Tuesday, March 08, 2016

Asthma as a death sentence, Okies smarten up on crime, and other stories

Here are a few odds and ends which merit Grits readers attention even if I don't have time to elaborate on the issues in independent posts:

'Inside the S&%#house'
Check out an essay from a Texas prison inmate at the Marshall Project about his stint in ad seg (solitary confinement) at the Michael unit in TDCJ. Honestly, it sounds like a living nightmare. Judge Alex Kozinski wrote a piece in the Yale Law Journal opining that solitary confinement, especially for the long-term, is a fate "worse than death."

Asthma as a death sentence in TDCJ
Here's a terrible tale of a Texas prison inmate who died from an asthma attack at the Beto unit in Palestine because a guard refused to bring him his albuterol inhaler. Regular Grits readers will immediately be reminded of Timothy Cole, who died of an asthma attack in prison and was posthumously exonerated. Ironically, Cole's brother, Cory Session, helped this man's mother get her son access to his medication back in 2014, but it didn't stick and tragedy befell. In other words, TDCJ knew full well what the man needed and the guard denied him, anyway. Now he's dead.

Case study on need for Harris County bail reform
Lauren Caruba at the Houston Chronicle had a good story on the travails of a woman accused of child neglect who insists she's innocent but was jailed at length pretrial despite already having had her child taken away and having no criminal record. She was jailed for 15 months in part because she couldn't make bail and in part because she got so sick in jail that officials chose not to take her to court when she had hearings scheduled, even though the court wouldn't let her out. Wrote Caruba:
Contributing to her troubles was Harris County's rigid bail system - a system that county officials, lawyers, legal experts and legislators say most likely violates both state law and the U.S. Constitution by failing to make meaningful individual assessments of risk and ability to pay. Harris County locks up more people pretrial than most other large counties utilizing a standardized schedule that sets bond amounts for specific crimes. Magistrates make bond decisions based almost entirely on charges filed and prior convictions. The bond hearings are held over video linkup during which few questions are asked and defendants have no attorneys.
MSM notices CCA races
After Grits lamented (the other) Scott Walker's plurality victory over Sid Harle for the Court of Criminal Appeals, where he will face a candidate who ran on a Second Amendment and anti-abortion platform unrelated to the CCA, the Houston Chronicle editorial board and SA Express-News columnist Gilbert Garcia picked up on the same themes. If Grits hadn't highlighted the race, I wonder how long it would have taken for them to notice?

TJJD launches work program
The Texas Juvenile Justice Department is piloting a work program for youth prison inmates, reported the Texas Tribune. These kids are all going to get out, for the most part sooner than later, so giving them some work experience while they're locked up makes loads of sense.

Indigent defense and innocence
On March 21st, the Texas House Criminal Jurisprudence committee will hold a hearing on an interim charge related to indigent defense and the state's six innocence clinics. The charge directed them to:
Study the constitutional requirements and local practices for the appointment of counsel to indigent defendants and the operation of innocence projects at the state’s six public law schools. Compare different indigent defense plans and the innocence projects across the state and identify best practices for system management, including appointment methods and timing, cost effectiveness, timeliness of case disposition, compensation of counsel, quality of representation, and protection of procedural rights. Consider the effectiveness of each of the programs currently funded and the funding strategy as a whole.
Death row stories
In the Texas Observer, an attorney for the Texas Defender Service tells the story of her first client to be executed on Texas' death row, a man who committed a multiple homicide when he was "not yet old enough to buy beer." It sounds like the trial attorneys didn't know the first thing about putting on a mitigation defense at sentencing. They assumed he had a normal childhood when in reality it was tragic and awful, as revealed by the investigation by his TDS appellate lawyers. Their (arguably) ineffective assistance probably led to a death sentence where more conscientious trial counsel would likely have led to a different outcome. People with good lawyers on the front end, as a general rule, do not wind up on death row. My pal Danalynn Recer can tell you a lot of similar stories. RELATED: See a report broadcast on 60 Minutes last Sunday interviewing men on Texas death row who've been given execution dates.

Footing the bill for nativism
With all the demagoguery over "sanctuary cities," etc., I'm grateful the Houston Chronicle published this extensive feature on the economics of jails detaining low-level offenders for ICE. "Texas is particularly feeling the pinch," they reported, as federal reimbursements for housing these inmates has declined. Anti-immigrant politics, though, pressures localities to hold low-level inmates with ICE detainers on the local taxpayers' dime. They're not really paying for public safety, as a practical matter, but really to pander to nativist sentiment. Also, at the Atlantic, there's a useful article on the legalities of local control regarding prosecuting and jailing decisions with the apt title, "Sanctuary cities are here to stay." I find the term "sanctuary cities" to be complete BS, FWIW. Not jailing, much less deporting, low-level offenders makes perfect sense to me from practical, economic, and moral perspectives. The goal of the justice system should be to reinforce societal cohesion, including the family unit, not to tear it apart. At root, in Grits' view, immigration law is really a branch of family law.

Okies getting Right on Crime?
Regular readers know Grits takes some good-natured shots at our friends from Oklahoma now and again, reflecting my longstanding view that, if we're going to build a border wall along a river, it should be constructed on the Sabine. But this package of Okie criminal-justice reform bills looks pretty good.
Oklahoma Governor Mary Fallin's Criminal Justice Reform Package consists of 4 proposed bills aimed to alleviate incarceration rates, overcrowded prisons and overburdened county jails. House Bill 2472 would give prosecutors discretion to file charges for almost every non-violent crime as misdemeanors instead of felonies. House Bill 2479 would reduce the mandatory punishment for subsequent drug offenses. Currently the sentence for felony possession is 2 to10 years in prison. For the first felony drug possession conviction this bill would decrease the sentencing to 0 to 5 years in prison. House Bill 2753 deals with drug courts and community sentencing and in aimed at helping addicts get treatment. Finally, House Bill 2751 would raise the threshold to $1,000 for a property crime to be charged as a felony. District Attorney for the 13th District, Kenny Wright said he doesn't think these bills will necessarily keep people out of prison, but could have less people committing crimes.
Grits especially like the idea of giving prosecutors discretion to charge "almost every non-violent crime as misdemeanors instead of felonies." Texas raised its property theft threshold last year to $2,500, well above the $1,000 proposed by the Okie governor. And our drug sentences are already less harsh than current OK law, though there are compelling economic and policy arguments for notching them down one more rung on the sentencing ladder.

Email in prison?
I'm a fan of the idea of giving inmates regulated and monitored access to email, as is allowed in federal prisons, and find the arguments against it increasingly non-compelling. Currently you can send TDCJ prisoners an email, for a fee, but they can only reply by snail mail. Check out a useful new report from the Prison Policy Initiative on "The promise of cyber communication in prison and the need for regulation." They found "the promise of these new services is often tempered by a relentless focus on turning incarcerated people and their families into revenue streams for both private and public coffers." That seems inefficient and dumb to me, allowing the punitive impulse to overcome common sense. Like phone service, electronic communication with family members and other prison-approved correspondents help keep prisoners connected and facilitates reentry when they get out, as nearly every prisoner does.

#BlackLivesMatter and Twitter advocacy
Check out these two stories about how #BlackLivesMatter took over Twitter. Grits has never taken up Twitter, except to monitor others' feeds, because this blog takes up all the social media bandwidth I can manage. Perhaps that's a mistake, but there are only so many hours in the day and I find many of my views don't jibe well with a 140 character format. UPDATE: At the suggestion of a wise commenter, I just set the blog to Tweet out links and headlines to posts from Grits, so if you want to get links on Twitter, now you can. I doubt I'll use it much for original Tweeting, but if that makes it easier for readers to access the blog, why not?


Steve said...

A line from the death row story is a haunting reality in criminal justice: "Marvin seemed shattered beyond repair." I was Cathy Lynn Henderson's spiritual adviser when she first went to death row, and I'm also a probation officer. I've seen many people like Marvin who have seemed shattered beyond repair by horror show childhoods of abuse and neglect. You wonder if some of these victims-turned-perpetrators will ever find anything in life that approaches "normal."

sunray's wench said...

If TDCJ agreed to inmates being able to email friends and family, I wonder if they would extend that to those of us living overseas as well. If so, that would make an even bigger mockery of their current policy to deny inmates calling those of us who are overseas.

Having just returned from visiting my husband, the sympathy of the guards when our 4 hours was cut short to 2 hours because of a high number of other families wanting to visit that day was touching. Pity no one thought to open up the 30 or so tables outside to ease the overcrowding....

One size does not fit all.

Anonymous said...

I think you would do well to make every post auto-link to Twitter. I think it would increase your viewership, and once it's set up will not take an extra second of your day. You don't have to post anything to pick up on its benefits, and with all the people that follow you, when the e-mail "Grist For Breakfast" is now on Twitter, you should find quite a few others who spread the word through retweeting.

Fellow Twitter Lurker

Gritsforbreakfast said...

Good suggestion, Twitter Lurker. I'm sure you're right it would help drive traffic.

Anonymous said...

Please tell me the guard who withheld the inhaler is facing criminal charges. I know, my unicorn just walked in with my afternoon snack.

He's Innocent said...

Hey Scott,

I just went to follow your Twitter account (addict here) and see that it is on "closed" or private mode. I believe your tweets cannot be re-tweeted if this is the case. You'll have to open it for public view to get the best benefit from the it.

Just turn off your notifications so they do not drive you mad as we RT your posts. And beware the trolls!

Gritsforbreakfast said...

@HI, I think I fixed it, check and see. I've dutifully ignored my Twitter account for years, so basically a complete noob.