Saturday, January 01, 2011

Top Texas Criminal Justice Stories of 2010

It's difficult to designate a group of "top" Texas criminal justice stories for 2010, in what overall felt like a transitional year. Cities, counties and the state began for the first time to recognize the magnitude of the fiscal crisis facing government budgets at all levels. If budgets dip with tax revenues for a sustained period, the system will be forced to re-assess priorities at all levels in a way that decision makers now are only vaguely beginning to consider. In the meantime, the biggest criminal justice stories I see on from the past year were:
  1. Todd Willingham, the Texas Forensic Science Commission and Charlie Baird's Last Hurrah: An appellate court shut down Judge Charlie Baird's court of inquiry in the Todd Willingham case and Chairman John Bradley successfully delayed consideration of flawed science in Willingham's case by the Forensic Science Commission until after the election. Regrettably, so far honest discussions of flaws in old arson science have been shouted down by culture war debates over the death penalty.
  2. GOP Election Sweep: The elections were a mixed bag on criminal justice topics. Texas Congressman Lamar Smith's ascension to chair of the US House Judiciary Committee may be the biggest criminal justice news out of the cycle. Nothing changed statewide. The ouster of House Corrections Chair Jim McReynolds was a loss for reform-minded folk, but most people think he'll be replaced by Jerry Madden, who is author of numerous recent, widely praised probation and parole reforms. Many other Dems who left were reliable filers of multiple enhancement bills each session and/or firmly in thrall to their local law enforcement unions and other special interests. Replacing them with budget cutters may not necessarily be a bad thing, particularly given the nascent Right on Crime initiative authored by  movement conservatives at the Texas Public Policy Foundation. While I'm sure the folks at TARAL are freaked out, for criminal justice reform this development may not be a bad thing. The repeal of red-light cameras in Houston was also a big deal.
  3. The Exonerations of Anthony Graves, Stephen Brodie and Michael Green. Graves was convicted thanks to prosecutorial misconduct and exonerated thanks to doggedness and hustle by students and innocence project lawyers. (Pam Colloff's story on Graves in Texas Monthly was perhaps the state's journalistic event of the year.)  Brodie was a deaf man who gave a false confession after interrogations that frequently included no interpreters. Green's false conviction hinged on flawed eyewitness testimony, and his exoneration resulted in large part from work by Harris County DA Pat Lykos' post-conviction review unit.
  4. Sharon Keller's Expensive Acquittal: Without addressing the merits of the findings of fact against her, a three-judge panel appointed by the Texas Supreme Court ruled the state Commission on Judicial Conduct was unlawfully lenient in punishing the presiding judge of the state's highest criminal court, giving her a "warning" when the minimum allowable sanction under the state constitution was "censure." They denied the commission an opportunity for resentencing. Meanwhile, she had to pay one of the top lawyers in the state out of her own pocket and was fined $100,000 for erroneous filings with the Ethics Commission - the largest fine ever given by the agency. Much more important than this circus will be coming decisions by Gov. Rick Perry who to appoint to replace two moderates on the court - Judges Charles Holcomb has already surpassed the maximum age limit and Judge Cathy Cochran is approaching it. Perry chooses their successors.
  5. Amnesty, Indigence programs created for Driver Responsibility surcharge: I'm biased, since this blog (along with Amanda Marzullo and the good folks at the Texas Fair Defense Project) helped initiate the rulemaking process with a formal citizen's petition in 2009, but to me the creation of Amnesty and Indigence programs for the Driver Responsibility surcharge - particularly given that 1.9 million drivers have lost their licenses, 1.2 million of which haven't been reinstated - is big news for many drivers who've become entangled in the justice system's financial tentacles. Kudos to Perry's five Public Safety Commission appointees, who took the bull by the horns and forced staff to include an Amnesty program when they balked over budget concerns and presented rules without one. Legislation has been filed to abolish the surcharge.
  6. Creation of a Harris County Public Defender Office: Harris County includes the nation's 4th largest city and more people than 20+ US states, so the creation of a public defender office there marks a major expansion in the number of indigent defendants with access to public defender services. The agency was created in part in hopes of moving defendants through the process more quickly to help with the county's ongoing jail overcrowding problem. Also notable was expansion of the capital public defender office in West Texas.
  7. Prison healthcare up in the air: Facing $61 million in unpaid bills and an aging, more expensive prison population, the UT Medical Branch at Galveston has fired unit medical staff and wants to get out of the contract altogether. Whether the Legislature will let them and what happens then are major subjects to be resolved in the 82nd session.
  8. Rethinking Forensics: The Court of Criminal Appeals overturned a conviction based on unproven dog-scent lineup techniques, and DNA proved hair evidence used to convict an executed offender really belonged to someone else. Meanwhile, the CCA's Criminal Justice Integrity Unit held a statewide seminar on ways to improve forensic science, signaling the court's increasing openness to rethinking forensic evidence in the wake of questions raised in 2009 by the National Academy of Sciences.
  9. Crime, Arrests Down, Incarceration Steady: What can you say? The decade-long decline in crime, particularly violent crimes, continues at a remarkable pace in most Texas jurisdictions, both for juveniles and adults. Even so, the overall incarceration rate remains high as a result of laws and policies in place since the '90s: About one in 22 adults in Texas are in prison, in jail, on probation or on parole.
  10. Calm Before the Budget Storm: TDCJ continues to pretend it can absorb massive budget cuts solely through layoffs without closing any prison units, while at TYC they've acquiesced to the inevitability of unit closures. Instead TDCJ wants to cut prison staff and diversion programming that the LBB says is responsible for curbing prison growth. For my new year's prediction, I think TDCJ's failure of leadership regarding designating budget cuts won't prevent nine-figure budget reductions or prison closures, it will just mean the Legislature will make those decisions for them, and almost certainly not in the way the agency would prefer.
What'd I miss that should have been included? What's on the list that's not really a big deal? Let me know what you think were the biggest 2010 stories in the comments, and what you foresee as the most important developments to come in 2011.

RELATED: Doug Berman at Sentencing Law & Policy considers the top ten sentencing stories from a federal perspective.


Anonymous said...

For me one story that should of made the list was the NISD school police officer shooting and killing a 13yr old in San Antonio.

Anonymous said...

Another story should have made the list was the TYC child sexual molestation at the "West Texas State School". It would have been interesting to understand how it was allowed to happen and to still drag out.

Gritsforbreakfast said...

Good point, 11:16.

12:08, I hadn't followed that one before you mentioned it, but looking at a few initial items found on Google, it looks like an ugly case. That's the kind of incident, btw, where the 1996 Holmes v. Morales cases discussed in this post closes all the records because, since the kid's dead, nobody will ever be prosecuted.

Now that y'all mention it, the whole Mineola Swinger's Club fiasco in East Texas probably at least deserved an Honorable Mention.

Clinton A. Morgan said...

If the Texas Tribune is to be believed regarding Judge Cochran's birthday, she could serve her full term without exceeding the age limit:

Do you have conflicting information regarding her age?

Gritsforbreakfast said...

Dammit, I can't believe I forgot to include Billy Joe Shaver's acquittal!

And Apollo, no I don't, I was just told she'd be the next to age out. I've no reason at all to doubt the Trib.