Thursday, September 29, 2016

On white people's role in addressing race and police violence

A Dallas Morning News staff editorial last week touted blogger Awesomely Luvvie's platitudinous clickbait suggestions for what white people should do to address racism and police brutality in America. Part of her post I very much agreed with, but not particularly the parts they quoted. For example:
White people, I’m talking to you. THIS. IS. YOUR. PROBLEM. TO. FIX. Y’all got some work to do, because this system that y’all keep on privileging from, you’ve got to help us dismantle it. Because those of us who are Black and Brown. We have tried. You created this robot, and it is yours to deactivate. My skinfolk don’t have the passcode. This is your monster to slay.
Bingo! That's exactly right. We can't expect poor, disenfranchised people, the formerly incarcerated, the victims of systemic discrimination, to by themselves overturn a system based on discrimination against them unless we expect it to be done through violent revolution, a prospect which seems as unwise as its success seems unlikely.

This stuff only changes if white folks pitch in and do some heavy lifting, which is why I couldn't disagree more with the DMN's very first suggestion, paraphrasing Ms. Luvvie: "Hear how black people feel and do not debate it."

Really? Just, white people shut up?  How's that going to help, given that the only white folks who will comply with that demand are allies, not critics? It's certainly not reflective of a dialogue. And in fairness, that overstates what the blogger said by omitting the preceding sentence: "Take some time to listen to what Black people are saying. Hear how we feel, and do not debate it." She's not saying never engage in conversation, just that white folks should listen and think for "some time" before speaking. Another item references moments "When you don’t have the words to speak up," but that implies speaking up may still be appropriate when the words arrive.

Regardless, this suggestion brings to mind three contrarian thoughts. First, as far as I'm concerned, the most respectful sort of listening is active listening which engages the discussion as a participant. People generally don't learn as much from lectures by others as we do from conversations with them.

Second, if I'm being asked not to debate your "feelings," that's one thing. You're after all entitled to them. If you're sad, I can't convince you you're happy and it'd be pointless to try. But if your feelings stray into the public policy realm - for instance, on the question of "what's the best way to reduce police violence against unarmed citizens?" - what you say rightly may be debated, regardless of one's feelings. That's supposedly how the democratic system ferrets out error, which Thomas Jefferson said may be tolerated because reason remains free to combat it. Anyway, since when do newspapers call for less debate?!

Third, and perhaps most importantly, the main thing the blogger wants white people to hear about is black folks' fear: "Because there is a trauma that goes from your head to your toes that cannot be explained but it is there. We carry it with us everyday. The way our heart quickens when we see a cop, even if they’re just walking by us. The way it feels when we watch our men and boys leave the house, unsure of whether they will walk through that door at the end of the day."

I'm willing to listen to fearful folks but that doesn't mean their requests must be honored until their fears are resolved, just as a police officer's fears at a traffic stop can't be completely determinative. Indeed, it was crime victims' fear, including black crime victims, which drove mass incarceration, the drug war, militarization of police, and all of the tuff-on-crime policies the Black Lives Matter movement today decries. Grits sees few prospects for a long-term, stable outcome on these questions if the public is only ever offered competing fear-based ideologies with so little room for compromise, especially when they're presented as things which cannot be debated.

Yes, these are difficult problems. But they're not insoluble. And they're not so painful they cannot be discussed nor debated. In the end, to find solutions will require everyone involved to face their fears, not just reflexively seek to enshrine them into statute.

Wednesday, September 28, 2016

Abandon fatalism, embrace accountability on police shootings

The Dallas Morning News editorial board has struggled of late to discern a viable path forward in the aftermath of the shooting deaths of five DPD officers in July and the continued, periodic videos emerging of wrongful or questionable police shootings. A recent staff editorial titled, "Police reform easy to demand, tough to deliver," typified their opinions. At root:
Something must be done to ease the escalating tension and mistrust between law enforcement and communities of color.
Reform, however, is easy to demand and tough to deliver, especially when you're dealing with 15,400 local law-enforcement agencies nationwide. And nothing will be effective until we get beyond the simplistic black-lives-vs.-blue-lives impasse.
Grits appreciates the "something must be done" part, but I'm much more sanguine than the News that police reform is possible. For starters, that's because I concern myself only with the 2,500 or so law enforcement agencies in Texas; I consider the rest somebody else's problem.

Of those, just a handful are responsible for the overwhelming majority of police shootings, with Houston PD outdistancing everybody else by a country mile. So, focusing on HPD gets you a great deal of bang for the buck, similar to how, until recently, their DA's office set the statewide tone and accounted for much of the volume on death-penalty cases.

So the effort to reduce police shootings in Texas effectively focuses on just a handful of departments. Changing things there a) reduces shootings in the jurisdictions where they're most common and b) influences policing culture and practices in other departments if and when the reforms work.

The rest of the article uses what Grits considers a phony journalistic "balance" framing to imply that every possible reform faces equally valid arguments against it as in favor. For example, "One idea that has gained traction post-Ferguson is de-escalation* training for officers. The goal is to reduce the number of fatal confrontations, but critics say it can reduce police safety." Of course, deescalation training emerged and gained traction BEFORE Ferguson, which is why when the recent movement happened there was a fully developed body of evidence-based training alternatives for the Police Executive Research Forum to champion, and jurisdictions that have already started putting them into practice. There is no evidence that these tactics reduce officer safety and some evidence that they tend to increase officer safety.

Next we get this statement: "We support policy experts who say it's possible to achieve one without risking the other. One key is finding the right balance." So you don't support policy experts who are right, you support those who say things with which you agree. Got it.

Other points similarly link platitudes and partial truths  Somewhat fatalistically, they suggest "recognizing that even the best policies won't be 100 percent effective. For instance, Betty Jo Shelby, the Tulsa officer charged with manslaughter in the Sept. 16 shooting of Terence Crutcher, had received de-escalation training. That doesn't mean the training isn't helpful."

But we don't know what that training looked like, and not all deescalation training is created equal, much less based on the 30 Principles suggested by PERF to reduce police use of force. For instance, DPS told the media it received its deescalation training from the Texas Police Association, a group whose Facebook page is filled with Blue Lives Matter re-posts, DPS terrorism notifications, and little else. (They've got a deescalation training coming up in San Antonio in October.) Grits doesn't particularly trust that training from that bunch will help prevent these situations, whether the word "deescalation" is in the course title or not. So Ofc. Shelby took something labeled deescalation training. Were her actions consistent with that training or did they contradict it? How does that training stack up to PERF's 30 principles? There's a lot we don't know.

We also don't know whether the Tulsa PD administration truly embraced the deescalation notion and enforced its tenets in the field after officers received the training, or was it just a one-off with little relevance to day-to-day expectations when out on patrol?  Often, a big reason deescalation training works is that administrators have embraced the philosophy and want it to succeed. Which is why the DMN could write: "We've seen the results in Dallas. Police Chief David Brown has said the Police Department's de-escalation training helped reduce excessive-force complaints against his officers from 147 in 2009 to 13 last year." DPS, by contrast, to the extent they've administered deescalation training at all (and their claim that troopers do more than 70 hours of it is a bad joke), it's been grudgingly, perhaps using a vendor with a predisposition for justifying questionable shootings rather than reducing them.

Training is great, especially when it breaks up behavior patterns which cause officers to escalate violence at traffic stops and other encounters with the public. But if not matched with administrators who embrace changing officer behavior patterns, it won't be enough to overcome departmental culture and historical practices, especially for folks who've been on the force a long time.

In that light, I wouldn't say, essentially, Let's implement deescalation training but we must still expect lots of people to die. Instead, the stance should be, Let's implement deescalation training and then hold police administrators accountable for results. The paper's fatalism precludes editorial writers from taking the next step to inform readers who in government should be held responsible, as if lamenting the problem were sufficient.

* For reasons I cannot explain, the DMN, many other press outlets, and even police trainers are using a hyphen when discussing deescalation training. Since "deescalation" is actually a word, Grits sees no need for the hyphen after the prefix and does not understand why they're using it. I shall not.

Monday, September 26, 2016

Okie voters will set tone for red-state drug-war legislation

For mostly historical, family reasons (both sides of my family are from the Texas Panhandle, with ties to Oklahoma), Grits has always enjoyed ribbing our friends from Oklahoma, contending for example that the best thing ever to come out of the state was I-35 and arguing to build a border wall along the Red River instead of the Rio Grande.

But I've got to give our Okie neighbors credit where it's due: Their Legislature A ballot initiative put two measures - Props 780 and 781 - on the November ballot to reduce penalties for low-level drug possession from a felony to a misdemeanor and divert the savings to counties "to provide community rehabilitative programs, such as mental health and substance abuse services." If passed, Oklahoma's felony threshold on property crimes would be increased to $1,000, according to Ballotopedia, compared to $2,500 in Texas, which increased its threshold amount in 2015. See coverage from Fusion and commentary from Doug Berman at Sentencing Law and Policy.

Oklahoma's Republican Governor Mary Fallin has been much more of a leader on these issues than Greg Abbott, vetoing tough-on-crime legislation, championing clemency, and implementing ban the box policies at state agencies.

These ballot measures would put Oklahoma ahead of the curve compared to Texas regarding smart-on-crime policies on the drug war, but still much more regressive on property-theft thresholds. Still, perhaps Texas may soon lose its (sometimes overstated) reputation as red-state criminal-justice reform leader if the Sooner state passes these measures on a ballot topped by Trump/Clinton and Gov. Fallin continues to champion these and similar causes. OTOH, if the ballot measures lose it could set red-state decarceration reform back five years. Important vote.

MORE: From Oklahomans for Criminal Justice Reform.

Saturday, September 24, 2016

Don't gloat that Texas is ahead on forensic-science reform

Meagan Flynn at the Houston Press is right that Texas is ahead of the feds and the rest of the country right now on forensic science reform, but that fact provides cold comfort. As Grits noted in an earlier roundup, this week the president's Council of Advisors on Science and Technology issued a harsh critique of a variety of common "forensic science" techniques as being, in fact, highly unscientific. (It's been rightly said that when one finds the need to append the word 'science' on a field - like forensic science, political science, military science, computer science, creation science, etc. - that the endeavor is thereby virtually guaranteed not to be science.) She writes:
Of the several methods reviewed, the only one the experts deemed trustworthy was your basic DNA testing, or analysis of simple mixtures of DNA when only two people's DNA is present. The other methods the council examined included bitemark analysis, complex DNA mixture analysis, footprint analysis like the kind you might see in some detective b-movie, microscopic hair analysis, firearms analysis and latent fingerprint analysis. And all of them were either in need of substantial improvement to be considered admissible in court or were considered basically useless.
Flynn offered a note of cautious optimism that, in large part because of the work of the Forensic Science Commission, Texas is in a better position than other states to weather the storm:
At least, however, there's some good news. Texas's own forensic science commission — which is not a common agency among all states — has already been studying these very issues in the past couple of years, and the White House findings mirror exactly what Texas experts have been saying.

"Texas has been really ahead of the curve in understanding that much of the pattern forensic evidence may be flawed," said William Press, vice chair of the council and a computer science and integrative biology professor at the University of Texas. "Texas is in a better position than most states to take the necessary steps to bring science into forensic science, and to make sure that we convict the right people."

The science and technology council's findings particularly line up with those of the forensic science commission on bitemark analysis, hair analysis and complex DNA mixture analysis.
It's true that Texas is ahead of the curve in understanding, if not stopping, the use of junk science in the crime lab and the courtroom. But we're all at the front end of an achingly long curve. This is not cause for optimism but instead means we're a little bit closer to the series of Class A Clusterf$@ks which are about to deluge the justice system over flawed forensics.

A prime case study in that regard may be found at the Austin crime lab, where the DNA section has been closed entirely and an FSC audit found the lab neck-deep in dysfunction. Police administrators quickly found themselves answering for past prevarications on the state of the lab, Chase Hoffberger at the Austin Chronicle reported:
The findings also bring into question why, when APD announced its shutdown in June, [Austin Police Chief Art] Acevedo led by saying the "voluntary" decision was the result of the death of an employee – only conceding ongoing conversations with FSC as a secondary reason. At the time, Acevedo said he'd been told "preliminarily" that the probability is low that an innocent person has been convicted as a result of APD's testing challenges. Asst. Chief Troy Gay doubled down on that assessment on Sept. 6 when he told members of the Public Safety Commission that the department and District Attorney's Office "have not located or identified any cases that have been impacted at this point."

The latter by now can be classified as an untrue statement: The contamination case specifically mentioned in the audit – flagged for contamination by the District Attorney's Office as early as 2009 – has still not gone to trial because of challenges at the lab. Any case that's been tried on DNA evidence processed through APD since April 2010, when APD adopted its stochastic threshold practice, could also be subject to retesting. As Ace­ve­do noted when he first announced the shutdown, "only time will tell" how many other cases have been affected.
Acevedo and Gay provide a good example of how NOT to handle these situations. Don't lie and pretend no cases are affected when they are; don't scapegoat your employees; don't downplay the concerns of rape victims who think their rape kits should be tested; don't conceal or whitewash a serious mess that will require community involvement and extra resources to fix. Own up to problems because they're not of your making: The whole field of "forensic science" is screwed up, from the FBI's labs preaching junk science at their national training center to the lowliest breathalyzer analyst interpreting black-box results from proprietary commercial software.

There is an ongoing existential challenge to whole fields of forensics which never emerged from the sciences. Instead, a scientific pretense served to gloss over questionable policing practices with a phony veneer, hoping a white lab coat could give them added credibility to gatekeeper judges when the actual scientific pedigree of the evidence could not justify it.

So look at what Austin PD is enduring at its DNA lab, assume most DNA labs face essentially similar challenges, then consider that nearly every other field of forensics crime labs undertake, according to this report and the earlier 2009 analysis from the National Academy of Sciences, essentially are based on subjective supposition rather than the scientific method. We're at the front end of a period of utter chaos in this nation's forensic labs.

Then there's the fact that, even where Texas law is ahead of the game, the Court of Criminal Appeals has abdicated its responsibility to interpret it as written to give it force: The Legislature created a "junk science writ" for wrongly convicted defendants to get habeas corpus relief when their conviction was primarily based on junk science. But four members of the CCA - Keller, Hervey, Keasler, and Yeary - have used every trick in the book to keep the court from interpreting the new law, causing Judge Elsa Alcala to lambaste them for disingenuity. With incoming members of the court likely to bolster those four's position on legislatively mandated habeas relief, and no guidance from the CCA at all on how to reform judicial gatekeeper functions in light of known flaws with commonly used forensic evidence, one realizes that Texas is not ahead of the curve at all when it comes to fixing these problems. We were just among the first to recognize them.

It's less like Texas is winning a race and more like we're the first dog to catch a car, or perhaps Patient Zero in a just-discovered pandemic.

Thursday, September 22, 2016

DPS on de-escalation training: We already do that

Among the settlement terms leaked to the press in the Sandra Bland case this week was a statement that the Texas Department of Public Safety would provide de-escalation training for current and future troopers.

The Houston Chronicle reported that Waller County agreed to the terms, including shelling out $1.8 million, on Wednesday. In an emailed press release, Waller County Judge Trey Duhon said the county will be "increasing the training and education of jail employees in respect to mental health assessments in jail and improving our policies and processes."

Another $100,000 is said to be forthcoming from the Texas Department of Public Safety, although spokesman Tom Vinger says that DPS hasn't settled and is not a party to any agreements between the plaintiffs and Waller County.

Technically, DPS isn't a party, since the lawsuit named Trooper Brian Encinia, who was terminated earlier this year and faces a perjury charge. So how could they be responsible for any settlement terms?

Cannon Lambert, Geneva Reed-Veal's lead attorney, said DPS will be paying Encinia's piece of the settlement, and in a phone call, said the training agreement was true despite DPS' statement. "It's just one of the things that Ms. Geneva was very interested to see happen. Obviously she knows she can't get Sandy back, but there are things she can impact going forward," Lambert said. He said DPS agreed to implementing deescalation training taught by a third-party both in the field and for new recruits.

"We understood that it would be done very soon," Lambert said, adding that better deescalation tactics would have kept Bland out of the Waller County Jail, where she later died.

But according to Vinger, new recruits already get training on deescalation. He also said that "earlier this year," DPS began requiring troopers to complete an 8-hour deescalation course - provided by the Texas Police Association, a third-party.

When told about DPS' comment, Lambert said, "That's not what they conveyed to us." He also said that the agreement was that DPS was willing to "look at the circumstances and change what they are doing." Lambert is pleased that deescalation training will be enhanced, saying, "I just wish they'd have done this a year and a half ago."

[From 9/18/16 Grits postPolicy folks seeking more background on deescalation training and policies should check out the Police Executive Research Forum's "Guiding Principles on Use of Force" (pdf, 136 pages).]

RELATED: From the Texas Tribune, "DPS changes in wake of Sandra Bland death in dispute."

Tuesday, September 20, 2016

Cash-register justice, against drug-free zones, and other stories

Here are a few odds and ends which merit Grits readers' attention while I'm focused elsewhere today:

Williamson County to allow citations for pot, DWLI
Great news: Williamson County has decided to let Round Rock police officers issue citations for low-level marijuana possession and driving with an invalid license, utilizing a 2007 statute authored by former House Corrections Chairman Jerry Madden. The move is being pitched as a pilot program which could expand to other agencies if successful.

Capital Appellate Fail
The Texas Defender Service today released a major report from our pal Amanda Marzullo on the inadequacy of the direct appeals process in capital cases. See the executive summary and the full report, as well as initial coverage from the Houston Chronicle. More on this later, perhaps, after Grits has had the chance to read it.

Guidance on operating inmate web pages
At the Electronic Frontier Foundation, Dave Maas offered guidance for people operating social media or web pages on behalf of  Texas prison inmates, after TDCJ earlier this year banned such accounts when operated by a third party.

Ticketed drivers need 'safe haven' to deal with debt
College Station muni Judge Edward Spillane had a great suggestion for encouraging drivers with outstanding tickets to come to court: "Why not encourage defendants to come to court and not be in jail by mandating legislatively or as a start courts having a policy that coming to court removes any pending warrant out of that court for misdemeanor charges on fine-only cases?" Comparing the idea to the mediaeval concept of "sanctuary" in churches, Spillane argued that "Safe Haven" legislation would reduce incarceration, encourage defendants to come to court, and "make it clear that jail is not the proper punishment for fine-only cases."

Contemplating collateral consequences
Noting that more than 7,000 felons return to Bexar County every year, the SA Express-News published a good story recently on collateral consequences from felony convictions. The gist: "Tough-on-crime policies extend well beyond harsh sentencing. There is a series of invisible sanctions we impose after the official sentence is met. People with felony records, especially drug-related cases, are legally discriminated against when seeking jobs, public housing, food assistance and student loans, not to mention voting and jury duty. One of the most harmful of these sanctions may be the discrimination of employment because a stable job with a living wage is a critical factor in keeping former convicts from relapsing into the criminal justice system."

Against 'drug-free zone' statutes
In Texas, drug offenses in a "drug-free zone" can result in lengthy mandatory minimums rivaling those for deadly weapon offenses. Texas prosecutors especially like the statute because, in the wake of earlier drug-law reforms, "keeping drug offenders in prison is becoming increasingly difficult." As other states reconsider drug free zones, eliminating that enhancement seems like a good way to stop sending a discrete class of nonviolent offenders away for super-long sentences.

Requiem for junk science
At the Wall Street Journal, Judge Alex Kozinski opined on the significance of a "new study from the President’s Council of Advisors on Science and Technology [which] examines the scientific validity of forensic-evidence techniques—DNA, fingerprint, bitemark, firearm, footwear and hair analysis. It concludes that virtually all of these methods are flawed, some irredeemably so." Wrote Kozinski, "Some forensic methods have significant error rates and others are rank guesswork." For example, "Bitemark analysis is about as reliable as astrology."

Most police pursuits over nonviolent offenses
What crimes generate police pursuits? Very few are violent felonies.

Cash-Register Justice
An academic paper confronting debtors prison issues from earlier this year has been appended to Grits' ongoing reading list. Here's the abstract:
Criminal justice debt has aggressively metastasized throughout the criminal system. A bewildering array of fees, fines, court costs, non-payment penalties, and high interest rates have turned criminal process into a booming revenue center for state courts and corrections. As criminal justice administrative costs have skyrocketed, the burden to fund the system has fallen largely on the system’s users, primarily poor or indigent, who often cannot pay their burden. Unpaid criminal justice debt often leads to actual incarceration or substantial punitive fines, which turns rapidly into “punishment.” Such punishment at the hands of a court, bureaucracy, or private entity compromises the Sixth Amendment right to have all punishment imposed by a jury. This Article explores the netherworld of criminal justice debt and analyzes implications for the Sixth Amendment jury trial right, offering a new way to attack the problem. The specter of “cash-register justice,” which overwhelmingly affects the poor and dispossessed, perpetuates hidden inequities within the criminal justice system. I offer solutions rooted in Sixth Amendment jurisprudence.

Sunday, September 18, 2016

Limiting searches would reduce public dissatisfation over police contacts

With the Texas House County Affairs Committee poised to consider racial profiling at traffic stops, Grits went this morning to see if the new triennial police-public contacts survey had been published yet by the federal Bureau of Justice Statistics, but no dice. The last one available covers 2011. Still, one doubts police-public interactions have changed that much in the intervening five years. Here are a few highlights from that survey:
  • White drivers were both ticketed and searched at lower rates than black and Hispanic drivers.
  • Across race and Hispanic origin, persons who were searched during traffic stops were less likely than persons who were not searched to believe the police behaved properly during the stop. 
  • About 1% of drivers pulled over in traffic stops had physical force used against them by police.
  • Of these drivers, 55% believed the police behaved properly during the stop.
  • About 6 in 10 persons age 16 or older involved in street stops believed they were stopped for a legitimate reason. [Grits note: That means 40% thought the stop was illegitimate!]
  • About 19% of persons involved in street stops were searched or frisked by police. The majority of persons who were searched or frisked did not believe the police had a legitimate reason for the search. 
Traffic stops made up 42 percent of police contacts nationwide in 2011, and most people who thought police behaved disrespectfully at a traffic stop or engaged in misconduct did not file a complaint.

Here's a decent argument from the data for requiring law enforcement to obtain written consent for searches at traffic stops, reviving a bill vetoed by Gov. Perry in a past life (perhaps the Dancing With the Stars contestant will reconsider this position now that he's a born-again Criminal Justice Reformer). That simple change would significantly reduce probable-cause-free searches across the board. Searching drivers at traffic stops when no contraband is found heightens resentment against police: Only three percent of drivers stopped nationally in 2011 were searched, according to this data (in Texas, that number varies widely by department), but 89 percent of drivers who weren't searched thought the officer behaved properly, a number which dropped by nearly a third to 61 percent among searched drivers.

Bland settlement requires deescalation training for DPS troopers

I appreciated Michele Deitch the other day offering an analysis of the Sandra Bland settlement from the perspective of regulating county jails. On Facebook, Grits contributing writer Eva Ruth Moravec pointed out another interesting tidbit about the state's side of the settlement from the Houston Chronicle coverage: "The DPS would provide de-escalation training for all current and future troopers statewide."

That's certainly appropriate, since former state trooper Brian Encina's unnecessary escalation of the episode was the proximate cause for the chain of events leading to Bland's death. Texas Lawyer reported that Governor Abbott personally signed off on this element of the settlement.

Requiring deescalation training for state troopers is a significant policy development which one hopes could have trickle-down effects, helping make deescalation tactics more common and culturally acceptable among Texas law enforcement across the board. DPS operates everywhere in the state, so everyone will be able to tell first hand whether deescalation tactics work as advertised. Policy folks seeking more background on deescalation training and policies should check out the Police Executive Research Forum's "Guiding Principles on Use of Force" (pdf, 136 pages).

Grits has come to believe that deescalation training and policies are key to changing police culture and stopping the sorts of incidents which have roiled the national psyche for the last couple of years. So it's good that the Sandra Bland settlement could make a significant contribution on this score, even if the celebration is mitigated by the knowledge that so many other forgotten lives ended in unnecessary jail deaths before we ever reached this point.

Saturday, September 17, 2016

Beating (up) Devon Anderson, and other stories

Here are a few odds and ends which haven't made it into independent posts but merit Grits readers' attention:

Beating (up) Devon Anderson
In Harris County, critics are now piling on incumbent District Attorney Devon Anderson, sometimes for things under her control and sometimes not. Texas Monthly compiled examples from the growing litany of allegations which could provide the margin for her defeat in what's expected (by me, anyway) to be a tight November race. As Republican DAs go, I like Devon Anderson. I think she's grown immensely since taking office (under what must have been weird and emotional circumstances). She's a sensible if modest reformer, not some tough-on-crime ogre. But her ouster by a candidate running essentially on a reform platform in the nation's fourth largest city would be significant. And lately, she hasn't done herself any favors.

Shortage of competency restoration beds worst in recent memory
Terri Langford at the Dallas News had an update on the shortage of competency restoration beds at Texas state mental hospitals, a longstanding Grits hobbyhorse. "The number of inmates [on the wait list] has jumped by more than 86 percent in the last 12 months to a record 278 in July. Their average wait time is 149 days." The crisis is now officially the worst its ever been:

Pointing fingers over Austin PD DNA mess
Seeking to take advantage of the ongoing SNAFU at Austin PD's DNA lab, the Austin Criminal Defense Lawyers Association this week alleged that,

Federal statute inhibits Harris County jail reform
A Jimmy-Carter era federal statute explains why the Harris County Jail has been so slow to reduce unnecessary jail deaths, reported the Marshall Project. "[T]he result, at the Harris County jail, which has a population of about 9,000, and at some other large facilities, has been lots of talk, less action and, in some notable cases, scant sustainable improvement." To be fair, Harris County could have addressed these problems without being forced to do so without federal litigation. The failure to do so lies at the feet of the current and former Sheriffs and county commissioners. But it's also a fair point that federal oversight structures have few teeth.

State wants $4-5 million for Dawson State Jail site
The Dallas News reports the state of Texas will ask between $4 and $5.1 million for the old Dawson State Jail facility on the banks of the Trinity River. The city of Dallas hoped to purchase the land as part of its Trinity River redevelopment, raising the question: Will the city or one of its partners pony up that much?

Ranking Texas corrections population compared to cities
Attentive readers may recall Grits has pegged the size of the Texas prison system by declaring that it's larger than the city populations of Waco or Midland. Here's a column and chart establishing precisely where TDCJ's population falls on that scale. Now, if you include all Texans under supervision of the state criminal justice system - in prison, county jails, on probation and on parole - the system would come in 6th, just outdistancing El Paso's municipal population.

Stingray data dump
The Intercept's Sam Biddle reveals the results from the biggest open records haul yet regarding so-called Stingray devices (or, technically, IMSI catchers, see here, here and here) in a must-read piece for anyone interested in electronic surveillance questions. In Houston, notably, local police refuse to share details of the device's use with prosecutors, citing the confidentiality agreement now largely mooted with the release of these documents. Now it's just when, where and why the device is used that they're hiding; the how is out there.

Debate: How best to manage police departments?
This Harvard Business Review article suggested that the best way to manage police departments post-Ferguson is (apparently) to ignore demands from the community for justice and instead myopically hone in on what they dub "organizational justice" as viewed from the perspective of police officers and no one else. Thanks, guys. Advising police administrators to pander to the biggest, most aggressive opponents of reform, that's really helpful. To their credit, the same publication ran a much better article last month titled, "The Organizational Reasons Police Departments Don't Change."

Thursday, September 15, 2016

TX House County Affairs Committee to take up racial profiling, bail reform

In the wake of the Austin Statesman's revelations regarding DPS racial profiling data (see Grits' earlier discussion, the House County Affairs Committee will hold a hearing next week on "racial disparities during traffic stops within Texas Department of Public Safety, the constitutionality of equal protection claims and concerns that arise from DPS racial disparities, de-escalation tactics, and diversion before booking." (The Statesman has a preview story.)

The same committee will take up topics related to bail and pretrial detention as part of its interim work. The following day, the committee will review "pretrial service and bonding practices throughout the state. Examine factors considered in bail and pre-trial confinement decisions, including the use of risk assessments; assess the effectiveness and efficiency of different systems in terms of cost to local governments and taxpayers, community safety, pretrial absconding rates and rights of the accused." The litigation Grits discussed recently with Becky Bernhardt should be on the front burner in that conversation.

County Affairs is an interesting committee to be taking up these issues: chaired by a liberal, containing one of the few former prosecutors in the Lege (Democrat Gene Wu), but numerically dominated by Tea Party conservatives, several of whom have in the past sided with conservative criminal-justice reformers. If the committee's membership stays relatively constant heading into next session, some interesting bills might come out of that particular mix of people.

Settlement of Sandra Bland lawsuit an important step in the right direction, but no panacea for ensuring safe jail conditions

Today's news about the $1.9 million settlement of the lawsuit filed by Sandra Bland's family against the Waller County Jail and the Texas Department of Public Safety surely comes as a welcome development for many supporters and observers around the country.  As reported by Johnathan Silver in the Texas Tribune, the terms of the settlement include the following:
  •  "Waller County will pay the family $1.8 million.  The Texas Department of Public Safety will pay the family $100,000."
  • "To prevent future document falsifications, Waller County jail will use automated electronic sensors to ensure accurate and timely cell checks."
  • "From here forward, Waller County jail will now provide an on-duty nurse or EMT for all shifts."
  • "The Waller County Judge pledges to actively seek passage of state legislation providing for more funding for jail intake, booking, screening training and other jail support like telemedicine access for Texas county jails AND HE SUPPORTS HAVING ANY RESULTING LEGISLATION NAMED IN SANDRA BLAND'S HONOR!" [emphasis in original]
  • "The Waller County Sheriff's Office shall provide additional jailer training (including ongoing continuing education) on booking and intake screening."
The financial settlement may strike some as too high and others as too low, but in the world of death in jail custody lawsuits, it is a very solid settlement and in the neighborhood of some other very high-profile cases with which this writer is familiar.  Of greater interest for purposes of this post, though, are the non-financial parts of the settlement.

I was pleased to see that the settlement includes efforts to address problems in the intake screening process, the need for additional staff training, concerns about medical care, and problems with falsification of records about staff rounds in the jail.  These are all steps in the right direction and can definitely help shift the culture in the jail towards one that is more responsive to the needs of inmates and to compliance with constitutional standards of care.

But some caution is also necessary:  none of these settlement terms will guarantee inmate safety, and more details and steps are necessary.

Take, for example, the use of electronic sensors to "ensure" that staff conduct their rounds in a timely fashion.  There is always a danger in over-reliance on technology.  Yes, the electronic wands can be helpful, but the technology can also mask poor performance or other operational problems in the jail.  Staff have been known to quickly dash through the cellblocks touching wands to sensors to ensure that a record exists of their rounds, but they haven't necessarily taken the time to carefully observe the inmates or engage with them--even though observation and engagement (not sensor-touching) is the objective of the rounds.  We need to ask questions about WHY records get falsified or observations aren't conducted properly.  Are there staffing shortages that limit officers' ability to leave their posts to make rounds?  Is there a culture at the jail that does not hold staff accountable when they don't follow procedures?

Also, while it is good news that Waller County will be bringing in an on-duty nurse for all shifts, there is no indication about what type of nurse it must be.  Too many jails rely on LVNs, who are not authorized to handle certain medical tasks.   A California jail recently settled a lawsuit for $8.3 million in a wrongful death case that involved private correctional health provider Corizon's improper use of an LVN to do jail intake medical assessments.

Also, the Waller County Jail has had other recently reported serious problems in the delivery of medical care with disastrous results, despite the involvement of a nurse at the Jail.

The training provisions in the Bland settlement are important, but it would be good to clarify what that training will consist of, how many hours of training will be offered, and who will conduct it.

As the settlement suggests, there will be a critical role for the Legislature on these jail safety issues next session.  The Legislature can do a great service for county jails around the state--especially small and medium-sized jails--by providing resources for improved intake procedures, staff training, and access to telemedicine.  But just as critical, the Legislature needs to ensure the availability of mental health services (including detoxification centers) in local communities so that arrested individuals with mental health issues and those who are heavily intoxicated or high on drugs can be diverted to these more appropriate settings.  Legislators also need to support the creation and training of Crisis Intervention Teams in various law enforcement departments to help de-escalate situations that could lead to violent confrontations.

Beyond all this, it is essential to improve external oversight of Texas's county jails.  The Texas Commission on Jail Standards, which regulates the jails' compliance with certain minimum standards, needs more resources to ensure its ability to conduct regular inspections of each jail and to provide jails with technical assistance.

And Texas also needs to create a form of independent oversight that allows for assessment of inmate complaints about their safety and treatment, since the Commission on Jail Standards was never designed to fulfill that function.  For example, inmate complaints about poor medical care, mental health care, brutality, and sexual assault are well outside the scope of the Commission's mandate.  Just as Texas created an Independent Ombudsman to ensure the safety of incarcerated youth in Texas in the wake of the 2007 TYC scandal, the creation of such an Ombudsman function for the state's jails would be a wise move.  In fact, rather than creating a new entity, it would be easy enough to expand the current Ombudsman's role to include oversight of adult jails.      

The bottom line is that the settlement of the Sandra Bland case is an important step in the right direction, but no one should mistake this development for a solution to safety problems in the jail.  The operational issues that led to Sandra Bland's death and to other inmates' medical problems will require ongoing scrutiny from external oversight bodies, more resources from state and local officials, and careful monitoring by jail managers.

Tuesday, September 13, 2016

Many wrongfully convicted Harris County drug defendants never notified of innocence claims

The Timothy Cole Exoneration Review Commission continues to trundle along months after your correspondent left its ranks and is scheduled to meet Thursday, September 15th at 1:00 p.m. in the House Appropriations Committee Room, Texas Capitol Extension Room #E1.030. The Office of Court Administration posted links to the Agenda, Meeting Book, Appendix, and Media clips for this and prior meetings. The meeting will be broadcast live on the House of Representatives website here.

Among other documents, the "meeting book" this time contains a joint power-point presentation from the Harris County DA and Public Defender on the rash of drug exonerations in that county stemming from a combination of over-aggressive drug enforcement and faulty field tests. Their update included a reminder that quite a few falsely convicted people in this episode served out their full sentences without ever being notified they were entitled to relief. Just to try out something new, here are a few screenshot-highlights from that presentation collected into a brief slideshow:

The difficulties faced in notifying defendants eligible for relief, much less equipping them with counsel if they have a viable claim, are neither new nor unique to this episode. Rather, it's a problem the state confronts in multiple situations where large-scale forensic and/or other errors potentially taint large classes of cases instead of one or two convictions. These are not problems with obviously great solutions, but identifying them and talking about ways to improve on past failings is a good place to start.

Podcast: Texas Fair Defense Project's Becky Bernhardt explains Harris County bail litigation

Recently the Texas Fair Defense Project joined with a national group and local counsel to sue Harris County over a money-bail system that jails people who can't pay. (See coverage from the Houston Chronicle, the Houston Press, and the plaintiffs' full complaint.) Grits spoke last week with TFDP's executive director Becky Bernhardt about that litigation and a couple of promising, related initiatives she's tracking at the Texas Judicial Council. You can listen to our 19-minute interview here:

Or find a transcript of our conversation below the jump.

Sunday, September 11, 2016

Add racial profiling at traffic searches to law enforcement 'early warning' triggers

The Austin Statesman's investigative team today published an excellent analysis of DPS racial profiling data regarding discretionary searches conducted by troopers, coupled with an analysis of video from traffic stops which generated racial profiling complaints. This effort culminated months of team reporting on the topic and responded to DPS Col. Steve McCraw's ostensible rebuttal to their earlier findings. For background:
In December, the Statesman found that African-American and Hispanic motorists were searched more often when stopped, and contraband found less often for Hispanic drivers than white drivers.
Earlier this year, DPS Director Steve McCraw testified before state lawmakers that troopers do not engage in racial profiling and encouraged the public to instead look at the individual cases in which officers are accused of racial profiling. There have been about 40 in the last five years, and the Statesman requested the dashcam videos from those incidents through a request under the Texas Public Information Act.

While DPS said they haven't found evidence to support any allegations of racial profiling, some of the videos raise more questions about how the department handles those investigations than they answer about racial bias in policing. Highlights of them are below, along with Sean Collins Walsh's report.

In addition to the videos, the Statesman looked again at stop data since 2009 to study how frequently individual troopers searched motorists, and how those search rates differ by race. Reporting and analysis of 14 million traffic stop records by Eric Dexheimer, Jeremy Schwartz and Christian McDonald found that 35 percent of officers studied searched minority motorists at more than twice the rate of white motorists, and most found contraband less often as a result of those searches.
In 2001, the Texas Legislature required law enforcement agencies performing traffic stops to collect data which would allow an assessment of racial disparity. Your correspondent was part of a team back in the day successfully pushing the bill at the Lege and working with local departments afterward on implementation, so I'm particularly gratified to see that these data are proving useful in contemporary public debates after all this time.*

Documenting racial disparity at traffic stops
Some disparity by race at traffic stops may be explained by factors like deployment patterns, higher poverty rates among minorities, and the rates at which people of different races are arrested for crimes. That's why the most useful possible analysis from these data focus on after-stop activities, especially the rate at which drivers of different races are searched and the contraband "hit rate" that results (although that's not the only useful analysis which may be performed). An academic statistician who studies these matters told the paper that “officers who search minorities at twice the rate of whites are statistically significant 'high disparity officers.' A search rate that is four or more times higher, he added, is 'pretty astronomical. … It’s a very egregious ratio.'” With that in mind, check out these top-line results:
  • 35 percent of the 1,138 troopers included in the analysis searched black and Hispanic motorists at least twice as often as white drivers.
  • 231 of the officers who searched black and Hispanic motorists at two times or more the rate at which they searched white drivers were less likely to find contraband while searching the minority drivers.
  • 65 DPS officers searched minority drivers at least three times more often than the white motorists they stopped yet found contraband less often.
  • 16 officers searched minority motorists more than four times as often as Anglos, with lower contraband hit rates.
The key datapoint here isn't just the disparity in searches but in outcomes: There could be numerous explanations for top-line disparities in the number of stops and searches, but if troopers use their discretion to search minorities' vehicles more often and find contraband less frequently, then they're not basing the extra searches on factors which empirically target crime.

At a minimum, then, that should be a red flag signalling a need for retraining or at least supervisory correction. But neither DPS nor any Texas department of which Grits is aware uses this valuable metric as part of their "early warning system" to identify officers with behavioral problems. (See a discussion of Austin PD's minimalist early warning system here.)

Grits should also mention that most local agencies don't even collect the contraband hit-rate data discussed here. It's probably time to go back into Texas racial profiling statute to adjust those data-collection elements now that we have a decade-and-a-half of experience regarding what information from that dataset is and isn't particularly useful.

Closed records on complaints
Col. McCraw used his discretion to release video from stops resulting in racial profiling complaints, but the paper's analysis of complaint videos failed to corroborate McCraw's evaluation. "Some show mundane police work or motorists making accusations at seemingly well-intended officers. But others show troopers asking to search vehicles or aggressively questioning motorists despite there being little apparent reason for suspicion."

Equally important, the article identified gaps in public information which prevent a more probative, external analysis: "The department withheld the motorists’ complaints as well as the investigative reports that resulted from them, which the Statesman also requested, for all but one of the incidents, citing a state law that makes confidential records from investigations that do not result in significant disciplinary action."

At one time, open records laws governing Texas law enforcement were among the strongest in the nation. But beginning in the late '80s, culminating in the codification of a bad Texas Supreme Court ruling in 1997, Texas' open records statutes on police discipline and law enforcement generally were gutted like a fish, letting agencies cover up wide swaths of misconduct which previously could be discerned by reporters or interested members of the public through public information requests. (Earlier this year, Grits expressed nostalgia for the remarkable level of since-lost law-enforcement openness in Texas in the halcyon days of my youth.)

The Statesman's big contribution to the racial profiling literature over the last year has been to dig deep at the Department of Public Safety, whereas all prior analyses have focused on local departments. That's both a good way to make it a statewide story without analyzing hundreds of departments and also useful because DPS issues more tickets than any other agency and collects the full panoply of racial-profiling data, whereas most agencies do not. Really good, important story; congrats to everyone involved.

* Note to Will Harrell, Ana Correa, Molly Totman, Dwight Steward, and Eva Owens: Ain't this a hoot?

Monday, September 05, 2016

Rural counties driving prison growth, and other stories

With Labor Day off, let's take an opportunity to clear Grits' browser tabs of stories which won't immediately make it into individual blog posts:

Celebrate the CCA by sunsetting it
The Texas Court of Criminal Appeals turns 125 this year, according to a perfunctory salute and abbreviated history from the state bar. Grits believes we should celebrate by eliminating it and merging Texas' two high courts.

Focus on recurrent deaths, medical care at Harris jail
According to an article in the Huffington Post, which prominently quoted Harris County Public Defender Alex Bunin, "Texas largest jail hasn't learned much from Sandra Bland's death." According to the story, "Inmates die [in the Harris County Jail] at a higher rate per capita than most other jails in the nation, according to a Huffington Post analysis of death data from July 13, 2015, to July 13, 2016." Moreover, "Most of the deaths were related to medical issues, as opposed to the results of assault or suicide."

DAs: Keep junk science if it supports our convictions
A presidential advisory commission announced it will issue a draft report critical of several different brands of junk science and the national district attorneys association went batshit crazy, issuing this Chicken-Littlish screed most notable for its breathless tone and sweeping overstatements about what seems to be a fairly modest document. This commission isn't saying anything different than the National Academy of Sciences did in 2009; it's not that controversial at this point to say that bite-mark, tire print, or tool-mark evidence has no scientific basis, and the subjective nature of DNA mixture interpretation is becoming increasingly well known (particularly here in Texas). NDAA's tantrum reads like they're shaking their fists at the sky and decrying that it's blue.

Rural counties driving mass incarceration?
This New York Times report documented at the national level a trend which has been evident in Texas for some time: Incarceration rates for people from rural counties now far outstrip urban ones, and  differences in crime rates cannot justify the differences. Scroll down for an interactive county level map showing incarceration rates and trends. As in the rest of the country, incarceration rates per 10,000 residents for the largest Texas cities were on the low side: Travis 21.1, Bexar 29.6, Harris 30.9, Dallas 32.3, Tarrant 31.2, El Paso 14.2.

By contrast, the highest incarceration rate was Kenedy County in South Texas, with 225 residents per 10,000 incarcerated. In some cases, counties side by side had radically different rates, posing provocative and awkward questions about whether Texas is providing equal justice across jurisdictions. E.g., Randall County's incarceration rate per 10,000 was 31.7; next door in Potter County it was 76.5 (Amarillo straddles the county line). Similarly, suburban Collin County had an incarceration rate of 11 per 10,000, while its poorer, more rural northern neighbor, Grayson County, had a 58.4 per 10,000 rate.

SA police union bullying tactics partially succeeded
I thought this was a pretty clear-eyed assessment of the recently inked labor deal between the city of San Antonio and the local police union. A notable tidbit: "City Councilmen Rey SaldaƱa and Ron Nirenberg cast lone votes against the new contract last week, and while their opposition did not attract allies, it did serve to highlight what local members of the #BlackLivesMatter movement have been saying all along: the contract inhibits police leaders from imposing disciplinary actions on officers and making the punishment stick."

Just in time for Labor Day
Continuing a theme Grits began on Saturday, the NY Times yesterday offered up an editorial titled, "When police unions impede justice." Give it a read.

Risk assessment resources
Heard of the Laura and John Arnold Foundation's risk assessment model but haven't dug into the details? Here's a page describing it with a link to related resources and video from a number of prominent Houston pols.

Koch Institute on Kaepernick
The Charles Koch Institute published a column defending San Francisco 49ers QB Colin Kaepernick's decision not to stand for the national anthem because of racial injustice and police brutality issues, comparing Kaepernick's position to Frederick Douglass and citing Antonin Scalia in support of his free speech rights. Grits mentioned the other day that the Charles Koch Foundation recently funded a major journalism project on police shootings of unarmed people in Texas, so it's not just a one-off. Coupled with Rick Perry's and Glenn Beck's recent embrasure of the #BlackLivesMatter cause, sympathy among Koch outlets contributes to the impression that the movement for black lives may find conservative allies for significant chunks of its criminal-justice agenda. There have definitely been overtures.

Mark Skurka's passive-aggressive Davy Crockett impression

Nueces County DA Mark Skurka, having been ousted by voters in his primary and facing lame duck status, has clearly entered his "To hell with all y'all, I don't give a f&%$" phase.

Regular readers may recall that, in early 2012, then-Gov. Perry's Criminal Justice Division deployed new rules governing the timeline by which counties must submit data on court cases, penalizing them for noncompliance by taking away federal grants if they refused to submit data in a timely manner. (See Grits coverage here, here, here, and here, and coverage of the state auditor's report that inspired the rule.).

In Nueces County, they've run up against a unique problem: The DA refuses to dismiss low-level misdemeanor cases which aren't being prosecuted and thus the county can't meet the normally generous reporting deadline for finalizing cases. At the Corpus Christi Caller-Times, Krista Torralva reported that, "Nueces County was denied $142,000 in grants and is at risk of losing about $1 million in all." Now, "The five county courts at law and eight state district courts have until Oct. 1 to resolve more than 400 cases from between 2010-2014. The Governor's Criminal Justice Division granted Nueces County a 60-day extension from Aug. 1 to get in compliance."

Skurka appeared uninterested in helping the county solve its grant problem, though grants include "funding for GPS monitors with victim notification in domestic violence cases." Already, "More than $142,000 in grants were denied to fund drug court for juvenile offenders, drunken driving court for adult offenders, security cameras for the courthouse and electronics systems." State district judges at the meeting, who normally oversee felony cases
offered to take misdemeanor cases from the five county courts at law to quickly relieve them. But District Attorney Mark Skurka said that presented an issue because the misdemeanor prosecutors can't be in two places at once.

[Judge David] Stith suggested the judges hire temporary special prosecutors to handle cases. But it would be nearly impossible for the two-person witness office to get all the witnesses together, Skurka said.

[Judge Sandra] Watts asked Skurka for his suggestion. He didn't offer one.
Instead, the DA's office wants convictions out of these old cases:
Assistant District Attorney Lorena Whitney suggested reaching plea agreements in cases of marijuana possession, driving with a suspended license and criminal trespass, which make up a large chunk of the pending misdemeanors.

Stith suggested dismissing cases that prosecutors weren't prepared to take to trial.

"See, that's the problem Judge," Skurka said. "You're trying to get these cases dismissed and that's not justice."

Hasette asked if the cases were worth prosecuting, especially in years-old cases in which witnesses haven't been located. Skurka suggested the witnesses weren't found because the judges hadn't set the cases for trial.

"Well we're about ready to set them," Watts said.
It should be mentioned that Nueces is nearly alone in still struggling with this problem. Most other counties are able to comply with the rules and nobody but Mr. Skurka is balking over old pot and suspended license cases. The idea that Skurka's recalcitrance stems from a commitment to "justice" beggars belief. How does it serve justice to keep 400 people in limbo for years without a speedy trial? Or to divert judges from felony courts that hear rape, robbery and murder cases to handle old misdemeanor leftovers? Dig deeper into these issues and Skurka loses hands down on the "justice" question.

Reading between the lines, this comes off as a final "FU" from an embittered pol aimed at his peers and the electorate, neither of whom appear particularly sorry to see him go. It's sort of a passive-aggressive version of Davy Crockett's declaration to the voters in Tennessee after losing his Congressional seat: "You can all go to hell and I shall go to Texas." By contrast, we likely won't see I don't care if you lose your stupid grant money emblazoned on t-shirts and swag. Whoever replaces Skurka will no doubt put this ignoble, spite-based behavior to rest and seek to work with the courts more productively. For the next few months, though, Nueces judges and court staff are left with a partner on these questions with no incentive to cooperate and who doesn't seem to care about them, their opinions, nor stewardship of county faith and funds. Ain't democracy grand?

Sunday, September 04, 2016

The Playbook: Under budget pressure, TDCJ prophesies doom, ignores solutions

Nota bene, Robert T. Garrett and other journalists covering the state budget process: When the Texas Department of Criminal Justice (TDCJ) claims, as they did in this Sept. 1 Dallas News story and their legislative appropriation request (see a summary here and the full LAR here), that reducing their budget would result in massive layoffs and increased costs from overtime, there is an unstated "unless" which precedes their litany. Unless the Legislature reduces the number of prisoners incarcerated to relieve pressure on the system, the bad things they outline could happen. But if the Lege acts to reduce incarceration levels and adjusts prison spending accordingly, everything would work out fine.

As has been their wont during past budget crises (Brian Collier is following Brad Livingston's 2010 playbook to a "T"), TDCJ's appropriations request declined to inform the Legislature of policy changes which would be needed to sustainably cut costs in the long term. Instead, assuming current incarceration policies as a given, they prophesy terrible outcomes from budget cuts without recommending the best, easiest fix to prevent them.

Texas already has seen prison populations decline significantly, in part due to declining crime and more recently thanks to increased property-theft thresholds, which particularly are lowering the number of people incarcerated in state jails on theft offenses. If Texas ratcheted down drug penalties by one offense category, perhaps shifting a few other over-penalized offenses downward along with it, the state could save enough to close several more prisons, perhaps starting with seven private prisons and state jails whose contracts expire August 31, 2017.*

In 2011, during the last budget crunch, the Lege made cuts to healthcare, maintenance, and other line items at TDCJ which turned out to be phantoms. Taxpayers had to pony up for them later in supplemental appropriations or future budgets. The savings weren't real, sustainable, nor at a fundamental level, prudent.

Now, legislators once again face the prospect of budget cuts at TDCJ and recent experience should make the path clear: Incarcerate fewer people if you want to cut TDCJ's budget. Lower the prison-and-state-jail population by 10,000, for example, and all of a sudden saving an additional $200 million doesn't seem so far-fetched. Heck, it'd probably be more, since for every dollar spent on TDCJ Texas spends another 30+ cents in other areas of the budget.

In reality, Collier and TDCJ's budget folks understand that reduced incarceration and prison closure is a more rational approach than "reductions in convict health care, meals, as well as prison and parole operations," as Collier suggested to the Houston Chronicle. Those discussions are occurring behind the scenes. "Yes, there are discussions going on about closing more units. I've been in on them," state Sen. John Whitmire declared in that same Chron story. "The state has a number of old, inefficient and remote units that we should consider merging or closing to spend taxpayer dollars more efficiently."

Bottom line: People who demand budget cuts at TDCJ but won't contemplate reduced incarceration levels aren't really serious about governing. And incarceration can be reduced with little harm to public safety, as the state's experience in the juvenile realm proved. In fact, reducing inmate numbers would improve safety inside Texas prisons. While Garrett gave voice to layoff fears, ironically the union representing TDCJ correctional officers supports prison closures because of understaffing and high turnover. (And certainly they're not going to complain if the state lets private contracts expire.) Even if closures came at public units, attrition would cover them fairly quickly and, if the closures targeted chronically understaffed units, it would actually solve some problems for TDCJ.

The agency running Texas' prisons isn't going to suggest reducing its empire, even if that's a fundamental part of the debate surrounding budget requests in a time of austerity. So journalists covering the issue, like legislative decision makers, must seek out alternative information sources or risk conveying a myopic and slanted portrayal of TDCJ's budget situation. TDCJ officials won't tell you what needs to be done to cut their budget safely, but that doesn't mean it isn't obvious what the real story is.

* Private prisons and state jails with TDCJ contracts up Aug. 31, 2017 are the Bartlett State Jail, Bradshaw State Jail, Lindsey State Jail, Willacy State Jail, Bridgeport Correctional Center, Kyle Correctional Center, and the Bridgeport pre-Parole Transfer Facility. Between them, those seven units hold 6,300+ inmates. There are also two intermediate sanctions facilities with contracts up next year, but those reduce incarceration at TDCJ and shouldn't be targeted for budget cuts.

Saturday, September 03, 2016

On changing policing culture

Perhaps the toughest part of police reform is that one is battling not just a few "rogue" officers nor even merely bad laws and policies, but a self sustaining organizational culture that's reinforced by training, management expectations, and vested union interests. Here are a few links on affecting police departments' organizational culture which Grits wanted to preserve for my own purposes and thought may also interest readers:
One of the counter-intuitive elements of police accountability work - especially for liberals who consider themselves sympathetic to the labor movement - is that the best reforms are those which strengthen management at the expense of workers (read: officers) in order to shift internal organizational culture and expectations.

Reformers want police administrators to be able to discipline or fire misbehaving cops, deploy officers and/or apply resources in creative ways, prioritize community policing, measure deescalation and discourage use of force, shift performance outcomes away from arrest-based metrics, and fulfill a host of other community expectations. But a police chief who really begins to alter departmental culture will inevitably find themselves in a day-to-day ground war with the union over every granular aspect of reform. That's why, at the end of the day, police chiefs must be empowered; if they are weakened, it's the police union, not community groups, winning those small, behind the scenes battles. Administrators must have sufficient tools to discipline officers, be given clear direction and authority to implement change, and then be held to account for outcomes via better metrics and improved public access to data.

If the current police accountability movement succeeds, it will be because police chiefs are selected based on reform criteria, empowered to make change, and supported politically when they do.

This is perhaps the principle reason Grits does not favor civilian-review boards as a primary police accountability strategy for Texas police departments. (The idea is a transplant from northeastern climes and was never really a good fit for Texas' law and culture, not that they ever worked particularly well at native latitudes.) Most civilian-review boards, like Houston's and Austin's, do not have disciplinary nor even investigatory power and thus are neutered and diminished from the get go, leaving citizens looking to them for accountability disappointed and disillusioned. But here's the rub: If civilian review boards were given independent disciplinary authority - taking power from the chief - that would be even worse. There's no guarantee they'd do a better job, some reason to suspect they'd do worse (after all, we're typically talking about volunteers and political appointees), and the switch would severely undermine the chief's leverage, making it harder to reform the department overall.

The stereotype of reformers as anti-police misapprehends their agenda. Rather, many proposed reforms would strengthen and empower police administrators to reduce undesired outcomes and confront persistent negative aspects of departmental culture. Community groups can't do that work. Of necessity, it must be performed by police management. The goal should be to help them do it.

Friday, September 02, 2016

Point of Impact series to focus on police shootings of unarmed Texans

Grits contributing writer Eva Ruth Moravec, a former cops-and-courts beat reporter for the San Antonio Express News who's also covered the capitol for the Associated Press, has launched a year-long investigation into police shootings of unarmed people in Texas, she announced in an email yesterday. The series is titled "Point of Impact" and will be published in the Houston Chronicle and other Texas outlets. Showing conservative interest in this topic extends beyond Rick Perry and Glenn Beck, the Charles Koch Foundation has provided generous support for the project. Here's the gist from Eva Ruth's announcement:
Today, I'm really happy to announce the launch of Point of Impact, a yearlong series that will delve into officer-involved shootings of unarmed people in Texas. 
Through the series, I will look into 19 shootings of unarmed people that have occurred since last September, when a new law went into effect that required law enforcement to report shootings to the state. 
For the first year of the law's implementation, about 20 percent of the 159 individuals shot by officers were unarmed. About half of those incidents were fatal. 
The shootings span the Lone Star State and each have their own set of circumstances that led an officer to pull the trigger. Through these stories, I aim to help readers better understand why unarmed people are sometimes shot and how these shootings affect those involved. I'll go beyond the breaking news and initial headlines to gain perspectives that I think we badly need at a time when the country seems so divided. 
Look for my first story - an introduction to the project - in Texas newspapers this weekend, and tune into the Texas Standard on Friday to hear an interview with yours truly. Our social media account information is below, and please subscribe via the bottom of the project's website,, so you don't miss a post.
Eva Ruth did an interview today about the project with Texas Public Radio, and has promised to grace us with occasional Reporter's Notebook posts on Grits as the series develops.

Her first item, a data-and-open-records based overview of police shootings in Texas, has already been posted online and I'm informed it will be published in Sunday's paper. According to that overview, "Texas police reported shooting 159 people in the first year that the state tracked such cases under a ground-breaking new law. Austin and Fort Worth each saw five of those shootings — compared to eight apiece in San Antonio and Dallas and 31 in Houston." In the first year data was collected, Texas "officers have reported killing 71 people and injuring 88."

Coupled with Amanda Woog's data project and the Texas Tribune's Unholstered series, we're starting to get a more detailed and nuanced understanding of the dynamics surrounding these hot-button episodes which have driven so much of the national conversation on criminal justice in the last two years.

Congratulations, Eva Ruth, this is really important work and a cool project. I can't wait to see what all you produce.

Thursday, September 01, 2016

Democratic Party hypocrisy on #cjreform

When Black Lives Matter activists approached Democratic congressional campaigns about criminal justice reform, the DCCC advised candidates and their staff to patronize them, "listen" to their concerns in small-as-possible groups, avoid committing to any specific policies, and portray themselves as sympathetic without actually promising to do anything, according to a memo leaked by a hacker.

In particular, the memo told candidates not to make any policy commitments regarding "Criminal Justice System reform" including "sentencing reform, ending prison industrial complex, police reform," changes in "hiring, training, and unfair policing tactics," as well as "Collect[ing] data on police shootings" and "Demilitarization of the police."  Thanks for nothing, Nancy Pelosi.

Even as President Obama has finally, significantly embraced criminal-justice reform in his last year of office (better late than never), the rest of the Democratic party remains as skittish on the topic as he was during his first 6.5 years. It's a standing Republican meme - one repeated recently by Donald Trump - that Democrats' interest in African Americans does not extend beyond getting them to the voting booth in support of white, Wall-Street approved elites like Hillary Clinton. And every once in a while, hard evidence arrives that supports and justifies those suspicions.

This memo exemplifies why Grits has resisted framing criminal-justice reform as a partisan issue over the years: these topics have never played a central role in a Democratic Party more concerned with winning District Attorney, Sheriff, and judicial races than promoting civil rights. One would like to reject cynicism, but to do so in the face of concrete evidence is to embrace a delusion.

Talk is cheap. Reform is hard. Going forward, we need to see quite a bit more reform coming from Democrats before we hear more talk about how much better they are than Republicans on this stuff.