Tuesday, August 31, 2010

Fully Fund the Texas Commission on Jail Standards

Tomorrow (Sep. 1, 2010), the Texas Commission on Jail Standards (TCJS) will present its Legislative Appropriations Request for fiscal years 2012 and 2013 to the Budget, Planning and Policy Division of the Governor's Office and to the Legislative Budget Board. The Hearing will take place from 9:00 am - 10:30 am in the Capitol Extension, Room E2.028. Public comments will be permitted.


In the face of a potential 15% budget cut (including across-the-board 5% agency budget cuts and an extra 10% budget cut), TCJS could potentially lose 2-3 staff members, possibly inspectors (out of a current total of 5 inspectors).

Without inspections, TCJS will not be able to fully realize its critical mission to set constitutional jail standards, conduct facility inspections, and enforce compliance with rules and procedures – all of which keep Texas jails safe, well regulated, and run by educated, professional leadership.

Let’s not forget why TCJS was established. In the early 1970’s, various lawsuits were filed against Texas counties for poor conditions of confinement in local jails, as well as for the lack of regulated and funded inspections of those jail facilities. In 1975, and with the urging and support of various groups (including the Sheriff’s Association of Texas), the 64th Texas Legislature passed House Bill 272, which was signed into law by Governor Dolph Briscoe. This bill created the nine-member Texas Commission on Jail Standards, tasked with ensuring the proper management of county jails.

We cannot allow the state to roll back the progress it has made since the mid 70’s. TCJS must continue to be provided a level of funding equal to – or more than (see note below) – what it is presently receiving. Failure to do so will pose a threat to personnel and to crucial functions, including travel for on-site trainings and technical assistance for jail administrators, the timely re-inspection of noncompliant facilities, special inspections of at-risk facilities, and meetings with local leadership to address facility issues.

NOTE: Compared to the budget and responsibilities of other state agencies, TCJS's annual budget of $1,024,506 (submitted by the agency for FY 2012 and 13 – already 5% less than it was appropriated for FY 10 and 11) is insufficient to meet the growing demands of counties. At the very least, this amount must be maintained, but increased funding would better enable it to fulfill its mission and assist counties in need.

Solutions to Budget Cuts

Instead of making harmful budgetary cuts to agencies like the Texas Commission on Jail Standards, the Legislature must take advantage of the Rainy Day Fund, which could provide over $9 billion for the 2012-2013 state budget. Additionally, policy-makers must maximize the use of available federal funding, including any additional stimulus aid or new matching funds made available by health care reform. Finally, the Legislature must create new sources of revenue that are equitable and can grow with the need for public services, including cost-savings through the elimination of unproductive tax breaks.

Good morning everyone! It's Ana again.

The House Criminal Jurisprudence Committee, Chaired by Rep. Pete Gallego, is holding a hearing today at 10:00 AM, in room E2.010.

The committee is meeting to consider Charge #1: Examine the deferred adjudication system in Texas and recommend legislative changes.

Although there will be invited testimony only, the public is welcome to attend and listen to the hearing.

If you can't make it to the Capitol you can click here to stream the hearing live.

Monday, August 30, 2010

The Tim Cole Advisory Panel Report: Too Much Ado, Not Enough Done

Hey everybody, Jeff Blackburn here. Scott asked me to do some guest blogging during his well-deserved vacation. This my first post. Be as hard on me as you want.

On Wednesday of last week, my good friend Ana Yáñez-Correa reported on the meeting of the Task Force on Indigent Defense that had just happened. She called the meeting and what came out of it a “Great Day for Justice in Texas”.

I was at that meeting. I have to tell you that it didn’t make me feel warm, fuzzy or full of pride for Texas. I handled the Tim Cole case and represent his family, and if what happened at the Court of Criminal Appeals last Wednesday was a “great day” then we are all getting way too accustomed to way too little.

Ana is a strong thinker, a rock-solid activist and a very close colleague of mine. I think she and her outfit have done a great deal for the criminal justice reform movement. That’s why I was disappointed that she chose to give so much credit to the Task Force on Indigent Defense (TFID). If you read her post or listened to the self-congratulatory tone struck at the meeting, you would think the TFID is at the cutting edge of reform in this state. That is a long way from the truth.

I’m not saying that what happened on Wednesday set back the cause of justice or was the equivalent of nothing at all. I am saying that what the TFID did was take some small, long-overdue steps and suggest that they were giant leaps.

A good example of this is the report of the Tim Cole Advisory Panel on Wrongful Convictions (TCAP). That report can be found here. It is well written and carefully researched, thanks to the efforts of the TFID’s Dr. Jennifer Willyard.

The problem is not what the report says or how it reads. It is what it does not say.

As readers may remember the TCAP was created by the last legislature. The panel’s purpose was to prepare a study of the causes of wrongful convictions and make legislative recommendations.

The panel was mainly composed of politicians, prosecutors, ex-prosecutors, and police officers. There were no members of any innocence project on it (although, to be fair, folks connected with such projects were allowed to attend meetings.) Most of the panelists had undeniably good intentions. They worked hard at the report and it shows.

Intention and effort aside, however, what the panel finally came up with was a largely watered-down version of what has already been in play in prior legislative sessions. The panel could have gone much further. Instead, it chose to take a predictable path of limited resistance and avoid controversy.

On eyewitness identification, the panel recommended that the next legislature pass only a “training bill”. This kind of bill, which was before the legislature last session after a great deal of compromise, emphasizes training police departments in better eyewitness identification procedures. Given the sorry state of current “procedures” being used by cops throughout the state- many of which involve outrageously suggestive tricks like one-person “showups” (see the terrific 2008 report of the Justice Project here for an idea of how bad things really are ) this would help, but only a little. The limitations of the approach taken by TCAP are carefully examined by U. of H. Professor Sandra Guerra Thompson, a panelist who went to the trouble of writing a concurring report. Her position, which is well-researched and thoroughly explained, points out in detail the diluted nature of what the panel is recommending. Read it if you want to see how much more can and should be done in this area. Wonder why no one seemed to make much mention of Professor Thompson’s report at the meeting?

The panel also dealt with recording custodial interrogations, discovery reform, DNA testing, and whether we should have an innocence commission. Some of the recommendations are good (recording custodial interrogations and junk-science based writ reform, for example); some not so much (reciprocal discovery in criminal cases? Why not full discovery of the State’s file and leave the defense alone?). The report’s recommendation to shelve the idea of an innocence commission in favor of state-funded innocence projects sounds okay until you read the fine print where it advocates adding a staff member to the TFID at the expense of the already ridiculously underfunded projects, none of which currently receive enough money to get the job done.

Are the ideas and proposals in the TCAP report terrible? No. They are just too limited. This panel was set up as an independent body that could have done a lot more. It could have advocated a comprehensive reform of the writ system- a system that has been designed to ensure that most claims of actual innocence never see the light of day. It could have tackled the issue of lousy trial representation that has caused the vast majority of wrongful convictions so far and called for the creation of a statewide public defender system. It could have recommended measures to eliminate the use of junk pseudo-science in trial courts. These are the kind of big reforms that we need to make to really stop wrongful convictions and get more innocent people out of prison.

Instead of advocating such changes, the panel contented itself with making limited recommendations that have all been made before. By breaking no new ground, TCAP chose to focus on what it saw as “do-able”. That’s fine, I guess, and expected: after all, this is Texas and most of the panelists were criminal justice officials.

Less expected, however, is the attitude of many reform advocates toward this report. To imply that the adoption of the TCAP report is a big move forward, or to suggest that it somehow signals a major change in policy, is giving too much credit to officialdom.

The Tim Cole case itself was brought to public attention against the opposition of all kinds of officials, from Lubbock County on up. If we had relied on the conventional system to take care of the situation nothing would have happened and no one would have heard of Tim Cole, much less named panels and statutes after him.

We have a hard legislative session ahead. Money, money, and money are going to be the topics of the day. If we expect to get anything done at all with criminal justice reform we are going to need to be a little harder ourselves. We need to approach this session with big proposals. They will get whittled down, just as they were in the TCAP report. In the meantime, we need to start calling things like they are instead of praising the system for what is ultimately still too little and too late.

Friday, August 27, 2010

Legislative Budget Hearings

Hello everyone! It’s Ana Yáñez-Correa again.

Just wanted to share with all of you a new link we created on TCJC's Public Policy Center web page titled Legislative Budget Hearings that included some of the following below.

The Texas Juvenile Probation Commission (TJPC) presented its Legislative Appropriations Request (LAR) for fiscal years 2012 and 2013 to the Budget, Planning and Policy Division of the Governor's Office and to the Legislative Budget Board on Thursday, August 19, 2010.

To view TJPC's LAR, please click here.

Our concern: Cuts will have a drastic impact on the number of youth committee to the Texas Youth Commission (TYC). According to TJPC, cuts to the base budget in the amount of $14.9 million are expected to result in over 300 new commitments to TYC at a cost to the State of over $60 million for the biennium. A full 10% reduction - amounting to $28.4 million - will result in an additional 400 commitments to TYC at a cost to the State of approximately $67 million for the biennium. These cuts will severely impact juvenile probation departments' ability to provide needed programs and services to divert juveniles from commitment to TYC.


On Wednesday, September 1, 2010, the Texas Commission on Jail Standards (TCJS) will present its Legislative Appropriations Request for fiscal years 2012 and 2013 to the Budget, Planning and Policy Division of the Governor's Office and to the Legislative Budget Board. The Hearing will take place from 9:00 am - 10:30 am in the Capitol Extension, Room E2.028. Public comments will be permitted.

To view TCJS's LAR, please click here.

Our concern: In the face of a potential 15% budget cut (including across-the-board 5% agency budget cuts and an extra, requested 10% budget cut), TCJS could potentially lose 2-3 staff members, possibly inspectors (out of a current total of 5 inspectors). Without inspections, TCJS will not be able to fully realize its critical mission to set constitutional jail standards, conduct facility inspections, and enforce compliance with rules and procedures - all of which keep Texas jails safe, well regulated, and run by educated, professional leadership.

We cannot allow the state to roll back the progress it has made since the mid 70's when TCJS was established. TCJS must continue to be provided a level of funding equal to - or more than (see note below) - what it is presently receiving. Failure to do so will pose a threat to personnel and to crucial functions, including travel for on-site trainings and technical assistance for jail administrators, the timely re-inspection of noncompliant facilities, special inspections of at-risk facilities, and meetings with local leadership to address facility issues. TCJS must continue to be provided a level of funding equal to - or more than (SEE NOTE) - what it is presently receiving. Failure to do so will pose a threat to personnel and to crucial functions, including travel for on-site trainings and technical assistance for jail administrators, the timely re-inspection of noncompliant facilities, special inspections of at-risk facilities, and meetings with local leadership to address facility issues.

NOTE: Compared to the budget and responsibilities of other state agencies, TCJS's annual budget of $1,024,506 (submitted by the agency for FY 2012 and FY 2013 - already 5% less than it was appropriated for FY 10 and 11) is insufficient to meet the growing demands of counties. At the very least, this amount must be maintained, but increased funding would better enable it to fulfill its mission and assist counties in need.


On Tuesday, September 7, 2010, the Texas Judicial Council the Office of Court Administration (OCA) will present its Legislative Appropriations Request for fiscal years 2012 and 2013 to the Budget, Planning and Policy Division of the Governor's Office and to the Legislative Budget Board. The Hearing will take place from 11:00 am - 12:00 pm in the Capitol Extension, Room E2.028. Public comments will be permitted.

To view OCI's LAR, please click here.

Our concern: TCJC is particularly concerned with any reductions to counties for indigent defense, and we fully support the indigent defense exceptional items. As directed by the state's leadership, this LAR reduces the baseline budget for OCA programs to 95% of FY 2010-11 levels for General Revenue and GR-Dedicated Accounts. The agency is fully prepared to operate with reductions in some of its programs; however, a 95% level of funding will seriously impede the agency's ability to carry out certain key programs, including its certification programs (which already operate on very small budgets) and OCA's child support and child protection courts. It will also require the agency to (1) absorb one-time salary savings that were achieved in FY 2010-11, but which are not sustainable in FY 2012-13, (2) continue operating without a court services consultant, who supports OCA's core mission of providing technical assistance, training, and research on court administration, and (3) reduce grant funding to counties for indigent defense.


Solutions to the Budget Cuts

Instead of harmful budgetary cuts to critical programs, the Legislature must use the Rainy Day Fund, which could provide over $8 billion for the 2012-2013 state budget. Additionally, policy-makers must maximize the use of available federal funding, including any additional stimulus aid or new matching funds made available by health care reform. Finally, the Legislature must create new sources of revenue that are equitable and can grow along with the need for public services, as well as eliminate unproductive tax breaks.

Other LARs and Budget Hearings will be posted as soon as we learn about them.

To see other key agencies' LARs, please click here.

To view other scheduled budget hearings, please click here.

Hope that all of you have a wonderful and restful weekend!

Thursday, August 26, 2010

More TYC Turmoil?

A couple of readers emailed from across the pond to say things appear to be blowing up yet again at the Texas Youth Commission (I can't leave you people alone for a minute!), particularly regarding alleged mistreatment of youth at units in Beaumont and Corsicana. Here are several notable MSM stories on the subject:
Hard to believe they've run through another Ombudsman at TYC already. That job is cursed! Legislative hearings are expected soon.

The main allegations are:
  • Inability to ensure safety of youth;
  • Inadequate mental health care;
  • Lack of educational programming;
  • Inadequate special education programming; and,
  • Over-Reliance on Short-Term Security & Lack of programming for youth in security (segregation).
Here's a copy of the letter (pdf) sent by advocates to the USDOJ, and TYC's response (pdf) to the charges.
I won't have time to follow up on these subjects until my vacation's over, but I suspect Grits readers will have a lot to say about these allegations and wanted to give you the opportunity.

Wednesday, August 25, 2010

Great Day for Justice in Texas

Hello everyone! It’s Ana Yáñez-Correa again.

Today is a great day for justice in Harris County and across Texas. Leah Pinney and I attended the Task Force on Indigent Defense Board Meeting today, where we were reminded of the value of grace and perseverance in seeking justice.

  • The Task Force unanimously approved the grant proposal for the new Harris County Public Defender Office. I don’t have to say that this is an historic occasion for Harris County, and it is due to the amazing work of Senator Ellis, his staff, and long-time advocates (and our dear friends) from Harris County: Mary L. Ramos, Howard Jefferson, Rev. William A. Lawson, Rev. Robert Jefferson, and others. We also want to acknowledge the hard work of Harris County officials in collaborating with Task Force staff to create a strong proposal for the new public defender office. This office is a monumental undertaking that will include misdemeanor mental health and appellate divisions, both scheduled to begin taking cases on February 1, 2011, as well as juvenile and felony trial cases which will begin a year later. Here you will find an article from the Houston Chronicle about Harris County's grant.
  • In addition to the Harris County Public Defender Office, the Task Force awarded discretionary funds to help establish Montgomery County’s Managed Assigned Council Program (MACP). It is the first of its kind in Texas and will provide direct client services to indigent defendants suffering from mental health issues. Modeled in part after the San Mateo County Bar Association Private Defender Program in California, the Montgomery County program is unique in Texas because it will be led by attorneys in the local defense bar. The MACP will provide specially trained defense attorneys, case management, and investigative/expert services to assist defendants on the county’s mental health docket. Once the program is running at full capacity, county officials estimate that a panel of 12 private attorneys will serve a client base of approximately 600 indigent defendants. This well-considered program includes objectives to measure attorney performance, which provides increased accountability, and reduce recidivism. It truly presents great potential for replication in other counties across Texas. I had a chance to speak with Judge Cara Wood before today’s meeting and she seems genuinely excited about getting this program up and running. Considering all the potential for this program (including greater independence from the judiciary), Judge Wood and the rest of Montgomery County have plenty to be excited about.
To learn more about the Task Force's Discretionary Grant Program, click here for a newly developed one-pager.
  • As important as these new opportunities for public defense in Texas are, today was particularly meaningful because the Task Force voted to forward the final recommendations, nearly a year of work in the making, by the Timothy Cole Advisory Panel to a wide range of stakeholders. In attendance were the family members of Timothy Cole – an innocent man mistakenly identified, wrongfully prosecuted, and convicted, who later died while in prison. His family members continued to demonstrate their amazing grace with policy-makers, stakeholders, and justice system practitioners. They knew their son and brother was innocent and stood by him through his dying day as the justice system failed repeatedly, and their response to this injustice was to move forward and build relationships with those who are charged with ensuring justice in Texas. Even today, they honor him in their continued dedication to ensuring that known best practices become a reality in the Texas justice system. The family thanked the Timothy Cole Advisory Panel members and the Task Force for their work, culminating in specific recommendations for best practices in eyewitness identification procedures, the recording of custodial interrogations, and evidence discovery procedures, as well as expanded opportunities for DNA testing for post-conviction proceedings.
As those who struggle to shape public and administrative policy often focus on consensus building and necessary compromise to achieve even modest reforms, today we are reminded of the tremendous suffering and loss that occurs everyday as we move slowly, but (we hope) surely, toward justice. Although this is just one day and one step forward in the process – and there are many more ahead – each of us should be motivated to continue to push for real and complete implementation of these reforms. We must continue to pursue even more justice than we thought possible because someone in Texas is waiting on it right now.

But in light of today’s great accomplishments, we must recognize the Task Force board members, the Task Force Director, Jim Bethke, and his dedicated team for their amazing work in collaborating with a diverse range of stakeholders and community advocates to move each of these projects forward successfully!

Tuesday, August 24, 2010

TCJC Re-entry Project

Hi everyone, this is Ana Yáñez-Correa at the Texas Criminal Justice Coalition (TCJC). It’s our first guest blog post!

I’m not sure how many Grits readers know about a project we began about a year ago to help those exiting prisons and jails learn about available resources they can tap into in the community.Though we’re not a service organization, we receive over a hundred letters from inmates every month, and we average 40 calls per week from a wide range of individuals seeking help. After so many calls asking for information about resources in the community – and after conducting so much research on providers and programs in various regions – we decided to create the state’s first comprehensive directory of resources for returning individuals.

It doesn't always take money to make a difference in a person’s life. Some people just need help finding information about housing, health services, employment, benefits and assistance, education, or community involvement. And so we provided that (full PDF version here) for them. Although compiling the guide took many months (and was outside our usual scope of research for juvenile and criminal justice policy recommendations), the effort was well worth it and the guide has been distributed far and wide via our website.

Since it’s quite a large document, we recently decided to break out the resources by region and offer individualized PDFs (below). These will help re-entry specialists – as well as community supervision officers, treatment providers, and other groups – provide tailored assistance to those in need:

These documents are also available on our website. We hope they can help Grits readers identify re-entry services in their community, or use them to refer people they know to organizations who can help.

If any of you know of any additional resources you think we should include, please let us know! We will try to update the resources every six months.

Thanks, until we post again…

Monday, August 23, 2010

I'm Outta Here: Guest bloggers hold down fort while Grits takes a holiday

On the road again,
Going places that I've never been,
Seeing things that I may never see again,
I can't wait to get on the road again.

- Willie Nelson
I'm headed out of town for a long-awaited vacation this afternoon, and will be away from the blog until mid-September. The missus and I are headed on a European junket - to London, Berlin, and Barcelona - and also visiting my wife's best friend from college, who married a German forest ranger and lives in a national park outside of Hamburg.

I've invited Ana Yañez Correa, Jeff Blackburn, and a couple of other folks who haven't confirmed yet to guest blog in my absence. Be kind to them! They're doing all of us a favor providing content while I'm away, so please try to keep the comments constructive and hold off on abusive trolling until I return.

In the meantime, here are several blogs I read regularly on topics related to Grits' purview:
So long until mid-September, and thanks for reading.

On the link (or lack thereof) between solving murders and reducing their number

An article in the Houston Chronicle today laments the declining clearance rate for homicides, which in many jurisdictions are below 50%. Reports Yang Wang (no really, that's the reporter's name):
Some Houston-area communities are among 120 cities and counties across the state where 63 percent of murders or fewer are solved — falling short of the national average — according to a Houston Chronicle analysis of the FBI Uniform Crime Reporting database. The findings are based on cases reported by local agencies from 2004 through 2009.

For some communities, the problem is sheer volume: Too many murders, too many culprits and too many places to hide in a massive metropolis of nearly 6 million people.

For others, a lack of manpower, forensic crime labs and simple clues reduce the odds of finding a killer. The city of Galveston, for example, had just 32 murders between 2004 and 2009, but solved only 17.

San Antonio's Bexar County Sheriff's Office cleared just 39 percent of its homicides, Waco 56 percent and Odessa 52 percent, based on numbers the police agencies provided to the FBI.

But while murder clearance rates in some cities lag behind the national average, nearly 70 percent of the slayings in Houston get solved. In fact Houston, considering its size, is on par or better than most cities of its size.

But how much is enough? A 70 percent success rate still leaves 30 percent without answers. And the numbers provide little comfort to the families of victims across the region where 850 deaths have yet to result in arrests.

Even with its greater ability to solve these violent crimes, the Houston Police Department still had 550 unsolved murders; Harris County had about 170. At the same time, both agencies reported more than 1,609 homicides with suspects identified.
It's a strange conundrum that homicide clearance rates are declining nationally at a time when the numbers of murders are also going down. That means that the efforts of police and prisons - catching killers and taking them off the street - likely isn't the reason for the declining number of murders, though that's the traditional cause-and-effect paradigm that's portrayed in the media. Instead the reasons for declining murder rates are more demographic, economic and cultural than they are a result of improved police work.

But what is the reason for declining clearance rates? My theory is that society has come to use police too frequently to address social problems like alcoholism, drug abuse, child support, truancy, etc., or for revenue enhancement in the case of writing traffic tickets, instead of focusing on traditional crimes with actual victims. (Clearance rates for burglary are much, much lower even than for murder.)

It's simple, really: If all your cops are writing tickets, combing the streets for DWIs, busting penny ante drug users, chasing down truants, compiling photographic catalogs of graffiti, etc., those same cops aren't spending their time helping solve homicides. And Texas voters' anti-taxation sentiments mean local governments couldn't hire enough police to perform all these tasks, even if they wanted to do so. So the stuff that generates revenue (like writing traffic tickets) or that lends itself to political demagoguery (like graffiti and DWI enforcement ) gets prioritized over catching killers or burglars.

What do readers think explains declining homicide clearance rates? And if homicides are declining at the same time police are solving a lesser percentage of murders, what do you think accounts for the overall decline in recent years of homicides nationwide?

Justice can't be quantified through conviction rates

In Dallas, District Attorney candidates are debating the proper method for calculating "conviction rates," but personally I agree with Harris County DA Pat Lykos who told the Dallas News:  "she doesn't even calculate the rates. 'We seek justice,' Lykos said. "Justice cannot be quantified in terms of wins and losses or batting averages.'"

A Song for You: Roundup

Here are several items I've been meaning to mention before I leave town, compiled in a song-title themed roundup:

Sympathy for the Devil
Just because he's a drunken, lecherous asshole, says one of his former clerks, doesn't mean defrocked federal Judge Samuel Kent should be mistreated in prison.

Self Inflicted
Weird, tumultuous news from Dallas DA Craig Watkins recently: The Dallas DA's office inexplicably opposes a GPS-based alternative sentencing program for low level offenders which has saved the county hundreds of thousands of dollars. Meanwhile, an appellate court said that county commissioners did indeed have the authority to hire their own legal counsel instead of using the DA's office for legal advice on civil matters, a move which subtly but significantly reduced the power of his office and opened the door for larger budget cuts which he's been adamantly fighting. Meanwhile, writes Tom McGregor at DallasBlog, "Watkins claims he’s “getting smart on crime,” but he’s not getting smart on paying his bills, which includes a monthly mortgage payment, his law license dues to the State Bar of Texas, advertising payments to the Southwestern Bell Yellow Pages, and income taxes." If his Republican opponent were running a stronger campaign, Watkins might be in trouble in the general election from all these self-inflicted wounds.

The Waiting is the Hardest Part
A shortage of state hospital beds is creating a backlog of mentally ill offenders in county jails awaiting competency restoration, as demonstrated in this compelling case study from Tanya Eiserer at the Dallas News. "The waiting time isn't likely to improve, as state officials have tentatively proposed cutting funding for state mental hospital beds by $44 million over two years."

Accentuate the Positive
In North Carolina, an audit found that everyone in the state's serology lab had been trained to leave out negative (i.e., exonerating) results from their forensic reports.

Valjean's Soliloquy (What Have I Done?)
A California appellate court compared a defendant sentenced under the state's three-strikes law to Jean Valjean, who in Victor Hugo's Les Miserables was sentenced to 19 years hard labor for stealing bread. Opines the LA Times, "L.A. County Dist. Atty. Steve Cooley, the Republican candidate for state attorney general, has opted to avoid pursuing third-strike convictions unless a suspect's third offense is serious or violent. That's an admirable stance but one that should be enshrined in state law, not left to the whim of individual county prosecutors." They add that the "central message of 'Les Miserables' still holds true for modern-day policymakers, prisoners and voters: Unjust laws demean those who make them more than those convicted under them."

Sunday, August 22, 2010

The Texas Forensic Science Seminar

The Texas Court of Criminal Appeals' Criminal Justice Integrity Unit is jointly sponsoring a conference/CLE event October 7-8 titled the "Texas Forensic Science Seminar" in the auditorium at the capitol in Austin. See their promotional flyer here (pdf). It looks like a substantive discussion, particularly the second day, so I signed up to attend the free event.

An interesting note, fwiw: Former Forensic Science Commission Chairman Sam Bassett is listed among the faculty, while current FSC Chair John Bradley apparently wasn't invited to present.

Topics covered include arson, digital media, trace evidence, firearms and toolmarks, DNA evidence and statistics, latent print evidence, toxicology, eyewitness identification and false confessions. There will also be discussions of the National Academy of Sciences report on forensic science, application of the scientific method to forensic fields, and the admissibility of forensic science testimony in Texas courts.

Saturday, August 21, 2010

Promoting blog coverage of Harris judicial races

I don't usually openly shill for advertisers in blog posts but David Jennings of Big Jolly Politics purchased an ad in Grits' sidebar for the next few months promoting a series of Q&As he and Charles Kuffner are doing with Republican and Democratic judicial candidates respectively who will be on Harris County ballots. I've mentioned this two-man project before and really think it represents the best of what the blogosphere can be - collaboration by folks who likely disagree on a lot of particular issues to fill a niche that's under-reported by the mainstream media, providing a true public service by compiling information that's generally not available anywhere else. For the most part these down-ballot races are ignored, particularly in a town as large as Houston, so I'm glad to see them doing it and also that David is promoting it widely.

Invited murals as graffiti prophylactic

In Fort Worth, police are referring graffiti victims to an "urban art academy" whose students, who include some ex-taggers, paint murals as a prophylactic against unwanted tagging, reports the Fort Worth Star-Telegram ("Fort Worth group finds creative way to fight graffiti," Aug. 20):
Craig McClintock, director of Operation Stitches, said the nonprofit group had just moved into the small warehouse at Calvary Cathedral International church's complex when graffiti appeared in the spring.

Since the warehouse faces Interstate 35W near the Yucca Avenue/Northside Drive exit, he joked with police that he should leave a sketch of what artwork he wanted on the building so the taggers could do it when they returned.

That's when police connected him with the Fort Worth Urban Art Academy, a group of art teachers and students who have done murals for businesses plagued by graffiti.

"Instead of getting all mad and frustrated about what these taggers were doing, it was an opportunity for us," McClintock said. "Good things are happening where we can reach out to give these kids an avenue to express themselves."

The art academy is made up of students from Carter-Riverside, Diamond Hill-Jarvis and North Side high schools. The mural efforts are part of the academy's W.A.L. project, short for We Are Legal.

Carter-Riverside art teacher Mary Boswell said some students involved have done graffiti in the past and had to sign an oath to no longer deface property. The students have learned that there are legal ways to do their art, she said.

"This gives the students some ownership of their artwork and a sense of pride," she said.

Boswell said the murals help prevent graffiti problems because taggers respect the artwork.

A south Fort Worth convenience store tagged by dueling gangs hasn't had such graffiti since the student mural went up last summer, Boswell said.
RELATED: Texas program aims to use art to prevent graffiti

'Mineola Swingers Club': Emotion guides decisions when probative evidence excluded from jurors

At Texas Monthly, Michael Hall is continuing his excellent coverage of the so-called Mineola Swingers Club cases with a description of the most recent trial and conviction of another of the adults alleged to have sexually molested kids. The Fourteenth Court of Appeals in Houston recently threw out the two earlier convictions , reports Hall:
On June 17 the Fourteenth Court of Appeals, in Houston, overturned the convictions of Kelly and Jamie Pittman. Kelly, the judges said, deserved a new trial because he hadn’t been allowed to present a defense and because Judge Skeen had “adopted ad hoc evidentiary rules that operated to assist the state in proving its case, while impeding appellant’s ability to defend himself.” (Jamie Pittman’s conviction was overturned on different grounds; Mayo’s was upheld, likely because her appellate lawyer cited none of the evidentiary issues that Kelly’s lawyers had raised.)

The ruling was no surprise to local defense lawyers. Skeen is a legend in Smith County. He was the law-and-order DA there for 21 years, then was appointed judge in 2003; he’s been reelected twice. He also has a reputation for helping the state and hindering the defense. “He never stopped being the DA,” Kelly’s attorney, Thad Davidson, told me the day after the appellate decision was announced. “He just put on a robe.”
Hall reports that Skeen made essentially the same types of rulings in this case for which he was recently benchslapped by the appellate court, continuing to exclude obviously probative evidence:
Skeen struck another huge blow to the defense when he allowed Margie—the foster mother of three of the children, the interviewer of four of them, the person whose passion had driven the cases for more than five years—to invoke her right to refuse to testify on the grounds that she might incriminate herself, even though she had already testified in the first two trials. Cassel was able to question her but only after the jury had left the courtroom. The lawyer asked Margie more than 130 questions in thirty minutes. He asked her about the California decertification, about her habit of suggesting answers to the children, about her former career as an acting coach (“And you know how to teach [children] to remember lines?”). To each question, Margie answered, “I decline to answer based on my constitutional rights.” She slumped in her chair, staring down or into the middle distance, occasionally rolling her eyes and sighing loudly.

Skeen had forced Cassel to jettison much of the case he had planned to put before the jury. When Margie was finished, the defense rested.
That's straight-up sleazy, biased judging. The courtroom should be a place to doggedly seek the truth and Skeen's doing his best to distort and skew it from the bench.

Hall described how, even though much of the defense was excluded by the judge, major logical and factual holes were still poked in the case by the defense. His story closes:
After four decisive guilty verdicts, it’s likely that the next trial will have the same result, largely because it will be overseen by the same judge. “Due process demands that the defense gets to put on a case,” longtime Tyler defense attorney Bobby Mims told me. “Cassel was prevented by Skeen from doing that. Don’t get me wrong. Jack Skeen is a great guy. I love him. He’s one of my best friends. But he’s been a terrible judge on these cases.”

Mims went into his own soliloquy on the jury system. “Cassel proved that what these children say happened could not have happened. They were never in that swingers club. The problem is that juries don’t always make decisions based on logic. In this type of case they make them on their hearts or on fear. That’s a hazard of the jury system. Still, they should have all the evidence. If they then decide the defendant’s guilty, that’s fine.”

He paused. “But in these cases I don’t think they would have. I believe these people are innocent.”
I'd like to believe, as Mims said, that the jury would have concluded differently if the judge had allowed them to hear all the evidence, but you have to wonder. Attorney Paul Kennedy recently wrote about how "going for the gut" when addressing jurors often serves attorneys better than facts or logic. He mentions the work of "Dr. Jonathan Haidt, a psychologist at the University of Virginia, [who] proposes that what we pass off as moral judgments are really the result of "moral emotions" such as disgust, anger and compassion," which he argues stem from evolutionary reactions based on diet more than a well-thought out belief system. Kennedy considers the stunning (if somewhat humorous) implications of the hypothesis: "What if the development of that moral code had more to do with the evolution of our digestive tract?" (Mark Bennett followed up with a post fleshing out the implications of this line of thought.)

If one's "moral judgment" is really an emotionally based decision rooted in "disgust," then accusations of child molestation are situations where it's easy for prosecutors to invoke that reaction in jurors. So if it's really the case that emotion trumps facts among jurors - especially when the most probative facts are excluded, as in Judge Skeen's court - it's not surprising, if a little depressing, that emotion ruled the day.

Friday, August 20, 2010

'Rewarding Results: Measuring and Incentivizing Performance in Corrections'

Marc Levin from the Texas Public Policy Foundation has a new report out titled "Rewarding Results: Measuring and Incentivizing Performance in Corrections" (pdf, August 2010). Here's an excerpt from the executive summary:
In corrections, there is a strong public interest in producing the greatest reduction in crime—particularly the most serious crimes—for every dollar spent. Conversely, the criminal justice system should cost-effectively maximize positive outcomes such as victim restitution, victim satisfaction, and the employment of offenders as productive citizens.

It is often said that, if you don’t measure something, you won’t affect it. Similarly, if one incentivizes certain results, it may increase the odds of achieving those outcomes. Indeed, the two principles are linked—measuring performance is a prerequisite for developing a system of incentives, since there must be an ongoing, reliable means of determining whether the desired outcomes are being

Just like retirees monitoring their investment portfolio, taxpayers deserve to know whether the system they are funding is achieving the intended results to the greatest degree possible with each dollar spent. Unfortunately, corrections systems have historically lacked clear, outcome-oriented performance measures.

Instead, they have tended to insufficiently measure performance or employ measures based on volume, such as how many offenders are convicted or incarcerated. This conflicts with the overriding public policy objective, which is not more criminals and a larger criminal justice system, but lower crime and lower costs. Longer sentences and more prisons may yield a smaller gain in public safety for each dollar spent when compared with a greater emphasis on strategies that prevent crime, reduce recidivism, and use the least restrictive and least costly sanction for an offender that is necessary to protect public safety.

As budgets tighten, it is particularly important to strengthen performance measures and reward results, ensuring taxpayers are kept safe and receive the greatest return on their investment. Means of accomplishing this in Texas include the following recommendations:

* Revise performance measures for adult and juvenile corrections agencies to deemphasize the current measures that focus on volume, such as the number of offenders incarcerated or in a program, and add measures that assess cost-benefit based on outcomes such as recidivism (re-offending), restitution, and the employment rate of ex-offenders.

* Change the adult probation funding formula so that it is based not solely on the number of individuals supervised, but also on outcomes such as recidivism, revocations to prison, and restitution collections, adjusted for the risk level of the caseload.

* Reduce current incentives for local communities to send nonviolent adult offenders into state lockups by implementing a version of the Commitment Reduction Program that was enacted in 2009 for Texas’ juvenile justice system. Develop a new approach to outsourcing and private correctional facilities that focuses not simply on funding the provider or program with the lowest cost, but on indicators of quality and benchmarks for outcomes such as recidivism.

Through these and other reforms that reward results, Texas can build on its recent progress in lowering crime and controlling cost.

Thursday, August 19, 2010

Because all the other big problems have been solved ...

Obama's Justice Department today indicted Texas baseball legend "Rocket" Roger Clemens for perjury related to alleged steroid use, reports USA Today. See the indictment (pdf). The allegations rest primarily on the word of a snitch who turned on Clemens to avoid prosecution himself.

This seems to me like a massive waste of time and resources and an extremely poor exercise of prosecutorial discretion. Making the situation appear even more hypocritical, as I pointed out before Clemens' ill-advised testimony to Congress, "We couldn't get Condi Rice to testify under oath about 9/11, and myriad Bush administration officials under the GOP Congress were allowed to appear before Congress without risk of perjury charges if they lied," but the feds are using Clemens' Congressional testimony as a perjury trap to go after baseball's all-time strikeout leader Clemens for no good reason I can identify. Hell, even Henry Waxman who chaired the hearing where Clemens allegedly committed perjury later said he regretted staging the event. The whole fiasco was a bad idea from the get-go and this indictment just makes matters worse.

Perjury is a crime that's prosecuted very selectively, with many obvious instances routinely overlooked by prosecutors. Federal prosecutors are going after Clemens because of his star power, not because he poses some terrific threat to the public, or for that matter to anyone but a batter on the receiving end of a beanball.

UPDATE: Tom Kirkendall rightly delcares that "These witch hunts, investigations, criminal indictments, morality plays and public shaming episodes are not advancing a dispassionate and reasoned debate regarding the complex issues that are at the heart of the use of PED's [Performance Enhancing Drugs] in baseball and other sports. On a very basic level, it is not even clear that the controlled use of PED's to enhance athletic performance is as dangerous to health as many of the sports in which the users compete."

DA indicted over handouts from asset forfeiture fund

Texas Watchdog reports that a grand jury in Jim Wells County convened by the Attorney General has indicted the former District Attorney on first degree felony charges related to alleged misuse of asset forfeiture money. Writes Mark Lisheron, "while the indictment says he misused more than $200,000, an audit done by his successor found that [Joe Frank] Garza had paid $1.2 million in drug seizure forfeitures to his three staff members and another $81,000 to himself between January of 2002 through the end of 2008." That's pretty darn brazen.

Jim Wells is a tiny county population-wise but apparently generates significant asset forfeiture income, undoubtedly because state Highway 281 runs through it from Brownsville on the way to San Antonio. Perhaps the Legislature can stop bickering over Voter ID long enough next session to update the statutes related to asset forfeiture funds to prevent some of the abuses we've witnessed from ever happening in the first place.

Viaje de Graffiti?

Beginning next week, I'm headed to Europe for a long-awaited vacation, spending time in London, Berlin, and Barcelona and leaving y'all in the able hands of several guest bloggers until mid-September. Intriguingly (though the missus might kill me), after I mentioned where we were headed recently in the comments, a reader suggested I make it a working trip. Via email, I'm informed, "Dude, if you're going to London, Berlin and Barcelona those are all graffiti meccas! Take your camera and watch for graff."

So I did a quick search on "London graffiti" and found this recent Huffington Post item titled "12 Awesome Graffiti Trips Around the World," and my destinations were numbers 1, 2, and 4 on the list.

I knew, of course, about the famous graffiti on what's left of the Berlin Wall. And when one thinks of London graffiti one thinks of Banksy and Ben Eine, whose work the Prime Minister recently gave Barack Obama as a gift of state. Huffington Post suggests Brick Lane in East London for a graffiti tour, while another recent article directs us to an "outdoor gallery" of graff at an old ballcourt. Banksy's work in particular is an odd conundrum: Illegal, it also makes whatever he paints on much more valuable.

I was most interested, though, in the description via Huffington Post of the Galeria Oberta in Barcelona:
Open 365 days a year, this “exhibition space on the street” aims to make graffiti accessible to everyone, by giving artists the perfect spot to showcase their creations on the long brick wall of the Parc de les Aigües. Dangerously hypnotizing for those driving past, this wall literally jumps out at you, causing you to gaze in amazement at the sheer talent of the artists. Whether you are for or against graffiti, you cannot deny that the 34 creations of the Galeria Oberta  are far more interesting to look at than bricks. The artists use stencils, spray cans and paint brushes, and explore contemporary issues with irony, one of the most appropriate being a line of businessmen pointing accusingly at each other with the word “crisis.” We can only wait on tenterhooks for the next painting day to take place, and to find out what Barcelona’s eager graffiti artists have in store. Anyone can reserve a space on the wall by simply filling out a form, but if you do, make sure you don’t graffiti outside the border! 
See more on Galeria Oberta from Oh Trip!, as well as this post discussing street art throughout Barcelona. I'm especially intrigued with the idea of periodically changing public mural space that can be reserved, as I've suggested a more generalized version of that approach - connecting property owners and mural painters online for permission work - on this blog in the past. We'll see if I can resist the temptation to take a graff-related sidetrip or two while I'm abroad.

  • Not in London, but the "Pretty Vacant" program in Newcastle strikes me as a constructive collaboration between graff writers and the community. With permission, they're painting windows of boarded up businesses on the grounds that "shops left empty give visitors a 'bad impression of the area' but by making these vacant spaces look vibrant, local entrepreneurs will be encouraged to rent the premises."
  • Here in the states, Harry Jaffe discusses a D.C. program called "Keep Art in Schools" that lets kids hone their graffiti skills in a summer youth program but channels them into constructive, marketable endeavors. The title of the program reminds me that the rise of graffiti in the last decade in Texas has coincided with a decline in school arts programs as schools focused more on preparing kids for standardized tests. The result: in kids doing less art in school and more in the streets. That's a correlation, at this point, not proven causation, but it's a relationship that bears consideration.

If they wanted to, parole board could cut TDCJ spending easier than legislators

Far and away the biggest cost to Texas taxpayers from illegal immigrants - nearly double the amount spent on health and human services - is $171 million per year spent to house people in Texas state prisons who are eligible for deportation, the House State Affairs Committee was told yesterday. Reports Julian Aguilar at the Texas Tribune:
As of last July 2010, about 11,760 of the offenders incarcerated in the Texas State prison system, or 7.5 percent of the total prison population, claimed foreign residency, according to testimony from Jerry McGinty, the budget director for the Texas Department of Criminal Justice.
Through current agreements with the federal government, specifically Immigration and Customs Enforcement, or ICE, the state can identify prisoners eligible for deportation at the end of their sentences. Roughly 9,800 of the foreigners incarcerated had ICE detainers placed on them. Though not all entered the country illegally, McGinty estimated that the state pays at least $171 million annually to detain prisoners who could be deported. The remaining inmates with foreigner status, McGinty said, are currently being processed to determine if they, too, qualify for deportation.

A competitive federal grant program known as the Criminal Alien Assistance Program partially reimburses state governments for those costs. For Texas, however, that hardly settles the score. The Texas Department of Criminal Justice received $17.9 million in fiscal year 2010 — just 10 percent of the costs of incarceration.
Since about 56% of Texas prison inmates are eligible for parole, according to TDCJ's most recent statistical report (pdf, p. 15), there's a good chance that many of those eligible for deportation have also finished their minimum sentence. In those instances, particularly when the risk factors for recidivism are minimal, exactly what is the parole board waiting for?

In case you're keeping track, Texas is spending $171 million to house offenders eligible for deportation, and another $320 million on medical care alone for frail elderly prisoners. At a recent House Corrections Committee meeting, the chairman revealed that "40% of TDCJ's $800 million healthcare budget was going to pay to care for frail, elderly inmates" at a time when the number of medical paroles is declining. Add to that the fact that the parole board is less likely to follow its own release guidelines for low-risk inmates compared to high-risk ones, and the parole board is at the center of a lot of TDCJ's overspending problems.

Not all of those inmates should be released, but if inmates in these categories were evaluated based on less fearful, more evidence-based risk-assessment criteria, the state could save hundreds of millions and likely close multiple prison units just from focusing on how to safely release those prisoners. In the case of medical releases, likely either Medicare or Medicaid will pay the bills on the outside, with state government picking up none of the costs for the former and a little more than 1/3 of the latter. So it shifts costs, but from a state government perspective, in the context of current rules and programs, it makes tons of budget sense sense to offload healthcare costs to the feds.

These are policy decisions so they weren't suggested by TDCJ in its recent Legislative Appropriations Request. But for those at the capitol and the Governor's office seriously considering how to cut unnecessary state spending, there'd be a lot of benefit from somehow requiring the parole board to more closely vet such release candidates based on less restrictive criteria. The parole board could do more to cut the state corrections budget - especially if the state ups its investment in reentry, community supervision and intermediate sanctions - than any legislative committee will likely be able to accomplish without their assistance.

Wednesday, August 18, 2010

Mid-Week Linkfest

These items caught my eye this week but since I don't have time to blog about each of them, I'll just share the links for anyone interested:

Jail main driver of higher taxes, budget stress in Dallas County

If it weren't for its massive, jam-packed jail, Dallas County wouldn't have raised taxes in recent years and wouldn't be making deep budget cuts now.

According to Commissioner John Wiley Price, Dallas County "has only raised the tax rate in recent years to pay for jail improvements required by state and federal authorities." This week a sharply divided commissioners court declined to raise taxes, which will likely require slashing budgets of local criminal justice agencies. Reports the Dallas News, "The court can't say it supports public safety and still make deep budget cuts, Price said, because about 80 percent of the county budget involves the local criminal justice system." Further, "The bitter debate also turned to the district attorney's office, which [some commissioners] accused of deliberately slowing down cases as punishment for having been subjected to budget cuts."

Setting aside the longstanding personality conflicts that exacerbate Dallas' budget woes, the county's example provides a lesson. Bottom line, those concerned about tax burdens at the county level must concern themselves with reining in runaway costs in the criminal justice system. There comes a moment where you can't both be for "no new taxes" and also advocate a "lock 'em up" mentality. The cognitive dissonance becomes too much to bear and those who tout lower taxes must ultimately choose among their priorities. At least at the local government level, we've seemingly, finally reached that tipping point during the current recession, certainly in Dallas.

Charting new paths to reduce DWI

The Dallas News yesterday completed its series (discussed earlier here) on drunk driving deaths with a discussion of possible legislative actions to address the problem, declaring that
lawmakers are scrambling over what other steps to take:

•The old path: Pass stricter laws to keep drunken drivers off the streets. Critics say they haven't been effective enough in lowering the death toll.

•The new path: Loosen financial penalties for some drunken drivers. Prosecutors say the fines are so burdensome that many choose time behind bars rather than probation, which gives more access to treatment.

•The forgotten path: Lawmakers, attorneys and judges say substance abuse treatment is the best way to ensure drivers don't reoffend. But because of tight budgets, there's little chance the Legislature will increase such programs for those incarcerated for DWI offenses.

In the past, "doing something" about drunken driving mostly meant imposing more prison time and higher fines. But Texas still leads the nation in alcohol-related fatalities with 1,269 in 2008, the latest year for complete data.

Legislators will reconvene in January, and several ideas already have been bandied about, from sobriety checkpoints to requiring more use of restrictive car devices.
State Sen. Jane Nelson is proposing permanent license suspensions for drunk drivers on the second offense, seemingly ignoring testimony by Texas judges at recent legislative hearing arguing that threat of license suspensions do not increase compliance with the law. MADD is pushing sobriety checkpoints and mandatory ignition interlocks for first-time offenders. (I support making interlocks mandatory on the second offense, but 80% of first time DWIs don't recidivate, the Senate Criminal Justice Committee was told last month, and in that context interlocks aren't worth the bang for the buck on first timers and dilute focus on supervising more dangerous repeaters.)

Indeed, it would be foolish to spend vastly more resources on first offenders when Texas isn't putting enough resources into repeat offenders. The News reported that "Among the 5,159 DWI offenders with three or more DWI convictions released last year, more than half did not receive treatment in prison." Funding in-prison treatment for those with three or more DWIs to me should be a bigger priority that maximizing strict supervision of first offenders, most of whom won't recidivate anyway.

Yesterday's story also finally addressed the problem of drunk drivers choosing incarceration instead of probation because ever-tougher laws have made it untenable for average people. "Roger Bridgwater, assistant district attorney in Harris County, is alarmed by the number of drivers who choose a DWI conviction rather than probation. Ten years ago, 45 percent of drunken drivers in that county chose probation. By 2009, that dropped to 23 percent." (Then they wonder why Harris County's jail is always full.)

It's depressing to me that the political class, including the media, so exclusively focuses on criminal justice solutions to social problems like alcoholism, drug abuse, family violence, etc.. Nowhere is there a discussion of whether expanded public transport might reduce DWIs, or other structural solutions that don't rely exclusively on police and jails. Other than to disingenuously use them as a foil to imply more jail sentences should be handed out, the issue of public education and advertising wasn't even addressed in any depth. As the News says, "doing something" about DWI for legislators usually means "imposing more prison time and higher fines," even when practitioners say tougher approaches are counterproductive. And unfortunately most media coverage on the subject isn't much better about thinking outside the box on this hot-button issue.