Friday, November 30, 2012

'Forensic science falls short of public image'

A pair of stories from Stateline, which is a project of the Pew Center on the States, hone in on the gap between perception and reality on the reliability and efficacy of modern forensic science:
The first of the two stories praised Texas perhaps a tad too effusively for its oversight of forensic science: See a notable excerpt below the jump.

National incarceration rates continue modest declines

Grits didn't notice any particularly groundbreaking revelations related to Texas corrections, but readers may be interested to learn of two official new reports from the federal Bureau of Justice Staistics: Correctional Populations in the United States, 2011; and Probation and Parole in the United States, 2011. Here are a few national  highlights from the summary in the first report:
  • Adult correctional authorities supervised about 6,977,700 offenders at yearend 2011, a decrease of
    1.4% during the year. [Ed note: That's mostly due to declines in probation and parole caseloads.]
  • The decline of 98,900 offenders during 2011 marked the third consecutive year of decrease in the correctional population, which includes probationers, parolees, local jail inmates, and prisoners in the custody of state and federal facilities.
  • About 2.9% of adults in the U.S. (or 1 in every 34 adults) were under some form of correctional supervision at yearend 2011, a rate comparable to 1998 (1 in every 34).
Meanwhile, from the report on probation and parole,
  • The number of adults under community supervision declined by about 71,300 during 2011, down to 4,814,200 at yearend.
  • A 2% decline in the probation population along with a 1.6% increase in the parole population accounted for the overall change in the community supervision population.
  • At yearend 2011, for the first time since 2002, the U.S. probation population fell below 4 million.
  • The rate of incarceration among probationers at risk for violating their conditions of supervision in 2011 (5.5%) was consistent with the rate in 2000 (5.5%).
  • Among parolees at risk for violating their conditions of supervision, about 12% were reincarcerated during 2011, down from more than 15% in 2006.
Overall, the number of people incarcerated nationally declined at the state and local levels, though federal incarceration continued to rise:
During 2011, less than half (43%) of the decrease in the incarcerated population (down 30,400 inmates) was attributed to the decline in the local jail population (down 13,100). In comparison, more than half (57%) of the decrease in the incarcerated population was due to the decline in the number of persons in the custody of state and federal prisons (down 17,300).3 All of the decrease in the total prison population was due to the decline in the number of prisoners held in the custody of state facilities (down 25,100 prisoners or 1.9%),including privately operated facilities under state authority (appendix table 1).

The increase in the number of prisoners held in the custody of federal facilities (up 7,800 or 3.8%) partially offset the decline in the total prison population during the year. The growth in the federal prison population during 2011 was lead by an increase in the number of federal prisoners held in privately operated facilities under federal authority (up 4,600 or 18.2%).
Despite the slight decline in prisoner number witnessed in the last three years, however, nationwide America incarcerated 13.1% more people in 2011 (more than 174,000, overall) than it did in 2001, according to the BJS.

Texas' state data won't surprise regular Grits readers. Probation rolls declined by 10,000 last year due to a combination of declining crime and expanded use of early release provisions from Texas' 2007 probation reforms. Meanwhile, a slight uptick in parole rates increased the number of parolees by about 1,800 compared to 2010.

These are tentatively positive trends toward deincarceration, but really mere baby steps compared to the true scope of US overincarceration. Still, as my father like to say, it's better than a sharp stick in the eye.

Millions of hotel rooms can be unlocked with $50 hack

An alleged Houston thief apparently used an inexpensive electronic hack revealed at the Blackhat conference this summer to defeat room locks and steal from the guests at three hotels, reported the Houston Chronicle on Wednesday.

The company, Onity, has sold their locks to hotels worldwide, which are estimated to be used on 4 million hotel rooms globally. Since the hack was revealed, others have perfected the technique and even created James-Bond like concealable devices to perform the task.

The Chronicle reported that, "In a statement, Onity said ... [their] engineers developed mechanical and technical solutions - tested and validated by two independent security firms - to address the issue." But the hacker who discovered and publicized the security flaws says the company's response won't prevent his hack: "I cannot imagine a fix for both of these issues which does not consist of replacing not only the lock circuit boards, but that of the portable programmer and the encoder."

The company responded to the revelations by blaming the hacker as irresponsible, but Darlene Storm at Computer World rightly argues that "in the four months since the flawed keycard lock vulnerability went public, Onity still hasn’t stepped up to fully pay for the required new circuit board and installation. Onity did supply plugs for the DC ports and suggested changing the screws, but left their hotel customers to foot the bill for a more secure fix. This likely means it won't be fixed in all hotels. Therefore, it seems there should be no excuse to blame the hackers instead of the company."

While on the subject of hotel-room security, even the manual metal lock guests can use to secure the door from the inside can be easily defeated though low-tech methods. Be forewarned.

RELATED: Even more disturbing than shoddy hotel security, while Grits was looking into the issue of hacking hotel locks, I ran across this startling story about insecure locks on most major models of gun safes, some of which can be easily defeated by a three year old. Seriously. Read the article, watch the embedded videos, and then, if you're a gun owner, immediately go check your own gun safe to see if it's similarly vulnerable.

Thursday, November 29, 2012

'Kids in Cages'

UT-Austin's alumni magazine, The Alcalde, has a pair of stories related to juvenile justice that merit Grits readers' attention. The first is about LBJ School instructor Michelle Deitch titled "Kids in Cages." Michele's been working in recent years on the issue of juveniles certified for trial as adults, and your correspondent in the past was privileged not just to speak to her class but once even hosted one of her students as an intern. The second piece, titled, "In prison, youth are prey," was authored by Jorge Antonio Renaud, a former inmate turned reform activist and UT alum who Grits attended school with back in the day. Here's a neat promotional video that accompanied the stories online:

RELATED: See a lengthy piece from The Daily Beast titled "Should juvenile criminals be sentenced like adults?"

Guard shortstaffing extends to Huntsville-area prison units

Before now, state officials claimed understaffing problems at Texas prison units were limited to a handful of rural facilities located in areas where oil and gas production made it difficult to compete for low-waged workers. But a TV news report informs us that even Huntsville-area units are coming up short-staffed.

KBTX-TV reported yesterday that, "The Texas Department of Criminal Justice admits there's a statewide shortage of correctional officers. That fact is causing some local correctional officers to fear for their lives." While most of the focus on understaffing has centered on a handful of rural units, the story highlights shortages at units in the Huntsville area as well: "According to the latest records from the Texas Department of Criminal Justice, just the 13 prisons in the Huntsville area are more than 700 correctional officers short."

The story says, "The TDCJ says they will urge the state lawmakers to consider a pay raise for correctional officers in the next legislative session." However, save for $32 million requested to enhance the salaries of prison health care workers, pay hikes for correctional officers were not included in the 12 "exceptional items" submitted in the agency's Legislative Appropriations Request.

How big is the problem? Last month, a union official wrote to Gov. Rick Perry urging raises for correctional officers (see Grits' earlier discussion here and here), offering these data on statewide understaffing trends:
The Department of Criminal Justice currently is over 2,700 officers short, not including the 530 correctional officer positions that were eliminated by your budget cuts this last session. The prisons further have over 500 new recruits in training every month, in addition to over 1,000 employees on Family Medical Leave Status, Military Leave, extended sick leave, and leave without pay. This leaves Texas prisons with a shortage of over 4,730 officers not present at TDCJ prison facilities.
The Legislature last session behaved as though it were in collective denial on this question, cutting the budget for correctional staff, in-prison programming and prisoner health care without taking action to reduce the number of prisoners supervised. This outcome was both predictable and predicted; overstuffed, understaffed prisons are a policy choice, not mere happenstance. As such, to address the situation, the Lege ulltimately will need to make different policy choices.

See prior, related Grits posts:

Wednesday, November 28, 2012

Time to reverse Texas' recent open records trends

Grits didn't get the chance to attend Monday's Senate hearing on open records issues, and indeed only two senators showed up to hear public testimony. But I thought it worthwhile to round up coverage of the event nonetheless:
Notably, a number of these articles claim Texas' open records law is one of the strongest in the country, and 20 years ago Grits would have agreed with that statement. Since then, however, access to records in the two areas about which the public most frequently requests information - government contractors and law enforcement - has been gutted by the Legislature, the courts, and a string of state Attorneys General who have consistently narrowed the act since Jim Mattox left office.

For about 20-25 years after the Sharpstown Bank scandal - the corruption episode which first spawned Texas' open records and open meetings acts - Texas did indeed have arguably the strongest open records law in the nation. Experts debated whether Texas or Florida had the stronger statute, but a legitimate case could be made for both. Today, no one could claim with a straight face that Texas' open records law holds a candle to Florida's, and there hasn't been an effective legislative champion for greater openness since around the time the Southwest Conference closed up shop.

With so few senators attending Monday's committee hearing, it's hard to judge legislative attitudes toward the issues raised there. (Regrettably, it sounds as though the Swiss-cheese-like law enforcement exception was barely discussed, if at all, though state Rep. Harold Dutton has filed a bill to reinstate the stronger, older standard for law enforcement disclosure.) Certainly, though, if the Legislature is going to take up open records questions next year, their goal should be to give the public more information, not to protect government and its agents from scrutiny.

Tuesday, November 27, 2012

Local pols unenthusiastic about privatizing Harris County Jail

A couple of weeks ago, Grits quoted excerpts from a Corrections Corporation of America (CCA) investor phone call in which company bigwigs predicted that Harris County would likely make a decision regarding privatization of its county jail by early next year now that election season had passed. So I'm pleased as punch to see that Charles Kuffner has followed up on the story (since the MSM did not) by asking several key county-level players about the prospects of privatizing Texas' largest jail. None of the local pols, though, seemed as enthusiastic about the prospect as the private prison executives.

Notably, "County Judge Ed Emmett said this was the first he’d heard about this particular item in many months," but he promised a public process before any decision was made. "He said that right now the RFP that Corrections Corporation of America and any other bidders submitted is being reviewed by the purchasing department, which will when ready present its findings for the Court to consider. At that time, they may or may not take any action." Not exactly a ringing endorsement.

Commissioner Radack portrayed the RFP as more of an information gathering process than a serious outsourcing proposal. He "characterized this as a very complex process and that the main thing he hoped to get out of it was some lessons about possible ways to be more efficient and save money. I suggested his description sounded somewhat like an audit to me, and he thought that was a reasonable analogy. He stressed that any review of corrections is multifaceted and can take a lot of time." Concluded Kuff, "I did not get the impression [Radack] was seeking anything transformational." Part of that may be because the situation at the jail has changed. Kuff noted:
I’m reminded as I review the history of all this that the origin was in late 2010 when Radack and Jerry Eversole were complaining about the cost of outsourcing inmates to Louisiana. That was when Radack made his request for a study of ways to reduce costs at the jail, which turned into a formal RFP when then-Budget Director Dick Raycraft came back and said it was the only way to answer the question. And so here we are today, in an environment where inmates are no longer being outsourced and jail costs overall are already lower, awaiting that answer.
Finally, Sheriff Adrian Garcia sent Kuff a written statement which included this rebuff to the privatization idea: "I am also mindful of Judge Emmett’s comment that no private detention company has run a jail system as big as ours, and of then-Texas Commission on Jail Standards Executive Director Adan Munoz’s comment that privatization of the jail is not advisable. Their comments also mirror those of sheriffs in other parts of the country who have seen how privatization experiments at county jails have actually cost communities more than when they were run by the sheriff."

Despite the more sanguine portrayal to CCA investors by company executives, these comments don't sound like privatization of the Harris County Jail is in any way imminent nor even presently on the commissioners court's radar screen, though it's possible that could change when the purchasing department finishes evaluating responses to the RFP.

Good blogging by Kuff - thanks a lot, amigo, for following up!

Prison guard union backs de-incarceration, closing 2 private units

Reacting to this Grits post on "Reaganite" vs. "statist" approaches to prison understaffing, a labor leader from AFSCME, which represents Texas prison guards, emailed to clarify the group's position vis a vis possible prison unit closures. Here's the full text of his letter, followed by Grits' reaction:

Monday, November 26, 2012

'Standing up for Mr. Nesbitt,' tracking the cell-phone trackers, and other digital forensics stories

Electronic privacy continues to gain more attention in the wake of the Petraeus scandal and other recent revelations about the scope of law enforcement snooping around people's electronic communications. Here are a few more recent tidbits that caught Grits' eye:

Amarillo appeals court: 'A cell phone is not a pair of pants'

The Seventh Court of Appeals in Amarillo in a recent opinion (pdf) addressed the question, "May an officer conduct a warrantless search of the contents or stored data in a cell phone when its owner was required to relinquish possession of the phone as part of the booking or jailing process?" They said "No," at least barring "exigent circumstances or other recognized exceptions to the warrant requirement." Here's how attorney-blogger Paul Kennedy described the gist of the ruling:
In State v. Granville, No. 07-11-0415-CR (Tex.App.-- Amarillo 2012), the Amarillo Court of Appeals held that the warrantless search of a cell phone by a "stranger to an arrest" violates the Fourth Amendment. In its opinion, the court explained, in detail, why a cell phone is not a pair of pants.

The court explained that a cell phone is more like a computer and that the information contained within the memory of a cell phone provides a glimpse into the private life of the owner and that the use of passwords, encrypted programs and other security measures gave the user a reasonable expectation of privacy.

The court also took note that Mr. Granville's phone had to be turned on by the officer who decided he needed to snoop around and look at the photos stored on the phone. The fact that the phone had been turned off was another indication that Mr. Granville had a reasonable expectation of privacy.

Finally the court addressed the issue of whether a pre-trial detainee (arrestee) has a privacy interest in his cell phone. Mr. Granville was arrested for a Class C misdemeanor (for those outside the Lone Star State, that is the equivalent of a traffic ticket). He was not going to be held in custody for long and he certainly wasn't the type of person that the ordinary citizen would think should be locked up. The court stated that, because a pre-trial detainee has the opportunity to post bond and get released that he has a greater privacy interest in his personal property than an inmate.

I leave y'all with this quote from the opinion:
While assaults upon the Fourth Amendment and article I, § 9 of the United States and Texas Constitutions regularly occur, the one rebuffed by the trial court here is sustained. A cell phone is not a pair of pants.
NOTE: An attentive commenter alerted me to the fact that the Court of Criminal Appeals granted cert on this case (i.e., they agreed to the prosecution's request that they hear it), so stay tuned. Texas' high criminal court could yet perpetuate another "assaul[t] on the Fourth Amendment," as the Amarillo court put it, and decide that a cell phone is, in fact, a pair of pants.

Sunday, November 25, 2012

Why does Google give US law enforcement special access to user info compared to other nations?

In the wake of the David Petraeus scandal, in which the FBI gained back-end access to the gmail accounts of the CIA director's paramour, I ran across Google's semi-annual transparency statement, in which we learn that in the first six months of 2012, Google granted all or part of 90% of information requests from US law enforcement agencies, handing out information on 16,281 users in response to 7,969 requests.

Comparing requests by country (Google provides only top-line national data, so we can't see how many were in Texas v. California, etc.), the United States was far and away the source of the most law enforcement requests to Google for information and, even more interesting, far and away had the smallest proportion of requests denied. Google responded with user account information to 90% of US law enforcement requests in the first half of 2012, which was actually down from the previous reporting periods. According to the transparency report, "We review each request to make sure that it complies with both the spirit and the letter of the law, and we may refuse to produce information or try to narrow the request in some cases." Fair enough.

Here's what I don't understand. Take a look at the approval rates for various governments that requested user account information from Google:
How is it that Google turns down German law enforcement 61% of the time, turns down Canadians 76% of the time, but American law enforcement's requests are approved at a 90% clip? Why does Google grant such a greater proportion of law enforcement requests in the United States compared to other countries, including other western democracies? Is it that US laws are more favorable to law enforcement and less conducive to personal privacy? Or does Google give US government agencies special treatment compared to other national governments? (To be fair, the rate at which Google approved US law enforcement requests has declined slightly from 94% in the second half of 2010.) Are there certain agencies responsible for the lions's share of requests or is it spread out? Do requests mostly come from federal agencies or from state and local entities? Regrettably, Google's transparency report answers none of these questions

Not only is the rate of law enforcement requests granted by Google especially high in the United States,  US agencies ask for information far more frequently than in any other country, and the number of requests is growing dramatically. Here's a chart Grits compiled from Google transparency reports:

So requests more than doubled in the last two years with little sign of the trend relenting. On one hand, if Google is going to approve such requests at a 90+% clip, I certainly understand why law enforcement agencies in the United States would  ask for the data more frequently. OTOH, that begs the question, why doesn't Google resist such requests as often in America as they do throughout the rest of the world? Does their relative leniency toward US law enforcement encourage the volume of requests, or vice versa? Is it US law or Google's relative level of sycophancy that explains the difference?

The flip side of that debate, of course, is that Google provides more transparency on these questions than companies like Facebook or US cell phone providers, so one hesitates to criticize them too harshly simply because they divulge (a little) more information than other tech companies who share user information with law enforcement. But with the government accessing Google user account information at such a rapidly increasing pace, Google cannot escape accountability for their own role in the erosion of online privacy, and the Petraeus scandal has momentarily brought that role to the forefront.

Grits continues to ponder the implications of these events and so do many others. See these items related to the implications for online privacy from the Petraeus scandal.
The sad truth is - as one expert, who compared the scope of Google's private surveillance apparatus to "Skynet," recently informed a conference of hackers - personal privacy is all but dead for most Americans. But is Google facilitating that trend on behalf of law enforcement more rapidly in the United States than elsewhere across the globe? If they fought requests for Americans' user information harder, would police seek it out less frequently? ¿Quien sabe?

Perhaps in answering these sorts of questions we can eventually discover the real lessons of the Petraeus scandal beyond the partisan carping and short-term political positioning that's so far mostly dominated the national conversation surrounding the spymaster's fall from grace.

Saturday, November 24, 2012

News Flash: Ken Anderson court of inquiry may be delayed

Rumors are circulating that the court of inquiry initiated by Michael Morton's attorneys against Williamson County District Judge (and former District Attorney) Ken Anderson may be reset for Feb. 4, from the currently scheduled date of Dec. 10. More on this if and when it materializes, but from the standpoint of educating legislators and the public, from Grits' perspective early February is a fine time to delve into the sordid details of the causes and consequences of perhaps Texas' most high-profile false conviction.

Besides, postponing till February will give everyone including your correspondent time to finish reading Pam Colloff's massive, two-part tome on Michael Morton's framing and exoneration, see here and here. My deadline for doing so is shorter than yours, though, because Pam has graciously assented to a podcast interview about her story we're going to record on Dec. 3, so look forward to that coming out sometime that week.

UPDATE: The Texas Tribune confirmed reports that the court of inquiry has indeed been delayed until Feb. 4.

TDCJ must choose between statist, Reaganite options on prison understaffing

Staffing woes at several isolated, rural Texas prisons leave legislators with three options: A) Increase pay to attract workers in areas where TDCJ competes with active oil fields and fracking operations for employees, B) close understaffed facilities and consolidate employees in fewer units to relieve understaffing, or C) do nothing and wait for violence or litigation to force state action after the fact where it could not be moved based on reason or foresight.

A recent news story portrayed understaffing at Texas prisons as having reached a critical juncture: According to the Texas Tribune's Maurice Chammah, "Leaders of the state’s prison employee union say that officials are leaving Texas prisons dangerously understaffed. On Wednesday, they renewed calls for better pay, noting that the holiday season is a particularly dangerous time in Texas prisons." The union wants "to shorten the amount of time it takes to get from minimum pay, $27,000, to maximum pay, $37,000, from eight to five years. 'We’re trying to get these new boots [newly-hired officers] a light at the end of the tunnel,' [AFSCME executive director Brian] Olsen said."

Notably, pay hikes for guards were not among the "exceptional items" requested by TDCJ in their biennial Legislative Appropriations Request. Still, that doesn't mean the Lege can ignore the problem.

Obviously, the union's preference would be to keep the same number of employees or increase their ranks while paying everybody more. Let's call that the "statist option," or Option A  The main problem: Increasing pay at 111 units statewide makes little sense when understaffing is isolated to 7-8 specific units. Most COs benefiting from the pay hike would not assist the state in staffing these few, problem facilities and boosting pay for everyone would be costly. Option B - reducing incarceration rates and closing prison units to consolidate understaffed guards in fewer facilities - harks back to Ronald Reagan's strategy as Governor of California to reduce state prison costs. Call Option B the "Reaganite option." Option C, of course, is simply what happens when the state fails to anticipate trends, muddling forward into this predictable mess without a plan until the vicissitudes of fate leave the state with no real choices at all. Let's call that the "Oops option."

Grits has written so frequently about this dynamic there's little need to iterate the point, but also there's little doubt these debates will re-emerge once the 83rd legislative session begins.

Wednesday, November 21, 2012

Thanksgiving open thread: Volunteer opportunity on electronic privacy

Grits will be taking a few days off for the holiday so use this post as an open thread to talk about any Texas criminal justice topics you like. In the meantime, though, a couple of announcements:

First up, a) are you interested in activism on electronic privacy issues, b) do you live in the Austin area, and c) does your work or school schedule next spring allow for part-time work on a legislative project during the daytime? If the answer to all three of those questions is yes, shoot me an email at shenson[at] The missus and I are aiming to put together a small strike team of folks to promote one or two good bills on the topic, and perhaps perform defensive work when bad legislation arises. Experience would be great but unnecessary if you're a smart person who can learn new skills; training and experienced supervision will be provided. This is a small side project on an area where Grits fears there's an advocacy vacuum. At the same time, for several reasons, I suspect the 83rd Texas Legislature may be more predisposed than some of its predecessors to scaling back Big Brotherish law enforcement tactics being championed at the national level by the Obama Administration. Anyway, we're going to find out. Email if you're interested in helping out.

Also, as the legislative session approaches, let me iterate that those who want to receive an email each morning with links to the previous day's Grits posts should sign up here (or in the right-hand column):

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Enjoy Thanksgiving, folks, and have a great holiday.

Tuesday, November 20, 2012

Exoneree's false conviction based on prosecutor misconduct, and other stories

As Grits slows down for the holiday, here are a number of items that aren't going to make it into their own, individual posts before the turkey carving but still merit Grits readers' attention.

Latest exoneree's false conviction based on prosecutor misconduct, mendacious jailhouse snitches
Kenneth Boyd, Jr., of Center, who was falsely convicted of two homicides in 1999, will be released today on a personal recognizance bond awaiting his formal exoneration by the Court of Criminal Appeals, reported the Longview News-Journal. The false conviction stemmed from a combination of alleged prosecutorial misconduct and unreliable jailhouse snitches: "In June, Shelby County 273rd District Court Judge Charles Mitchell found that former Shelby County District Attorney Karren Price had suppressed evidence." Congratulations to Mr. Boyd and his legal team on this hard-fought victory.

Doomsday deal on Waco jail coming home to roost
In Waco, McLennan County commissioners cite cost overruns at the jail "as a major cause of the 2-cent property tax increase in this year’s budget." Grits has long been critical of the "doomsday deal" that put Mclennan County in such a bind, this summer calling it a "slow motion train wreck."

John Bradley among medical parole decisionmakers
The Houston Chronicle has an article providing perspectives on whether and/or how medical parole might be expanded in Texas. Among the tidbits Grits learned that jumped out at me, "Williamson County District Attorney John Bradley, who serves on a panel that makes recommendations on medical releases to the parole board, would like to require inmates to waive their medical privacy rights 'to make the process more transparent.'" Grits had no idea JB was somehow involved in that decisionmaking process. Talk about a finger in every pie!

Long-time Tyler Sheriff looks back, says 'adios'
The Tyler Morning Telegraph has a retrospective on outgoing Smith County Sheriff J.B. Smith, who's nearing retirement, gathering his recollections on living in the courthouse next to the jail with his family at the beginning of his career in the '70s. Nothing in the story on the more controversial aspects of Smith's career, but an interesting retrospective from a retiring East Texas lawman.

County jail privatization: Healthcare edition
Hays County may privatize healthcare at the county jail, although contrary to trends elsewhere in the state, "The jail's medical expenses have decreased about 5 percent in recent years, from $875,200 in the 2010 fiscal year to $830,600 in 2011 and $828,500 in the 2012 budget year ending in September."

About that deer ...
In Tyler, "A former Texas Department of Public Safety trooper, who told his coworkers he wrecked his patrol car earlier this month while trying to avoid a deer, has been arrested for driving while intoxicated and resigned his position as a result of the investigation into the accident."

The Fourth Amendment and drug testing welfare moms
Following up on a subject Grits opined upon here, a column in the Fort Worth Star-Telegram examines the question of drug testing welfare recipients and the Fourth Amendment banning unreasonable searches and seizures. SCOTUS has banned requiring drug tests of politicians, but allowed it for students as a bar to participating in extra-curricular activities. In Michigan, SCOTUS threw out a law requiring drug testing of welfare recipients in 2003, and a federal court has prevented a similar Florida law passed in 2011 from taking effect until the issue can be litigated. Excellent background on what's shaping up to be one of the more contentions issues of the session.

Debating format of judicial elections
The Fort Worth Star-Telegram editorialized against state Sen. Dan Patrick's suggestion for eliminating straight ticket voting in judicial elections, an idea I tend to support. Their reasoning was that they'd prefer an appointment system with voting down the line for retention. In theory, I would too. But eliminating straight ticket voting is a step in the right direction. Making those races non-partisan IMHO would be even better.

DPS stands alone on helicopter sniper policy
It turns out, "Texas is the only border state that allows and trains its officers to fire on suspects from airborne helicopters." a policy that recently didn't turn out so well.

Poor conditions cited at TX immigration detention centers
The Texas Tribune reported on alleged inhumane conditions at two privately operated immigration detention facilities - one in Houston and Polk County.

Studies backing bail bond methods flawed
According to The Crime Report, "Six studies that are often cited in support of the for-profit bail bonding industry have methodological flaws that make them unreliable, according to a paper published by the non-profit Pretrial Justice Institute" See the analysis itself here (pdf).

'Aggregation and urban misdemeanors'
In her latest paper, legal academic Alexandra Natapoff, one of Grits' favorite legal thinkers, considers   the extent to which high-volume court systems create "pressure to aggregate" misdemeanor cases in ways that may weaken "and sometimes eliminates individuated scrutiny of defendants and the evidence in their cases; people are largely evaluated, convicted, and punished by category and based on institutional habit."

Graffiti here, there and yon
With the UT-A&M football rivalry off and the Aggies thriving in the SEC (albeit with the bitter taste of last year's sendoff in the UT game perhaps still smarting just a tad), I was almost pleased to see that at least some Aggie students care enough about the rivalry to come to Austin to tag the UT campus in lieu of an on-the-field confrontation. UTPD released a photo searching for suspects. Several other graff-related items recently caught Grits' eye: President Obama was greeted with graffiti in Myanmar. In Virginia, someone tagged a statue of Robert E. Lee with the phrase "beefcake." A woman in Florida who was angry at the judge in her divorce case went on a graffiti spree at the county courthouse. Finally, Boing Boing has a picture of this awesome Mickey Mouse/skull graffiti from San Francisco, with which we'll close out the post:

Via Boing Boing, art by Goser.

Monday, November 19, 2012

On the Petraeus scandal and online privacy

Though this is not a Texas subject, here's something that's bothered me.

To be clear, Grits could honestly not care less if David Petraeus cheated on his wife. I don't know him, I don't know her, and the whole episode at root sounds tawdry and personal - the sort of thing that's none of my business except that the media tsunami has made it nigh-on impossible to avoid.. There are two elements of this episode, though, I do care about. First, Petraeus appeared to be one of the few truly competent career military leaders involved in making US foreign policy and I'd prefer not to see him ousted for reasons unrelated to job performance. Second, and more importantly for the issues covered by this blog, I'm flat-out astonished at the investigative path that led the FBI to Petraeus, and in particular the outlandishly sweeping electronic surveillance powers exhibited by the FBI - with and without a warrant - vis a vis Broadwell's gmail account(s), to which Google apparently gave them unlimited back-end access.

The Washington Post on Saturday ran a story detailing the sweeping nature of the FBI's electronic investigation powers through the lens of the Petraeus scandal. Reported the Post:
the trail cut across a seemingly vast territory with no clear indication of the boundaries, if any, that the FBI imposed on itself. The thrust of the investigation changed direction repeatedly and expanded dramatically in scope.

A criminal inquiry into e-mail harassment morphed into a national security probe of whether CIA Director David H. Petraeus and the secrets he guarded were at risk. After uncovering an extramarital affair, investigators shifted to the question of whether Petraeus was guilty of a security breach.

When none of those paths bore results, investigators settled on the single target they are scrutinizing now: Paula Broadwell, the retired general’s biographer and mistress, and what she was doing with a cache of classified but apparently inconsequential files.

On Capitol Hill, the case has drawn references to the era of J. Edgar Hoover, the founding director of the FBI, who was notorious for digging up dirt on Washington’s elite long before the invention of e-mail and the Internet.

“The expansive data that is available electronically now means that when you’re looking for one thing, the chances of finding a whole host of other things is exponentially greater,” said Rep. Adam B. Schiff (D-­Calif.), a member of the House intelligence committee and a former federal prosecutor.

In this case, Schiff said, the probe may have caused more harm than it uncovered. “It’s very possible that the most significant damage done to national security was the loss of General Petraeus himself,” Schiff said.
Congressman.Schiff's quote nailed it: This investigation surely caused more harm to national security than it exposed. But this case was just a microcosm of a scandal IMO more worrisome than the liaisons of a middle-aged general. "Law enforcement demands for e-mail and other electronic communications from providers such as Google, Comcast and Yahoo are so routine that the companies employ teams of analysts to sort through thousands of requests a month. Very few are turned down." No doubt in at least some of those less-well publicized instances, just as happened with Gen. Petraeus, the harm from those investigations similarly outweighed their benefit.

According to the Philadelphia Inquirer, which said the Petraeus scandal heralded the "no privacy era," "a recent Google report says government requests to Google for surveillance information have increased 55 percent in the last six months, led by the United States." Wired gave more detail,  reporting that the company received more than 23,000 requests for email information from the US government in 2011. And even that may be understated:
Google’s transparency data is limited, as it does not include requests submitted under the Patriot Act, which can include National Security Letters that come with gag orders attached to them. Nor does the data include anti-terrorism eavesdropping court orders, known as FISA orders, or any dragnet surveillance programs legalized in 2008, as those are secret, too.

The data Google hands over to governments can include e-mail communications, documents, browsing activity and IP addresses used to create and access an account, among other things.
Here's a good account of what's known about the techniques used by the FBI to dig into the couple's email.

Between nearly at-will back-end email access to email header information and the ability to access GPS tracking data from people's cell phones without a warrant, it really does seem like privacy in the modern era has become a pipe dream for most people. Hell, even the nation's top spy couldn't conceal his online activities: What chance do the rest of us have?

All I can say: We are lucky that we do not at present live in a full-blown totalitarian state, because we have given the state totalitarian tools.

More media coverage of San Antonio Four

There  has been a spate of recent coverage surrounding the "San Antonio Four" - four lesbian women who may have been falsely convicted of child molestation nearly 20 years ago in a bizarre case tainted by questionable testimony and flawed forensic science. Prospects for their exoneration improved earlier this year when one of the alleged victims recanted her testimony. See:
See earlier, extensive coverage of the case from the SA Express News here and here.

Sunday, November 18, 2012

Cleaning house at the Williamson County DA

There have been a couple of John Bradley sightings this week as he prepares to turn over the reins of the Williamson County District Attorney's office to Jana Duty following a bitter primary campaign. After Duty announced her intention to fire a dozen staffers at the DA's office, including five prosecutors, Bradley said her decision showed she was “blinded by her political hatred” of him and his crew. By contrast, reported the Austin Statesman ("Next Williamson County DA already shaking up staff," Nov. 16), Rob Kepple of the Texas District and County Attorneys Association said, “It’s not unusual to have a lot of changes early on. Everybody gets to set their office up and get the people in that they want.” For her part, “Duty said the reasons for the other planned terminations departures in the office varied. 'Some people were rude. Some are unprofessional. Some I do not trust.'”

Further, "Duty said she didn’t want to keep some of the prosecutors because they were 'indoctrinated in the John Bradley school of thought,' what she called a closed-file policy under which defense attorneys weren’t allowed to see the evidence against their clients until shortly before trial." Bradley, for his part, insisted his office implemented an open file policy about a year ago, but local defense attorneys say that in practice that's not true. It'll be interesting to see what changes Ms. Duty makes to the policy once she's in charge and what files become open that aren't presently being released. (Grits will try and remember to check up on that point next spring.)

In other Bradley-related news, Wilco Watchdog reported that, "according to sources, Bradley has met with District Judges and is attempting to meet with county commissioners to garner support for creating two positions for indigent defense appellate work; one for himself and the other for Kristen Jernigan," an appellate lawyer who handled the Michael Morton case for the DA's office. We knew Bradley had applied to run the Special Prosecution Unit at TDCJ, so here's another datapoint regarding his job hunt, though I'm admittedly surprised to see him seeking to do indigent defense. The Watchdog says Bradley sought the county-level position because he is unlikely to be hired at the State Prosecution Unit, whose overseers consider him "toxic."

Another of the fired prosecutors, Lindsey Roberts, reported the Watchdog, "has stated he has future political aspirations to run for District Judge in 2014." 

Notably, according to the Watchdog, "Bradley has only been seen at his office a handful of times since his May 29th defeat," perhaps as a result of his active job hunt. Since these two gigs may be slipping away from his grasp, I encourage readers to suggest other employment options for Mr. Bradley in the comments.

Saturday, November 17, 2012

Rating blawg influence

Nice: A social media company called Cision created a list of the most influential independent law blogs based on their own influence rating system and Grits for Breakfast logged in at number three, behind Above the Law and The Volokh Conspiracy. Not too shabby for a state-specific blog with no twitter feed, though the "independent" caveat apparently excluded heavy hitters like SCOTUSBlog, which is affiliated with a law firm. In any event, whatever their algorithm, "influence" really just means folks who read stuff here take what they learn and do something with it, either online or out in the world. In that respect, to the extent this blog has any particular influence, it's due as much to the readers as the correspondent. So thanks to everyone who reads Grits, thanks especially to those who act on what they read here, and a tip of the hat to Cision for the shout-out on their blawg list.

Friday, November 16, 2012

Judicial Council: Fund indigent defense, rationalize court fees, give judiciary more money

Texas Lawyer's TexParte Blog provided a link to 10 resolutions (pdf) to the Legislature from the Texas Judicial Council, several of which merit highlighting. (See below the jump.)

Feds may belatedly regulate rates on jail phone calls

According to Bloomberg News ("Prison phone rate cuts considered by US regulators," Nov. 15), "U.S. regulators are considering rate caps and other steps to lower jailhouse telephone rates." This primarily affects just two companies, because the nationwide market for jail and prison phone services:
is dominated by two private equity-backed companies, Global Tel*Link Corp. and Securus Technologies Inc.

Castle Harlan Inc., which owns Securus, declined to comment, Michael Millican, a spokesman, said in an e-mail. Caroline Harris, a spokeswoman for Global Tel*Link owner American Securities, in an e-mail declined to comment.

The companies bid for exclusive contracts to provide telephone service, agreeing to pay as much as two-thirds of calling charges to government or private prison operators. Those commissions can drive fees to levels that make it difficult for prisoners to maintain contact with spouses, children and parents. ...

Global Tel*Link, based in Mobile, Alabama, has about 50 percent of the correctional-phone services market, followed by Securus with almost 30 percent, according to Standard & Poor’s. 
Dallas-based Securus Technologies, notably, is the company providing phone service to TDCJ. So Grits was interested to read that federal regulators appear primed to reduce the profit margins of this oligopoly:
U.S. regulators are considering rate caps and other steps to lower jailhouse telephone rates that enrich private equity firms as they cost U.S. prisoners and their families as much as $17 for a 15-minute call.

Federal Communications Commission Chairman Julius Genachowski yesterday proposed information-gathering that could lead to a vote to intervene in the $1.2 billion prison-phone market, FCC Commissioner Mignon Clyburn said at a rally today.

“For far too long, friends and family of the incarcerated have had no choice but to pay unconscionably high long-distance rates,” Clyburn told demonstrators seeking lower rates who gathered outside the agency’s headquarters in Washington.

Clyburn, like the chairman a Democrat, said the proceeding was started by Genachowski and could lead to lower rates “soon,” without specifying a timeline. Rate caps are among steps being considered, said two agency officials who spoke on condition of anonymity because the matter hasn’t been made public.
 Better late than never, is all Grits has to say about that.

Round the blogs: Judge and jail edition

Here are links to a number of recent items from Texas Prison Bidness which deserve Grits readers' attention:
See also from Paul Kennedy, "Just another death at the Harris County Jail."

See Mark Bennett and Murray Newman dissecting Harris County judicial election outcomes.

Woman still incarcerated based on Keith Pikett dog-scent testimony

At the Texas Tribune, reprinted in the New York Times, Brandi Grissom has an update on the strange saga of Megan Winfrey and clan, who were accused of murder based on one of Fort Bend Sheriff Deputy Keith Pikett's dog scent lineups. Regular readers may recall Grits' expressing approval when the Court of Criminal Appeals overturned her father Richard Winfrey's conviction based on what Jeff Blackburn called the "junkiest" of junk science. But his daughter, convicted on the same evidence, remains incarcerated. As Grissom described it:
Mr. Winfrey and his daughter, Megan, and his son, Richard Jr., were charged with murdering Murray Burr, a janitor at Coldspring High School in Coldspring, during a robbery in 2004. Richard Winfrey Sr. and Ms. Winfrey were convicted. 

The charges against the Winfreys were based primarily on evidence gathered during a dog-scent lineup conducted by a self-trained police deputy whose work in the Winfrey case — and others — was found unreliable by experts. They said the deputy had cued the dogs to “alert” for the suspects during the scent lineups. 

Richard Winfrey Jr. was acquitted by a jury in 13 minutes, after his lawyers had presented evidence that the dog-scent lineup was a sham. 

In April, Ms. Winfrey’s lawyers told the criminal appeals court that the dog-scent evidence used to secure her conviction and life sentence was “bad science masquerading as science.” In her father’s case, the same court found that the dog-scent evidence alone was not sufficient for his conviction. They issued an acquittal in 2010, and he was released. 

But Ms. Winfrey remains in the Murray prison unit for women in Gatesville.
The Trib article also brings news of civil proceedings by the Winfreys against Keith Pikett: "The U.S. Court of Appeals for the 5th Circuit recently agreed to allow Richard Winfrey Jr. to proceed in a lawsuit against the dog handler and two other officers involved in the murder investigation."

Notably, there has never been a comprehensive vetting of the cases Deputy Pikett worked with his dogs the way, for example, old arson cases involving junk science are being vetted in the wake of the Forensic Science Commission's report on the Todd Willingham case. Are there others before the Winfreys who went to prison framed by Pikett's dogs? In how many cases were Pikett's dog-scent lineup the primary inculpatory evidence against a defendant? Nobody knows, but Texas appellate courts had been allowing his testimony for years until Megan's father's case finally put a stop to it.

Grits fails to understand why the Court of Criminal Appeals has taken so long to decide Megan Winfrey's case, where prosecutors told the jury the dog-scent lineup was "as good as DNA," but I wish they'd hop to it. Their landmark ruling in her father's related case is now more than two years old, and if for some reason they're going to flip flop and say the same evidence is sufficient to keep the daughter in prison, the least they can do is publicly explain why. Otherwise, it's time for Megan to go home and for the broader debate to begin about how to assess possible false convictions from the same junk science used in prior cases.

See earlier coverage of the case from the Tribune and the Austin Statesman.

See also prior, related Grits posts:

Thursday, November 15, 2012

Dutton files drug-reform bills, fix to law enforcement exception in Public Information Act

State Rep. Harold Dutton yesterday filed a series of bills I support, including one which must warm the cockles of Vikrant Reddy's heart at the Texas Public Policy Foundation, acting as it does on one of his suggestions at Tuesday's legislative briefing on indigent defense. Dutton 's HB 184 would reduce the penalty for possession of less than two ounces of marijuana to a Class C misdemeanor, which is a ticket-only offense. That would mean, among other things, that counties wouldn't have to hire those folks a lawyer. Another bill, HB 182, would lower the penalty class for possession of less than a gram of a controlled substance from a state jail felony to a Class A misdemeanor. Combined, these two bills would save counties large sums in indigent defense costs and reduce pressure on TDCJ from warehousing low-level drug offenders.

Both Texas' experience with juvenile offenders and California's experience shifting low-level adult offenders to counties have demonstrated that less serious offenders can be adequately supervised at the local level and it's cheaper and more effective to do that whenever possible.

Dutton has another good bill, HB 183, which amends the official oppression statute to make it official oppression if a public servant acting under the color of their office or employment "intentionally subjects another to excessive physical force." This would be a third degree felony if the actor is a police officer; just a Class A if your city council member or other non-badged public servant decides to use excessive physical force.

Dutton's HB 188 would expand affirmative "Romeo and Juliet" defense to statutory rape clause to include youth up to five years apart only if they were in high-school together at the time the act occurred. A reasonable caveat.

Finally, perhaps most near and dear to my own heart, Rep. Dutton has filed legislation (HB 193) to re-establish the old rule regarding law enforcement records under the Public Information Act, making information about criminal investigations public once the investigation is complete (unless the material falls under another of a long list of possible exceptions, which is often the case). See this Grits' discussion of the topic from a prior session.

Is 2013 the year Texas legislators axe Orwellian-named Driver Responsibility Surcharge?

The Texas Tribune has an item today on the bill by Round Rock Republican state Rep. Larry Gonzales (mentioned in this Grits post) to abolish the Orwellian-named Driver Responsibility program. Here's a notable excerpt explaining why large hospitals are opposing the idea:
Gonzales' bill is just the latest in a years-long campaign by critics to put an end to a program they say is ineffective and unfair. But the program also provides millions of dollars to trauma centers across Texas, and the specter of eliminating those funds has emergency care providers worried.

"It would have a huge impact on the trauma system as we know it," said Dinah Welsh, CEO of the Texas EMS, Trauma and Acute Care Foundation.

The program has generated about $751 million for the state since its creation in 2003. About half of that has gone to the state's general revenue fund.

About $381 million of the program's revenue, though, has gone to the Designated Trauma Facility and Medical Service Account. The fund, created in 2004 and administered by the Texas Department of State Health Services, helps offset the costs of emergency care hospitals provide for patients who cannot afford to pay for it.
This is not a new idea, but support for it is growing. Judges routinely deride the "devastating" effects of the surcharge on the court system. A focus group of criminal justice experts convened by the Legislative Budget Board last fall "voiced support for ending or reforming the Driver Responsibility Program (DRP), which provides significant financial burden on DWI (and other) offenders with seemingly little to no public safety enhancement." The original bill author has said it was a mistake and Mothers Against Drunk Driving has said they won't mind if it's repealed. Even DPS Executive Director Steve McCraw finds no public safety benefit in the program. It's really just a scheme to mulct drivers low-income drivers, too often catching them in a slippery slope of perverse financial incentives that promote unlicensed, uninsured driving more than discouraging it, not to mention joblessness and declining DWI conviction rates.

Grits has written a great deal on this subject and no doubt will have more to say in the future. But for now let me say I wholeheartedly endorse Rep. Gonzales' bill and wish him all the best with it. Readers should contact your state representative and ask them to support and co-sponsor it. For more background on why the Driver Responsibility Surcharge should be abolished and trauma centers funded through a more reliable source, probably state general revenue, see these prior, related Grits posts:

Is Texas border crime "overwhelming" or at historic lows?

In an item titled "Texas police face continuing border crime problems," we learn from KPRC-TV that Brooks County has ceased receiving "Border Star" grant funds:
While it still receives some federal funding through partnerships with surrounding counties, the Brooks County Sheriff's Office recently lost its state Border Star funding for the quarter. 

[Sheriff Urbino] Martinez explained that with only a staff of three administrators, who also handle calls for help and take missing persons reports, the office couldn't keep up with all the paperwork required to secure the grant.
The story portrays Brooks County, population 7,200, as "facing an overwhelming amount of crime."
Brooks County averages two high-speed chases every day involving either drugs or human smuggling. 

This year, the county is also contending with 60 missing person cases and 116 bodies of illegal immigrants found murdered or dead from exposure.

Sheriff's office records show the number of bodies found in Brooks County in 2012 has more than doubled from 2011.

Grits' understanding was that most of the bodies found in Brooks County were illegal immigrants who died from exposure trying to walk through the Texas heat past border patrol checkpoints. The Austin Statesman reported last year that "Most of the bodies were those of illegal immigrants crossing the brush trying to avoid the U.S. Border Patrol checkpoint in Falfurrias and not victims of direct assaults, according to the Brooks County sheriff's department." Similarly, at the Texas Observer, Melissa del Bosque reported last year that "One of the deadliest corridors along the U.S.-Mexico border is a remote stretch of ranchland in tiny Brooks County." But I suppose it's possible there are murders interspersed with those more pedestrian, if no less tragic, deaths from heat and dehydration. If so, Grits has never heard additional details.

Remarkably, asset forfeiture made up 37.5% of the Brooks County Sheriff's budget last year. While "the sheriff's office's actual budget for 2011-2012 was $620,186.90," reported the TV station, that was supplemented with "an additional $387,834 from asset seizure funds."

With all this action reported by the Brooks County Sheriff, it's ironic and puzzling that larger cities along the border continue to see crime fall to historically low rates. USA Today had a story last week titled, "Violent crime falls in US cities along the Mexico border," where we learn that, remarkably, "Ten of the 13 largest cities in Texas, Arizona and California closest to the Mexico border recorded reductions in overall violent crime, according to the latest FBI’s Uniform Crime Report. Eleven of the 13 also saw reductions in property crime, including burglary and car theft." Here's a notable excerpt from that data-driven article:
While the largest of the border cities -- San Diego and El Paso -- also reported declines, murders in each city jumped in 2011. Yet city officials cautioned that the rise in homicides could not be attributed to a spillover in violence from Mexico.

El Paso recorded 16 murders in 2011, up from just five in 2010, the fewest since 1964. This year, the number is up to 23 killings. But police Sgt. Chris Mears says the larger numbers are within range of the average for the past 20 years.

"None of these homicides are in any way spillover violence from Mexico," Mears says, adding that a number of the homicides have involved child abuse resulting in death.

San Diego County Sheriff Cmdr. David Myers says the rise in murder there â(euro) " from 29 in 2010 to 38 in 2011 â(euro) " was largely attributed to a "flurry" of domestic-related disputes. None of the deaths were linked to Mexican violence, though Myers says the cartels remain active in the region.

El Paso’s proximity to one of the most violent cities in Mexico and world, Ciudad Juarez, prompted widespread fear last year that Mexican violence -- which claimed 3,400 lives in Juarez alone in 2010 -- was washing into U.S. border cities.

But a 2011 USA TODAY analysis of crime data reported by 1,600 law enforcement agencies in four border states found that violent crime rates on the U.S. side of the southwestern border have been falling for years.
The analysis concluded that U.S. cities near the border are statistically safer, on average, than others in their states. The new FBI numbers follow that same pattern.
It's hard to square these sorts of stories. The Brooks County Sheriff reports very few offenses in annual Uniform Crime Reports, which form the basis for USA Today's calculations. The FY 2011 jurisdiction-level report isn't up on the DPS website yet, but they reported one murder in 2009 - the first since the turn of the century - and none in 2010, when the Sheriff's office reported 14 total index-crime offenses. That hardly seems like an overwhelming caseload. One also wonders, if the agency engages in two high-speed chases per day, why those offenders haven't shown up over the last decade ( FY '11 and '12 data aren't available yet from DPS) in the Sheriff's UCR reports? One senses a whiff of exaggeration in the Sheriff's breathless account.

Is border crime "overwhelming" or low as ever? As is often the case one can find news sources, like those quoted in this post, that take both sides of the question. But when one source relies on data analysis and the other on anecdote and hype, my gut generally tells me to go with the folks crunching the data.

Wednesday, November 14, 2012

Hear legislative preview on indigent defense

The Texas Indigent Defense Commission yesterday held a two-hour legislative preview (see the agenda). You can listen to an audio file of the event and see a power point presentation from commission director Jim Bethke's presentation.

MORE: Find below the jump Grits' notes from listening online to the legislative briefing. Regrettably, the audio file cuts off just before the Texas Association of County's Jim Allison got to speak.

TDCJ exceptional items on probation budget welcome, but too timid

Looking further at "exceptional items" requested in TDCJ's budget - restoring the prison health budget was the biggest among them - it's worth pointing out two small but significant line items related to local adult probation departments - health insurance and diversion programming.

Don't prosecute drug war by denying services to young mothers, poor children

I've been thinking a bit about the much-ballyhooed legislation from Gov. Perry and Lt. Gov. Dewhurst, disappointingly championed in the senate by eleven GOP senators, to require drug testing of TANF recipients, who are mostly young mothers and children. As of October of this year, there were around 105,000 TANF recipients in Texas, of whom about 86% were children: Around 90,000 kids and 15,000 adults, mostly young mothers. So if Mom is kicked off "welfare," the main Texans hurt by it are her kids. That strikes me as a misplaced punitive impulse and a poor means of promoting resistance to drug addiction.

Private prison vendor says decision on Harris County Jail privatization coming by early next year

In a conference call last week with investors (see the transcript), Corrections Corporation of America said it expects to find out by next spring whether they will receive a contract to operate the Harris County Jail. Said President and CEO David Hininger:
The final update I wanted to give on the new business opportunities is here in Harris County. And just as a reminder, this is the opportunity to take over the entire jail system within Harris County. This is metropolitan Houston. This would be an opportunity to take over a system that has about 9,000 prisoners on any given day. We submitted our best and final for this procurement back in August of this year, and again we think probably later this year, probably early next year is when the county will make a decision on this requirement
An institutional investor asked Hininger, "Could you describe – give us a little bit more color on Harris County? I kind of had thought that perhaps something might have – a decision might have been made in the fall, and wondering what, if anything, may have changed there?" He replied:
Yeah, good question, I would kind of relate it back to my earlier comment. We just have gotten a sense from our either existing partners or new partners that either opportunities, pending procurements, maybe decisions where they need to move forward on a requirement, a lot of those are just being deferred, either past the election or past the 1st of the year. There was obviously a lot of – everybody in the country was most focused on the national election, but there was a lot of elections going on at the state and local level.

And so, our sense is that we just had a period of time where a lot of decision-makers were sitting on their hands. So I would [say] Harris is probably in that category. And we think we’ve put forth a very compelling and comprehensive and competitive proposal to them, but our sense is probably now that we’re on the other side of the election, either later [this] year or early next year, we’ll see an action being taken by them.
Were Harris County Commissioners waiting for the elections to pass before moving forward on privatization? We'll soon see. For those interested in (much) more detail, here's the RFP to which CCA and its competitors are responding. Notably, most of the information the public has been getting on this back-room process has not come from county government but from corporate investor conference calls. That's never a good sign.

The privatization push is coming mainly from County Commissioner Steve Radack, some say as part of an ongoing squabble with Sheriff Adrian Garcia. Both men just won reelection so you can't rely on voters to straighten out the feud, which leaves the question up in unequal parts to issues of jail economics and political power. Look for the issue to come to a head publicly, one way or the other, by early next year.