Friday, August 31, 2012

Calculating the economic impact of mass deportation

The Center for American Progress, reported the Texas Tribune, has issued a report on a theme Grits has frequently harped on: The economic absurdity of calls for mass deportation of undocumented immigrants. According to the CAP analysis, "if as few as 15 percent of Texans living in the state illegally were removed at once, it would mean an annual $11.7 billion loss for Texas’ gross state product, increasing to more than $77 billion if all 1.65 million estimated illegal immigrants were removed from the state." Further, "The study also estimates that removing the illegal immigrants would result in a loss of about $14.5 billion in annual tax revenue for the state, about 7.6 percent of the total tax revenue."

Thank heavens somebody crunched those numbers. As Grits wrote back in April, "other common words for immigrants, unauthorized or not, are 'customers,' 'employees,' even 'small business owners,' and for the most part the Texas business community, at least, believes we need more of all of those. Imagine the economic impact if tomorrow all the nativists' fantasies were fulfilled and Texas suddenly had 1.6 million fewer consumers." Now we don't have to imagine: The Center for American Progress has calculated it. See an infographic giving more Texas-specific data below the jump.

Assets from scam trooper charity placed in receivership

The Texas Highway Patrol Association - a scam charity bilking donors by supposedly raising funds for the families of state troopers who died in the line of duty - has been basically wiped off the face of the planet in the wake of a settlement with the Texas Attorney General, we learn from a report at Texas Watchdog. Their assets have been placed in receivership and, according to the AG: "Under the settlement, donations that the defendants falsely solicited for the benefit of fallen troopers’ survivors will be distributed to the victims’ families."

I'd like to imagine that this blog played a small role in drawing attention to this scandal. Regular readers may recall that, just more than a year ago, Grits published a post titled "Of buzzards, road kill, charity scams and the Texas Highway Patrol Association," reacting to a solicitation call where the THPA misrepresented themselves as raising money for the "Texas Highway Patrol." That post received quite a bit of attention and led to an excellent investigative feature by the San Antonio Express-News, shining a lot more light on the subject. Then, in December of last year, the Attorney General "charged the defendants with illegally soliciting charitable donations, falsely claiming that donations to the organizations would benefit the survivors of fallen state troopers, and breaching their fiduciary duties as trustees of a charitable organization." (See the final judgment.) According to the AG:
The State’s enforcement action named the THPM, the Texas Highway Patrol Association (THPA), THPA Services, Inc. and several senior officials as defendants. Court documents filed by the State show that the defendants claimed to provide death benefits to slain law officers’ families and fund scholarships for state troopers’ family members. However, state investigators found that few survivors actually received any financial assistance, and many of the purported scholarship funds were awarded to children of THPM’s board members.

After the State filed its enforcement action, the court approved a receiver to take possession of the defendants’ assets and real property. Under the agreement, the defendants’ property will be liquidated and the proceeds will be allocated to surviving family members who never received the $10,000 benefit they were promised. Remaining proceeds will be donated to the Texas Department of Public Safety Foundation and the Department of Public Safety Historical Museum and Research Foundation, which will use these funds to fulfill donors’ original intent. The settlement also imposes civil penalties of more than $2 million.

The settlement also prohibits the individual defendants – Kenneth Lane Denton, Timothy Tierney and Steven Jenkins – from any future involvement with non-profit or for-profit organizations related to law enforcement. Defendant Ruben Villalva Jr. and other former board members were also ordered to comply with similar restrictions.
I'm glad to see this, but there are quite a few other organizations engaged in similar fundraising schemes, though perhaps not all as brazenly as THPA. A common denominator among the groups, though, are phone solicitation programs where the majority of money raised goes into fundraising instead of program-related work. We know that because they're required to register and report their fundraising to the Texas Attorney General.

For instance, a Florida-based group called the American Association of State Troopers (with the dba name of "Texas Trooper Members") raised $3,849,403, spending $3,244,673 on phone solicitation in FY 2010, according to their required filing with the AG. Their phone solicitor is a company called Xentel, Inc...

Similarly, according to group's FY 2010 filing (pdf) with the AG, the Texas State Troopers Association that year raised $3,453,785, spending $2.7 million of that on paying an Irving-based phone solicitor called "Statewide Appeal."

The Texas State Lodge, Fraternal Order of Police in 2010 raised $421,264, spending $328,924 on phone solicitations, according to their 2011 filing, using phone solicitors Southwest Public Relations and a group out of Utah ironically named "Corporation for Character."

In 2009, the Texas Police Chiefs Association raised $399,580 in contributions, paying $290,249 to phone solicitor Xentel and another based in Houston called "Public Safety Services," according to their filing for that year (2010 data isn't available online).

Also in 2009, a group called the "Coalition of Police and Sheriffs" (COPS) based in Katy Texas (see their filing) raised $170,000 in contributions and spent $136,000 on phone solicitors at South-West Public Relations and PJR, Inc..

Each of these strike Grits as spending far too much of their public contributions on fundraising to qualify as legitimate charities. On First Amendment grounds, I doubt it's legally feasible for the Legislature to ban such solicitations. But I find the practice creepy and gross, and I'm glad the AG at least cracked down on THPA, which was perhaps the most flagrant of the lot. As Grits wrote last year, THPA's efforts were "as much about helping troopers as buzzards are about helping roadkill," and they're not the only ones profiteering off the public's understandable sympathy and support for law enforcement.

Austin PD undercover officer allegedly gave material support to 'Occupy' action resulting in felony charges

At Firedoglake, writer Kit O'Connell asks, "Why did undercover Austin Police Department Detective Shannon G. Dowell provide material support for an activist protest that resulted in them being charged with a felony in Houston?"

Sounds like a reasonable question to me.

Last December, wrote O'Connell, "seven activists from Austin, Dallas, and Houston blocked the main entrance into the port by laying in the road and linking arms inside lockboxes (also known as sleeping dragons), which physically linked them together so that police cut them apart. The use of these instruments resulted in these seven being charged with Unlawful Use of a Criminal Instrument or Device, while others who merely linked arms and legs faced lesser misdemeanor charges."

So where did the protesters get these "lockboxes"? An undercover Austin police detective, later identified in court as Shannon G. Dowell but known to the protesters as "Butch," allegedly "obtained the materials, constructed, then delivered the lockboxes to Austin activists before they left for Houston," wrote OConnell. "Funds for the lockboxes came from Occupy Austin’s general funds allocated to the trip by its assembly."

That's classic provocateur behavior. Without the "lockboxes" constructed by the detective, the activists would have only faced misdemeanor charges, but they wouldn't have had that capacity without "Butch's" help. Is it unreasonable to suspect that's why he did it?

Attorney Greg Gladden who's handling the case told O'Connell that "The behavior of Austin Police Department is shocking to my conscience. I believe it is shocking to the conscience of the court. and it is one of the worst ways I can think of for the government to be spending its money, our money. The case needs to be dismissed and the Austin Police Department needs to rethink its role in society."

Notably, local police across the country have partnered with the Department of Homeland Security in undercover operations aimed at "Occupy" protesters, sharing information through so-called "fusion centers."

To be clear, I think intentionally getting oneself arrested in an action like this is dumb as a bag of hair and another example of the Occupy movement's failures of leadership. It furthers no identifiable political goal and forces activist groups to redirect energy and resources from their policy agenda to legal defense. But that doesn't excuse police from using undercover operatives to promote felonious behavior that wouldn't occur without their involvement. It's one thing to use undercover operatives to identify and prosecute crime, but quite another to facilitate and promote it.

MORE: See coverage from the Austin Chronicle and a followup post from Firedoglake, citing testimony from Detective Dowell that he couldn't provide the court with emails related to the undercover operation because they'd been deleted, which if true may violate state record retention laws. Other records related to the case, Dowell told the court, he'd uploaded onto a thumb drive which he claimed to have lost between his hotel in Houston and the courthouse. Judge Joan Campbell was not amused and has threatened to dismiss the charges if Austin PD cannot provide the documents by next week.

McLennan County jail privatization scheme a slow-motion train wreck

In McLennan County, reported the Waco Herald-Tribune ("County okays new DAs post, cuts health care funding," Aug. 15), subsidies to a speculative, extra jail built through a public-private partnership spurred county commissioners to slash indigent healthcare funding to finance their ill-conceived jail-building boondoggle. The article  attributes the costs to "jail overcrowding" but in truth the county has plenty of empty jail beds. However, the county will:
spend at least $3 million next year on outside inmate housing because of jail overcrowding.

The cost of inmate care is a major driver of the proposed tax increase, which would raise the county’s property tax rate by 3 cents, to 49.43 cents per $100 valuation. Commissioners are looking for savings to help offset the cost.

Commissioners Joe Mashek and Kelly Snell on Monday proposed reducing the county’s annual contribution to the Family Health Center, which serves 50,000 low-income patients.
Funding for the health clinic was cut to 1999 levels, the paper reported. "Dropping below that level could jeopardize the center’s grant funding because the federal government wants to see evidence of local support, said Dr. Roland Goertz, the center’s executive director."

Despite aiming to stave off large budget hikes, which are mostly attributed to rising jail costs, commissioners approved a new prosecutor position hoping to move misdemeanor cases more quickly through the process:
Commissioners agreed to add a prosecutor with a maximum salary of $72,000, despite their focus on cutting spending to reduce a proposed 6.5 percent tax rate increase for the fiscal year starting Oct. 1.

District Attorney Abel Reyna sold the position as an effort to streamline case flow.

The prosecutor would be assigned to the office’s intake division, which now has two attorneys and two support staff members who screen felony cases. Reyna asked to add a third attorney to the division to screen and file misdemeanor cases, a job now handled by the office’s misdemeanor trial teams.
To understand what's going on requires some backstory: Long-time readers may recall that the McLennan Commissioners Court partnered with private prison operator Community Education Centers to build a speculative jail which was supposed bring in profit, but when contract inmates never materialized they closed their downtown jail and shifted all the inmates to the contract facility, an arrangement which was extended earlier this summer. The result has been nearly $3 million per year in extra costs, an outcome which was predictable as the sunrise, and in fact predicted on Grits. (See also a local Waco-based blogger recently blasting the arrangement as "corporate welfare.")

Bottom line, the county is slashing the healthcare budget and other county services and still must raise taxes and hire an extra prosecutor to mitigate the commissioners court's flawed decision to partner in a speculative jail building scheme. Grits wrote a couple of years ago that "watching this McLennan County private jail project has been like observing a train wreck in slow motion ... the outcome was so obvious but the engineer just kept plowing forward. " The "engineer," though, is exiting the train. The County Judge and Sheriff who got them into this mess are both retiring this year, just as the chickens are coming home to roost on this financial and managerial debacle. Convenient, that.

Thomas Paine said that time makes more converts than reason, and this episode provides a great example of that truth. It never made sense to build a third jail unit the county didn't need and couldn't afford. That's clear to everyone, now, but the realization came too late to do county taxpayers any good.

Thursday, August 30, 2012

Harris probation director resigns in wake of urinalysis errors that put innocents in jail

An outrageous scandal has engulfed the Harris County probation department and forced the ouster of its director.

Harris County probation director Paul Becker tendered his resignation, reported the Houston Chronicle ("Harris County's probation director resigns," August 29) in the wake of a hearing which concluded with State District Judge Denise Collins issuing a moratorium on using urinalysis results from the probation department in her court and calling for Becker and his three deputies to resign.

Moreover, "On Tuesday, the Harris County District Attorney's Office joined the judge in refusing to use any of the division's drug test results in the 36 other criminal courts until further notice because they have questions about the reliability." (Regular readers may recall that the Bexar County DA had to do the same thing back in 2009 when similar allegations arose there.)

KPRC-TV (Aug. 28) summed up the core allegation thusly: "The fallout comes after days of testimony showing a long list of problems, errors and mix-ups in the way the county's probation department tests probationers for illegal drugs. In some cases, positive drug tests were linked to the wrong people. Local 2 Investigates reported last week that at least one probationer went to jail in part because of an erroneous drug test result."

Further, "Probation department leaders admitted they never told prosecutors or even judges about the problems, even when they knew probationers with erroneous tests went to jail."

Judges now say they would have stopped requiring urinalysis in every case if they'd been told the probation department was overhelmed, reported KTRK-TV, though hindsight is always 20/20:
Judge Michael McSpadden says he wishes the Probation Department had told judges they were overwhelmed with the testing

"When you're overwhelmed, what you do is go to the judges is say don't make the requirements in every single case, we are overwhelmed. We never heard that," Judge McSpadden said.

Even with Tuesday's moratorium, the biggest problem for Judge Collins is that there is no way to tell how many probationers were wrongly sent to jail.

"And I don't think we have any idea, and we never will, how many people have been impacted by this. There's no way to measure it," said Judge Collins.
In truth, Grits doubts most Harris County judges would have stopped requiring urinalysis in every case without this kind of scandal to force their hand. Back in 2005, Grits reported based on a consultant's evaluation that Harris County had been told that "Urinalysis requirements in particular, while popular among prosecutors and judges, take up a huge amount of staff time and cause delays throughout the system." The consultant, Justice Management Institute, specifically recommended that "The courts should seek to develop cost-effective common policies concerning when drug testing should be ordered," but that never happened. So judges knew the department was overloaded by too many drug testing orders but willfully ignored the problem. That's not Mr. Becker's fault.

In some ways I feel sorry for Becker, who was in a damned if you do, damned if you don't situation. Probation departments are underfunded, relying mainly on probationer fees and a relatively small stipend from the state. Plus, in Harris they've been asked to provide urinalysis and supervision not just for people on probation but often for defendants out on bail pretrial. The system has grown so large and unwieldy that, to me, these types of errors are regrettable but unsurprising, not that that does wrongly jailed defendants any good. Mr. Becker may have fallen on his sword, but by no means are he and his staff the only ones to blame.

This episode also reminds us that people who've spent decades in prison on false rape or murder convictions before being freed by DNA aren't the only or even the most common category of innocent defendants jailed based on false accusations. These more workaday, low-level cases have just as much room for mistakes, but are also much more easily swept under the rug. Most defendants are indigent and can't afford to mount the type of full-court press that resulted in Judge Collins' findings this week. It's a great mitzvah that attorney Lisa Andrews did so on behalf of her client, but if defense attorneys in Harris County had been aggressively confronting false forensic evidence against their clients on an ongoing basis, maybe the problems would have been identified and rectified long ago.

RELATED: "Houston probationers did jail time based on faulty drug tests." SEE ALSO: Coverage from the ABA Journal, and a blog post from Paul Kennedy at The Defense Rests titled "Judge calls for heads in drug test fiasco." A Houston radio station quoted an attorney predicting civil litigation from wrongly incarcerated defendants.

AND MORE: The Houston Chronicle's Lisa Falkenberg has an interview with attorney Lisa Andrews.

Wednesday, August 29, 2012

San Antonio schools to track students with RFIDs in ID cards

As if turning your cell phone into a GPS tracker isn't bad enough, at North Side ISD in San Antonio they're doing the same thing with student ID cards. Via a new-to-me blog called Catfish for Lunch (named, flatteringly, as an homage to this site), I discovered the following notice:
School’s back in session, so we start this week’s roundup with Papers, Please!’s report that the San Antonio Public Schools Plan to Make Students Wear Radio Tracking Beacons.  The school district interested in using these ID chips is calling them Smart Student ID Cards.  If you’re wondering what to think about this, here is EPIC’s Position Paper on the Use of RFID in Schools.
The blog Papers, Please! reported that two NSISD schools have each:
installed an array of “100 or more” RFID readers so that students’ movements can be tracked whenever and wherever they are on school premises. ... To make sure students actually carry their RFID badges, they’ll have to use them for all purchases of school lunches as well as for mandatory attendance checks.
This is not just Big-Brotherish but stupid, as if kids won't readily carry around other students' ID cards so their friends can sneak away. Calling them "Smart Student ID Cards" is outright Orwellian. Just because schools choose to treat students like cattle doesn't mean they're as dumb as the average bovine. The school district says the two campuses in question were chosen for the pilot project because they "have a high rate of truancy and tardiness," but the RFID scheme won't assist at stopping those problems, but merely document them. And in cases where students carry each others' ID cards as a ruse, it may even mask them.

IMO, nobody benefits from this but the vendor.

Texas should ban warrantless GPS tracking

Most folks reading this blog surely own a cell-phone and most of those - certainly all the new "smart phones" - include a GPS locator. So tell me: When you purchased that device, did you intend to give police tacit consent to track your movements without a warrant? A recent federal court decision assumes you did. The Washington Post ran a story last week ("GPS technology finding its way into court," Aug. 23)
The rapid spread of cellphones with GPS technology has allowed police to track suspects with unprecedented precision — even as they commit crimes. But the legal fight is only now heating up, with prosecutors and privacy activists sparring over rules governing the use of powerful new investigative tools.

The U.S. Court of Appeals for the 6th Circuit stirred the debate last week when it supported police use of a drug runner’s cellphone signals to locate him — and more than 1,000 pounds of marijuana — at a Texas rest stop. The court decided that the suspect “did not have a reasonable expectation of privacy” over location data from his cellphone and that police were free to collect it over several days, even without a search warrant.
Here's the opinion (pdf), which came out of the 6th Court of Appeals, not the 5th, which governs Texas, though the GPS tracking happened here. The gist is that GPS tracking of a cell phone is simply gathering information in the public domain akin to physically watching someone walk down the street. Though the US Supreme Court held in US v. Jones that a warrant is needed to place a tracking device on someone's car, the 6th Court of Appeals distinguished GPS in your phone from that case by claiming cell phone users "voluntarily" invite government tracking simply by owning a phone that emits such a signal:
the Government never had physical contact with Skinner’s cell phone; he obtained it, GPS technology and all, and could not object to its presence.

Because authorities tracked a known number that was voluntarily used while traveling on public thoroughfares, Skinner did not have a reasonable expectation of privacy in the GPS data and location of his cell phone.
Even before US v. Jones, Texas law required a court order for police to place a mobile tracking device on your vehicle. But Texas cops could conceivably track the GPS signal from your phone (Fort Worth PD recently purchased such a system) without one, since it's not something police installed but, according to the 6th Court, information you're "voluntarily" giving out in a public space. In light of this ruling, the 83rd Texas Legislature should amend that statute to require judicial oversight for GPS tracking as well.

Revolving door spurs officials to contemplate eliminating felony prostitution enhancement

"Few other states imprison prostitutes as does Texas, which has a long history of locking higher percentages of its lawbreakers in state prisons than all but a few other states," reported Mike Ward at the Austin Statesman last week. "The felony prostitution charge was enacted when the Legislature was still in the throes of its lock-em-up, three-strikes-and-you're-out fervor," he wrote, though Grits would argue that with dozens of new crimes created every legislative session, that fervor has not yet entirely abated. In any event, now legislators and even some prison officials are considering reversing the ill-conceived decision to make prostitution a felony after three misdemeanor convictions. Reported Ward ("Texas rethinks law making repeat prostitution a felony," Aug. 25):
Melissa Farley, a clinical psychologist and recognized national expert on prostitution who heads the San Francisco-based Prostitution Research and Education organization, said Texas is the only state she knows of that makes prostitution a felony. "Jail is simply not the place for these women ... who have other issues," she said. "People look at them as drug addicts who were forced into the sex trade."

Under the 2001 law, prostitutes and their customers can be sent to a state jail for up to two years on a fourth-degree felony — although no customers are currently doing time and probably have not, officials said.

Gradually, philosophies changed and people began questioning whether sending women away to a prison is the best solution. Even some prison officials privately concede the law became just another — more expensive — revolving door. Without specialized treatment, women could cycle through prison several times — much as they do in county jails without programs. ...
State leaders say the program illustrates why prostitutes should never have been sentenced to prison in the first place. It costs $18,538 to house a convict in state prison for a year and about $15,500 in a lower-security state jail, according to Legislative Budget Board calculations. By contrast, a community-based program costs about $4,300 a year.
About 350 women are serving time at TDCJ for prostitution and related charges, said the article. Grits certainly agrees that strong probation programs have a better chance than prison of turning these women's life around - the same is true for many repeat drug offenders in prison as well. But the key as always will be properly funding probation programming, and on that score Grits remains far from sanguine: In the last legislative session Texas reverted to its lock-em-up ways to keep understaffed prison units open at the expense of probation programming.

Still, this is the dynamic - reducing incarceration and shifting part of the savings to strengthen community supervision - which offers the best hope for avoiding a mid-nine figures boost in TDCJ's budget in 2013, so I'm glad to see legislators and prison officials thinking along these lines, even if the scope of this particular proposal remains relatively narrow.

MORE: From the Unfair Park blog. AND MORE: See a related editorial from the Austin Statesman.  

ALSO: A reader emailed to point out that among women's units at TDCJ, "Hilltop and Bridgeport ... both have maximum capacities of fewer than 350." Of those, the reader added, "Bridgeport is a 'pre-parole' facility, so shuttering it may not be feasible for other programmatic reasons, but Hilltop is just a regular prison," so conceivably eliminating the prostitution enhancement could allow the state to close an entire women's prison unit. Just sayin' ...

Tuesday, August 28, 2012

Austin police say photographers should stay 50-60 feet from arrests

Austin police are "working on guidelines" which would require "people filming the police to stay 50 to 60 feet away," reported the Austin Statesman, after the the second arrest this year of police accountability activist Anthony Bueheler for filming cops while they were arresting someone. In the latest incident, the activist was filming from 15-20 feet away, which seems plenty far enough to avoid any interference. He was arrested because the person being handcuffed and carted away yelled at the photographer to stop filming, allegedly causing an officer to "stumble."

In an email to media received by Grits, and which she posted on her Austin Gonzo blog, Austin police accountability activist Debbie Russell posed a series of important questions, not the least of which is: "If random bystanders are 10' from a detainment, as they often are without ANY concern by LEOs, are they going to be arrested if officers are also planning to arrest a videographer 30' away? If not, why? How is someone holding a camera further away MORE of a danger than someone closer, without a camera (with their hands free)?" Good point.

Russell pointed to a Department of Justice memo (beginning on p. 3 of the pdf) outlining the USDOJ's "position on the basic elements of a constitutionally adequate policy on individuals’ right to record police activity," and the specifics are worth quoting in some detail. DOJ contends that "private individuals have a First Amendment right to record police officers in the public discharge of their duties, and that officers violate individuals’ Fourth and Fourteenth Amendment rights when they seize and destroy such recordings without a warrant or due process."

Distracted driving by police an issue, but not as dangerous as high-speed chases

The greatest danger to police officers on the job isn't being shot by a criminal but dying in a car accident, so I was interested to see a  report from KXAN-TV declaring that "nine Austin police officers have been suspended for causing traffic accidents in 2012." Most recently, "An Austin police officer has been suspended for running a red light and causing a crash with another vehicle. It is the fourth time in the last year that an Austin police officer has run a red light and caused a crash."

KHOU-Houston recently reminded us that "Two years ago, an officer in Austin rammed into a motorcyclist in broad daylight. Later he admitted to being distracted," and supplied video of the incident. The officer was typing notes into his on-board laptop when slamming into the cyclist. After that episode, The city changed its policy to require officers using in-car computers to "pull over, complete what they need to do and then proceed," Assistant Chief Sean Mannix has told the press. The Tarrant County Sheriff has enacted a blanket policy against the practice, while the Plano Police Department requires officers to pull over if "extended use" of the in-car computer is expected. But most Texas agencies have left the practice utterly unregulated.

Of course, police running red lights or fiddling with their in-car computer while driving doesn't just endanger the public but the officers themselves. In 2010, Grits reported last year, "Eighteen officers were killed in Texas, more than any other state, and as usual 'fatal traffic incidents ... were the leading cause of officer deaths for the 13th straight year.'" Moreover, USA Today has reported that "At least 42% of police officers killed in vehicle crashes over the past three decades were not wearing seat belts or other safety restraints, according to a federal review."

A July 31 report from the Dallas NBC affiliate found police officers in Texas cause about three crashes per month related to distracted driving:
An NBC 5 investigation has found many Texas police departments don't follow their own advice when it comes to warnings about distracted driving. Crashes involving distractions inside police vehicles now frequently happen across the state.

The list of distractions for continues to grow. In many cities, they're often found operating two-way radios, smartphones, dashboard-mounted computers and on-board cameras while they drive.

A search of state accident reports reveals at least 70 crashes in just 24 months where some kind of distraction inside an emergency vehicle contributed to the wreck -- an average of almost three crashes per month. Those are just the crashes that involved enough property damage or injury that they had to be reported to the state.
In truth, three crashes for month is a fairly low rate compared to the number of accidents police are involved in and the amount of time officers spend on the road, so I'm not sure banning them from such activities is justiified. If Grits had to choose, enacting more regulations on high-speed chases would be a greater priority than disallowing police from texting or talking on the cell phone while driving. The need for communication outweighs the added risk (which IMO is also true for the general public). That said, using a radio, cell phone or even texting behind the wheel is one thing, but putting a laptop in the car takes the distraction to another level. Reading a few words in a text message is a lot different from combing through the amount of information that shows up on a laptop screen, which requires much greater focus. For that, I'd like to see a technical fix instead of a regulatory one: The devices should simply be automatically disabled when the car is moving.

Monday, August 27, 2012

New Dallas 'free walls' for graffiti should expand to underutilized public spaces

The Dallas News reports that the city will begin to establish "free walls" for graffiti artists hoping to divert uninvited graff toward approved spaces ("Dallas will try to reduce graffiti by giving artists 'free walls'," Aug. 22). The story opened thusly:
Daniel “Tony Slowmo” Skelton used to run from cops. Now he runs with them.

Slowmo once flouted the law with his illegal artwork, but is now working with Dallas police to redirect the energies of street artists into legal mural projects. Similar efforts have met with success in Toronto, Phoenix and Venice, Calif.

“The youth really have to choose what path they want to go,” said Slowmo, 35. “We’re just trying to lead by example.”

The details are being ironed out, but the initiative involves establishing “free walls” where artists can legally paint. The city would sponsor competitions among street artists. Those who participate must sign a pledge to paint only in legal areas.

“The days of, ‘Let’s arrest them all and let God sort them out,’ is just not smart on crime,” Police Chief David Brown told Dallas City Council members during a recent meeting of the Public Safety Committee.

“This is an attempt to be smarter on crime.”

Traditional city and police efforts largely focused on arresting vandals and painting over illegal graffiti. You only have to look around to see they have met with limited success.

There are about 60 new reports each week of illegal graffiti in Dallas, and an average of about eight arrests a month. The most common form of graffiti is tagging, “chronic random markings” on walls, buildings, streets signs, overpasses and other property. Only an estimated 5 percent of graffiti in Dallas is estimated to be gang-related.
Grits considers this a step in the right direction, but IMO they city could go even farther. As discussed in 2010, I've "been advocating for quite a while on Grits that government begin to identify blank, under-utilized portions of the city landscape - underpasses, concrete drainage areas, even the backside of street signs - and allow street art there on a permission-based basis. Private property owners who wanted to commission free murals on outward-facing walls as a prophylactic against graffiti could also participate. Ideally, in this writer's opinion, the practice should be widespread, with available 'canvases' across every city and content only limited by obscenity laws and disallowing hate speech and known criminal street gang references."

Photo via the Austin Chronicle
Indeed, five years ago Grits suggested, "as you drive around town over the next few days, start to pay attention to the spots where you most commonly see graffiti and ask yourself, would I object if a quality, youth-drawn mural were allowed here instead? Anywhere you see quickly scrawled graff that you consider a blight could potentially be a spot hosting an invited youth mural. In most cases, as with the support poles along the highways, such illustrations would improve the landscape, not mar it."

The main problem with "free walls" is that usually there aren't enough of them, and sometimes taggers ply their craft in the neighborhoods going to and from the free-wall spots. But expand the concept to include more spots and the strategy IMO has an exponentially greater chance of success.

The strategy would be intended to complement enforcement, not supplant it. But there are limits to how effective an enforcement-only strategy can be. In 2010, just 289 people were prosecuted for graffiti crimes statewide in Texas, with 212 of them getting misdemeanor probation. A lock-em-up approach can't solve the problem by itself, and graffiti cleanup has become a significant expense for many American cities. If free walls and allowing graff in underutilized public spaces could even reduce those costs at the margins, taxpayers would benefit. And if wall-writers can work on their projects without constantly looking over their shoulders and preparing to sprint away, there's a decent chance the overall quality of street art may improve, as well.

Much of the over-hyped rhetoric surrounding graffiti assumes it's mainly performed by criminal street gangs, but according to the Dallas News, just 5% of graffiti in Big D stems from gangbangers. That means most graffiti is likely being performed by young people for whom wall writing (and perhaps a little pot smoking) is the most serious crime they commit. For them, maximum punishment isn't a significant threat because the risk of being caught on any given night is a helluva lot lower than, say, the dangers hanging off the side of a bridge like the one pictured above.

Grits is pulling for Dallas' experiment to succeed, and hopefully expand. IMO it's past time for a more thoughtful approach.

See related Grits posts:

Police v cameras in public spaces: A recurring conflict

In Austin, a West Point graduate, Iraq war vet and police accountability activist was arrested for the second time this year for recording police officers in the course of their duties. Reported the Austin Statesman ("Attorney: Man arrested second time for filming police officers," Aug. 27):
A man arrested on New Year’s Day for filming police officers was taken into custody a second time early Sunday, when he was taping officers detain an intoxicated man downtown, his attorney told reporters outside of Travis County Jail.

Antonio Buehler, 35, organizer of the Peaceful Streets Project, is facing a charge for interfering with public duty, his attorney, Joe James Sawyer, said Sunday afternoon. The lawyer said his client was detained about 2:30 a.m. Sunday on Sixth Street.

Austin police officials confirmed officers had arrested Buehler but did not release further information, saying they were reviewing the facts of the case. An official statement is expected to be released Monday. Sawyer called Buehler’s arrest a “deliberate action and part of a calculated effort to protect the officer who arrested him New Year’s Day.”

Buehler, an Army veteran, was arrested at about 1:15 a.m. New Year’s day and charged with harassment of a public servant after he stopped to take photographs of an arrest in Central Austin, according to court records. Police said Buehler interfered with her arrest. He filed a complaint against the arresting officers, who were cleared by an internal affairs investigation in July.
Recording police or anybody else in public should not be an arrestable offense, but some in law enforcement don't agree. In June in Dallas a motorcyclist was arrested essentially for contempt of cop after refusing to hand over video from a helmet cam. After he declined to give up the video, the deputy arrested him for allegedly having an obstructed license plate and the video was seized incident to arrest.

Most larger counties fulfilled Governor's data entry requirement on case dispositions, won't lose grant money

Earlier this year, Grits mentioned that the Governor's Criminal Justice Division would cut off federal grant funds to Texas counties that failed to report at least 90% of their historic arrest and case disposition data to the state system. As of January, 191 of Texas' 254 counties were not in compliance with that standard, by my count, though many of those were fairly close. Now the Austin Statesman reports that all but 27 counties have performed sufficient data input since then to meet the 90% standard. See this list of still-non-compliant counties, compiled by the Statesman, below the jump:

Sunday, August 26, 2012

Houston probationers did jail time based on faulty drug test results

Usually when this blog discusses actual innocence cases, we're talking about people wrongfully convicted of extremely serious crimes like rape or murder, typically where DNA evidence provides sufficient proof to overturn a jury verdict. Seldom, though, will the state acknowledge that innocent people are falsely accused on more petty, mundane matters, sometimes based on faulty forensic science or even a mere clerical error.

That's what's happened in Houston where the probation department has sometimes jailed probationers based on faulty or misrecorded results from urinalysis tests. Reported KTRK's Ted Oberg:
On Thursday, the head of the Harris County Probation Department told us he didn't know of anyone sent to jail over a bad drug test. On Friday, one of his own probationers came to court to prove him wrong.

The very problem the Harris Co. Probation Dept. would rather hide and deny walked right into court and swore to tell the truth.

"I wish I could have said more to that probation officer," said Richard Youst.

Youst was on probation for DWI when a judge put him in jail for 10 days after a supposed positive drug test for cocaine. It was a bad test result, but before attorneys figured it out, Youst lost his driver's license, his apartment and his job.

"Our practice is to act on it as soon as we know that there is an error," said Ray Garcia with Harris Co. Community Supervision.

Probation officers have known for a month, but never owned up to it.

"Nobody has contacted me from that probation office," said Youst.

A freelance Houston airline executive had the same problem. He didn't want to be identified, but he spent 16 hours in jail after a false test for marijuana. He lost two days of work including a huge presentation and lost his chance at a promotion.

"They knew about what had happened to other people and they did not fix it," said defense attorney Lisa Andrews.

Every drug test at the Harris Co. Probation Dept. gets an ID number. They're supposed to be scanned electronically, but according to testimony they often have to be entered into the computer by hand. There's no other ID that goes with it. So if the data entry is even one digit off, an innocent probationer gets hit with someone else's positive drug test result.

"They need to get their stuff straight," said Youst.

From inside the department Friday, Donald Martin, a 22-year probation employee, told Judge Denise Collins she may not be able to trust any Harris County drug test results. Martin testified, "The chain of custody has so many holes, I don't know if you can say any of the positives are truly positive." 
See additional coverage from Oberg and the Houston Chronicle. According to the Chronicle:
A supervisor who testified Friday said finding 3-month-old urine samples in the back of the division's unlocked refrigerators was not uncommon.

The old samples would simply be sent out as though it had been collected that day, said Donald Martin, a supervisor at the department.

As part of the court-mandated "chain of custody" that ensures the integrity of evidence, law enforcement has to show that an appropriate custodian has kept evidence from being tampered with before it can be admitted in court.

"When it comes to chain of custody," Martin testified, "there are more holes than Swiss cheese."
Doesn't inspire confidence, does it?

Upcoming criminal justice-related budget hearings

For those interesting, there are several notable budget hearings at the capitol in Austin related to Texas criminal justice agencies in the coming weeks. Here's a list of those scheduled so far that caught Grits' attention:

TDCJ ignores Governor's budget cut request, asks for $300 million appropriations bump

Though Grits argued earlier this week that pay hikes for Texas prison guards are extremely unlikely in the 83rd legislative session next year, despite chronic understaffing, apparently hope springs eternal among the lock-em-up crowd. Mike Ward at the Austin Statesman reported on Friday that, despite agencies being asked to submit a legislative appropriations request (LAR) 10% lower than their current budget, the Texas Department of Criminal Justice is asking for $300 million more than its current budget, mostly for increased pay for front-line prison staff, particularly COs. More than 10% of prison guard slots are presently unfilled, Ward noted, with the problem particularly critical at seven rural units where turnover is astronomical.

In addition to pay hikes, "The agency is also asking for an additional $17.5 million to build dorm-style staff housing for correctional officers at the seven short-staffed prisons. That project is on a 'wish list' of items prison officials would like to have, if the Legislature has extra money to spend — which appears unlikely," Ward reported, adding that:
As part of its budget request, the prison system included more than $1 billion in funding for prisoner health care — an amount that will probably be too small.

On the "wish list" is a request for another $141 million, which officials said health care providers believe "is critical to maintain operations and ensure effective overall quality care within the system."
Prison guards probably deserve more pay, but even if it happens it won't make the positions competitive with the oil field jobs presently drawing away rural workers. Ward wrote that "Prison guards in Texas are paid between $27,000 and $37,000. Guards are leaving for oil field jobs that pay $70,000 to $80,000," so a small raise in any event won't make the positions competitive.

More concerning than that cognitive dissonance, just like last session, TDCJ officials are falsely framing the debate. While they're hyper-focused, as always, on maxxing out funds for the prison system, the agency doesn't appear to be asking (judging from this report; we'll know more next week when they publish the LAR) for increased funds for probation and parole, evincing priorities that IMO set the agency up to fail. The more rational solution to the understaffing dilemma at rural units would be to divert low-level drug and property offenders from prison through community supervision (since supervision on probation costs a fraction of incarcerating the same offender) so the state can close more prison units.

The problem here is that prison officials a) see themselves as prison operators instead of seeking to maximize public safety at sustainable costs, and b) aren't willing to speak truth to power. If just seven units are suffering grave understaffing, are raises really justified at all those where turnover isn't a problem? The smarter approach would be to shift money to strengthen probation and change sentencing policies to allow the agency to close understaffed units and/or its most expensive ones. That would not only reduce staffing pressures (with such high turnover rates, few actual layoffs would be necessary), but also lower medical costs from serving fewer prisoners. Instead, TDCJ officials are asking the Lege for a major budget bump, even though nobody thinks doing so would make prison guard pay competitive with the oil field jobs drawing away workers.

Unfortunately, the agency itself will likely never suggest the sorts of policy changes needed to actually moderate TDCJ's budget. They're counting on the historic alliance of Big Government Conservatives and Liberals to reflexively throw more money at prisons, as the Lege has done since the Ann Richards era. IMO, agency leaders don't really care about community supervision and even less about reducing burdens on taxpayers: Their personal identities are as prison managers and if history (and this report) are any guide, they'll seemingly always seek to fund brick and mortar prisons over probation and parole, regardless of the budget or public safety implications. If legislators want a smaller, rational, God forbid, conservative prison budget, they cannot look to TDCJ for suggestions on how to accomplish it.

Saturday, August 25, 2012

Private prison roundup: Investors betting on immigration detention boom continuing

I wanted to point out a few items related to private prisons that came out while Grits was on holiday. First, the media seems to have finally caught on to a trend this blog prophesied six years ago in a post titled "The Coming Immigration Detention Boom." See:
As is usually the case when it comes to law enforcement and prison pork, this trend is a bipartisan one, supported as much or more by the Obama Administration as his Republican predecessor.

Via the blog Texas Prison Bidness, we find coverage of efforts by advocates to combat the unholy alliance of xenophobia and corporate welfare in an item titled, "Groups working to Fight Private Prison Expansion and Immigrant Detention Host Webinar."

Here in Texas, the GEO Group's bid to operate a forensic mental hospital (in fact, they were the only bidder) has drawn criticsm; see: 
See related Grits coverage of the project here, here and here.

This business reporter from the Palm Beach Post commented on the growth in private prison revenues at the two largest players in the market: The GEO Group and Corrections Corporation of America, noting the recent dropoff in GEO stock despite rising revenues:
GEO Group’s revenue — which has risen every year for nearly 20 years — and steady profits make it a financial success story. It’s the second-largest operator of private prisons, trailing only Corrections Corp. of America (NYSE: CXW) of Nashville.

But investors clearly prefer CCA. While GEO Group’s revenue is similar to CCA’s, CCA is twice as profitable, and CCA’s market capitalization is twice GEO Group’s. A $10,000 investment five years ago in GEO Group would have dwindled to $8,667, while the same amount invested in CCA would have grown to $13,237.
The writer attributes the difference to scandals and lawsuits involving the GEO Group, which is certainly part of it, but Grits believes the underlying reason for the stock differences arises from more pedestrian sources. Both companies are overloaded with too much debt, but GEO's debt to equity ratio is higher and CCA enjoys greater value from real estate holdings from facilities it owns, whereas the GEO Group typically manages state-owned facilities instead of owning the units themselves. The current earnings boom is tenuous and could evaporate quickly if Congress ever gets around to passing comprehensive immigration reform. But real estate holdings could be spun off in that event, making CCA more valuable from an investor's perspective. Grits would like to think investors would devalue publicly traded private prison stocks because of human rights abuses, but in my heart of hearts, I doubt it.

MORE: A commenter pointed out this interesting exposition from Crooks and Liars of CCA's real estate holdings as they relate to Bain Capital and presidential candidate Mitt Romney. Whatever your partisan leanings, the detail on CCA's real estate investments (and methods for concealing property-related wealth from taxation) provide greater detail and insight into why the company has retained greater value than GEO.

Latest DNA exoneration based on flawed eyewitness ID from 1989

Via AP, here are details ofthe latest Texas DNA exoneration out of Fort Worth of a fellow convicted based on faulty eyewitness identification:
A man who spent more than two decades behind bars was freed Friday after DNA evidence cleared him in the rape of a 14-year-old Fort Worth girl.

David Lee Wiggins was convicted and sentenced to life in prison in 1989, although neither of the two fingerprints found at the scene matched his. The girl, whose face was covered during most of the attack, picked Wiggins out of a photo lineup and then a live lineup, saying he looked familiar.

But DNA testing earlier this month excluded Wiggins as the person who committed the crime. Tarrant County prosecutors said DNA evidence demonstrated his innocence.

State District Judge Louis Sturns in Fort Worth freed Wiggins on a personal bond after approving a motion to overturn his conviction. Before the crime is officially cleared from his record, the Texas Court of Criminal Appeals must accept the judge's recommendation or the governor must grant a pardon. Either step is considered a formality after the judge's ruling.

"I hold no bitterness," Wiggins said in court after the judge's ruling. "I'm thankful to Jesus Christ. He said he could move mountains, and surely this was a mountain. ... And to the victim: I'm not mad at you. I don't hold you responsible."
The packed courtroom then erupted into applause and people rose to their feet. Wiggins later hugged his relatives and some other men who have been freed from prison after DNA evidence exonerated them in recent years. About a dozen of them attended the court hearing to support Wiggins.

"We draw strength from each other," said Charles Chatman, who was freed in 2008 after serving nearly 27 years for a rape he did not commit. "We're the only people who know what we are going through."
Grits offers hearty and heart-felt congratulations to Wiggins and his attorneys. See a related editorial from the Fort Worth Star-Telegram and coverage from the Texas Monthly Daily Post blog.

Friday, August 24, 2012

State fire marshal interview highlights review of arson cases

Following up on a story first reported on Grits last month, the Texas Tribune while I was out of town published an interview with the new state fire marshal, Chris Connealy, describing his enthusiastic embrace of recommendations by the Forensic Science Commission for revamping arson investigations, and the agency's collaboration with my employers at the Innocence Project of Texas to review old arson cases to look for wrongful convictions based on faulty science. Good stuff. I'm enthusiastic about Connealy's new position, not only because he seems personally committed to improving arson investigations, but because it may signal that the Governor, who appointed him, may be willing to back away from some of the extremist, anti-science demagoguery that at times characterized the unhappy debates surrounding the Todd Willingham case.

Good news: TX prison population down, parole rates up, pols not panicking

While Grits was on vacation, a couple of news items focused on recent reductions in Texas' overall prison population, its causes and implications. On August 11, Mike Ward at the Austin Statesman published a piece titled "Texas prison population shrinks as rehabilitation programs take root." Wrote Ward:
Instead of 156,500 prisoners behind bars in Texas' 111 state prisons a year ago, the lockups now hold just over 154,000 — a drop of about 2,500, according to state statistics. Texas, which historically has had one of the highest incarceration rates per capita of the 50 states, is now in fourth place, down from second two years ago.

Whether the declining prison population is the start of a long-term decrease or a short-lived dip is a matter of debate that will be settled only by time. Still, experts say, prison population declines are occurring in other states, too.

"It's real. It's happening, not only in Texas, but around the country," said Tony Fabelo, an Austin-based criminal justice consultant who coached Texas officials during the 1990s as the state tripled the size of its prison system and is now advising other states on how to decrease their prison populations.

"The challenge is to sustain the outcomes to see how far you can go in downsizing prisons. I have my doubts, but it's an interesting time for criminal justice," Fabelo said. 
Ward attributed the decline to alternatives to incarceration enacted by the Legislature  in 2007, as well as "A decrease in crime rates, changes in demographics and an aging state population [which] also have a role in emptying Texas' prison beds." I agree all those front-end causes are factors in mitigating the growth rate in prisoner numbers: Back in 2007, Texas' Legislative Budget Board predicted TDCJ would house about 17,000 more prisoners in 2012 than actually turned out to be the case. However, there's another big reason for the shift that's less frequently discussed, but which was the subject of a Houston Chronicle story by Cindy Horswell published August 15 ("Texas says rise in paroles gives states bragging rights"): Changes in back-end parole policies to release more prisoners and to reduce the number of parolees who're revoked back to prison. Wrote Horswell:
The [parole] board's report this week boasts 24,342 offenders were approved for parole from Sept. 1, 2010, to Aug. 31, 2011. This represents 31 percent of all who applied and an approval rate that is six percentage points higher than 10 years ago.

At the same time, the number carted back to prison this past fiscal year after their parole was revoked plummeted by 44 percent from a high of 11,374 in 2004.

Instead of fearing accusations of appearing too lenient, state authorities are smiling.

"We are pleased with our continuing increase in granting parole," said Rissie Owens, chairwoman of the state's pardons and parole board. "The use of our parole guidelines to assess the likelihood of a successful parole outcome has been cited as a national model for its positive impact on returning more offenders to productive lives."

The Association of Paroling Authorities International has praised Texas' system which many other states are copying, said board spokesman Harry Battson.
This trend has been going on for a while, but these latest data provide encouragement that it will continue, and that parole board members (all Governor's appointees) are less fearful than in the past of a political  backlash. Check out this telling infographic accompaying the story portraying this remarkable shift:

Some of the rise in parole rates may be attributed to a relatively minor uptick in paroles for serious violent felons who are nearing the end of their prison terms, a development which even victim rights advocates quoted in the story supported. In years past, the parole board frequently kept such offenders in prison until their (often long) sentences were 100% complete, at which point they would be dumped out on the street with $100 in their pocket, little or no reentry assistance, and no community-based supervision by a parole officer. More recently, the parole board has been releasing such offenders a year or two before the end of their term so they'll be under supervision during the period when they're most likely to re-offend. As somebody who hasn't hesitated to criticize parole board chair Rissie Owens and her colleagues for policies Grits considers ill-conceived, I have to give them their props: That's truly a "smart on crime" tactic, using parole powers to improve public safety significantly. In a followup editorial, the Chronicle called this a "belt-and-suspenders approach."

That said, IMO the trend toward reduced incarceration levels cannot and will not be sustained long-term without further legislative action, particularly as it regards sentencing for low-level offenses and funding for community supervision. One big element contributing to prison population declines which wasn't mentioned in Ward's story was 2003 legislation mandating probation on the first offense for low-level (less than a gram) drug possession. That bill diverted roughly 3,000 people per year from so-called "state jails" (which are really not jails in the traditional sense but a euphemism for state prisons housing the equivalent of fourth-degree felons). Grits believes prison population declines won't be sustained in the long run unless the Lege further moderates sentencing, particularly for drug and property offenses.

Still, these data offer hope that Texas may further embrace a rational, conservative corrections policy as opposed to the money-is-no-object, Big Government approach which has dominated since the Ann Richards era.

Thursday, August 23, 2012

'Expelling Zero Tolerance: Reforming Texas School Discipline for Good'

The headline of this post is the title of a new policy brief from the conservative Texas Public Policy Foundation arguing that "zero tolerance" policies in public schools cost taxpayers millions will little benefit in increased school safety to show for it. Go here to read the full report.

Prosecutor misconduct roundup: 'Will Texas Republicans line up against prosecutorial misconduct?'

Grits wanted to point out to readers recent media items related to prosecutorial misconduct. First, from the Dallas News' Opinion Blog, see Rodger Jones posing the question, "Will Texas Republicans line up against prosecutorial misconduct?" All I can say is, "They should." Any critic of Big Government who fails to admit that prosecutorial power has exceeded its proper scope either is being disingenuous or simply not paying attention. Over the past few decades, prosecutors have been given so many additional hammers with which to pound defendants into submission - causing the percentage of cases going to trial to plummet to the low single digits - that Texas' Penal Code has begun to resemble a toolshed belonging to J.R.R. Tolkien's dwarves.

Reacting to a  GOP state rep candidate's call in a questionnaire for greater accountability for prosecutors, Jones asked, "The tea party has been expert at raising questions about the size and reach of government. Why should that not pertain to matters of justice as well?" "Why?" indeed! I've never understood why so many self-styled conservatives give police and prosecutors a pass when critiquing government overreach. Grits has come to the conclusion that the issue is perhaps the main distinguishing factor between "Big Government Conservatives" and those who favor "less government" in reality and not only in their rhetoric.

Earlier this month, Jacob Sullum at Reason offered up the story of a federal prosecutor in Arizona who misrepresented a defendant's past statements in court. Appellate "Judge Donald Walter remarked, 'In eight years as U.S. Attorney and 26 years on the trial bench, this is the worst I've ever seen from an assistant U.S. attorney.'" (If he'd practiced in Texas, Judge Walter surely would have seen far worse, if he'd paid heed.)

The New York Times earlier this week in its "Room for Debate" series posed the question, "Do prosecutors have too much power?," featuring short essays on the subject from five guest authors. Focusing mostly on the federal system (though the same quarrels could apply to state statutes), criticisms chiefly centered on the effect of mandatory minimums, which caused the traditional charging powers of prosecutors to morph into de facto sentencing authority, pilfering power bit by bit from judges and juries. The series followed up on a staff editorial by the paper about a New York case in which prosecutors allegedly suborned perjured testimony by a confidential informant.

Another NY Times editorial this week argued that "Prosecutors are rarely punished for wrongdoing. Other sanctions like a reprimand from a bar association, are largely ineffective." The paper argued that defendants should be compensated when courts find federal prosecutors have acted in bad faith as "a check against gross misconduct." See more on the subject from the Blog of Legal Times.

No easy fixes for Texas prison staffing shortage besides deincarceration

Soon after I left on vacation, the Texas Tribune's Emily Foxhall authored a story quoting your correspondent and others on the subject of understaffing at rural prison units operated by the Texas Department of Criminal Justice, accompanied by this informative map highlighting the units with the worst staffing problems:

Wrote Foxhall, "Reasons abound for why the job as a correctional officer is a tough one: Pay is low, most prisons are not fully air-conditioned and inmates are not always happy to be taking orders." My question: Who thinks any of that will change any time soon? Prison guard pay was bumped up slightly two sessions ago to help with recruitment, and recently recruiting bonuses for the most understaffed units were increased from $1,500 to $3,000. But that's not enough to draw people to work at units out in BFE. State Senate Criminal Justice Committee Chairman John Whitmire has basically said more prisons would be air conditioned over his dead body. And inmates will never be "happy to be taking orders." (In truth, few people are.)

Foxhall further cited "a survey by the Texas Criminal Justice Coalition, in partnership with the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees," which said the employee grievace process is ineffective. "About three-fourths of those surveyed said they did not find the process to be 'fair and effective'," and Duane Stuart of The Backgate website told her "that staff are hesitant to report any corruption or wrongdoing to TDCJ." (Through Grits' own various back channels and informants, I hear the same thing all the time.) Many of the new security measures aimed at reducing the flow of contraband have fallen most heavily on TDCJ employees, contributing to poor morale, and those aren't going away.

The only lawmaker quoted in the story was Sen. Whitmire, who "agreed that many prisons were built in the wrong places and for the wrong reasons." But his suggested solution doesn't inspire confidence. "Now, he said, legislators need to focus on getting Texans to pay for improvement of conditions for the workers."

However, the 2013 session almost assuredly won't result in higher pay for correctional officers (COs) because of the budget crunch, and in fact Grits expects some lawmakers to seek to cut their benefits and/or further reduce their number. There are more COs at TDCJ than any other category of state employee and even a small pay hike would have big budget implications. And unless they're ordered to provide air conditioning by the federal courts, that problem isn't going away, either.

For a variety of reasons - mostly related to failures of budgetary leadership by the last legislature - the 83rd Texas legislative session's budget debates will be dominated by how to pay for education and healthcare, with the prison and probation systems scrapping for crumbs.  With all due respect to Sen. Whitmire, anybody who claims the Legislature will "pay for improvement of conditions" for prison workers is blowing smoke. One might as well suggest the problem will be resolved through prayer for divine intervention, the way Gov. Perry two years ago called for Texans to pray for rain instead of championing a viable water plan.

Grits was quoted at the end of Foxhall's article making essentially those points, and calling for seizing the opportunity to reduce the size of the prison system:
Scott Henson, a former reporter who writes the criminal justice blog Grits for Breakfast, said increased spending on prisons is unlikely.

“We’re at the complete end of that cycle that was begun 22 years ago. No one wants to foot the bill for how expensive it is,” Henson said.

Most agree that the temporary closures in Kenedy due to staffing shortages are not something to be celebrated, but Henson said that the state should continue efforts to reduce the prison population and close prisons in an intentional manner.

Even after the state closed its first prison last year, Henson said, Texas is operating more prisons than it should be.
See prior, related Grits posts:

Wednesday, August 22, 2012

Victims of Mexico’s Drug War Rally for Peace and Justice at Texas Capitol

Attention Austinites and those close by! The Movement for Peace with Justice and Dignity, led by renowned Mexican poet Javier Sicilia, is taking part in an historic caravan from San Diego, California, to Washington D.C. in August and September 2012, and it will arrive in Austin on August 25th.

Sicilia, who lost his son in drug-related violence in 2011, is traveling with over 100 family members who have lost loved ones to violence in Mexico. Together, they are advocating for an end to the bloodshed and for new government policies and reforms in both the United States and Mexico that will help to combat violence.

WHAT:               At least 60,000 people have died in Mexico's drug war since 2006, as many as 10,000 have disappeared, and over 160,000 are internally displaced. During the 27 stops along the Caravan for Peace with Justice and Dignity route, families of victims from Mexico will share their stories to highlight the human costs of the war on drugs, while Sicilia and others will discuss policy changes that can reduce drug-related violence. In Austin, Grupo Teocalli Aztec Dancers will be opening the event, and local singer/songwriter Gina Chavez and Kiko Villamizar Y Banda will perform on the south steps of the State Capitol Building.

WHEN:                Saturday, August 25, 12:00PM - 3:00PM

WHERE:          Texas State Capitol Building, South Steps. Parking will be available at the Capitol Visitors Parking Garage at 1201 San Jacinto Boulevard (between Trinity and San Jacinto Streets at 12th and 13th streets).

ORGANIZERS: Texas Criminal Justice Coalition, St. James' Episcopal Church, Texas Fellowship of Reconciliation, Texas NORML, #Yo Soy 132 Austin, MORENA Austin, Austin Tan Cerca de la Frontera, SOA Watch Austin, Austin Immigrant Rights Coalition, Texans $mart On Crime, Austin NAACP, Texas NAACP, and many volunteers

SPONSORS:       Drug Policy Alliance, Market Mail Print, Mi Sazón (Dallas), El Meson, Beanitos, La Michaocana, El Milagro, Sam's Club, Randalls, Nokoa Newspaper, Z-Fashion Jewelry, Loko Dok Computerz, Zona Urbana, CBella Hair Salon, St. Hildegard's Community, Addixxion (band), Saucedo Brothers Boots, and Macho Prieto Toro Mechanical  

Read more about the Caravan here:

Read more about Javier Sicilia here and the Caravan route here, which includes Houston on August 26th and 27th.  

For more information about the Austin event please contact:
Craig Adair, 512-297-6611, or
Ana Yáñez-Correa, 512-587-7010, or
Jane Ehinmoro, 512-441-8123, ext. 110,