps border cities and state officials on both sides of the river should look to the San Diego-Tijuana example for a more integrated approach, one that builds up local institutions instead of supersedes them?

Monday, March 22, 2010

Border pols to Governor: Tone down rhetoric, keep us in loop

Brandi Grissom and Juan Aguilar at the Texas Tribune report that:
Leaders from one end of the Texas-Mexico border to the other said Friday they want Gov. Rick Perry to tone down the scary rhetoric and to get real about solving problems in their hometowns. And, by the way, they would also like to be consulted about security plans that affect the communities where they live.
All I can say is, "It's about time." The Governor has been hyping "scary rhetoric" on the border for years - in 2006 it was his principal campaign theme. Parallel to this political positioning has been a series of bad security choices, from massive grants frittered away on patrol overtime to spending millions on the TDEX database and financing do-nothing "fusion centers." In all, the state wasted upwards of nine figures on the Governor's politically aimed border security programs - an investment for which the state has very little to show.

This was not done for the benefit of folks on the border, but to scare white voters elsewhere in the state with nativist rhetoric and symbolism, playing on culture-war themes as pretense for security and immigration policy. It also bought the Governor law enforcement allies from the border (Sheriffs receiving the grants) who were willing to say nice things about him in the media. But most folks from the region didn't benefit - especially in the urban areas where most people live.

Not only was Governor Perry's border-security money basically shoveled down a hole, the wasted dollars and years represent an even more significant opportunity cost, fiddling away time and resources on pork-barrel politics while a crisis mounted in Juarez, Nuevo Laredo, and Reynosa (sister cities across the river from El Paso, Laredo and McAllen). Given that record, the Governor must hope that voters confuse activity with achievement. To be fair, though: They probably will.