Wednesday, December 07, 2016

Roundup: Jean Valjean at Christmastime and other stories

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

Draconian enhancements based on decades-old offenses
Thanks to "enhancements" based on felonies committed two decades ago, a Hays County man received a six-year sentence for stealing $45 worth of ground beef and toys for his children from a Walmart just before Christmas last year. The kicker: Texas Supreme Court Justice Jeff Brown was foreman of the jury who convicted this latter-day Jean Valjean. Les Miserables similes aside, there needs to be some statute of limitations on how long old convictions can be used to enhance new misdemeanors into lengthy prison sentences. Nothing about what this guy did 20 years ago predicts that he's a danger today; in fact, the nature of this latest trumped-up "felony" indicates his priorities have shifted. The fellow committed what otherwise would have been a Class C misdemeanor theft so he could give his kids a modest Christmas, and "To love another person is to see the face of God."

Judges call for independent crime lab
Travis County judges are calling on the city to separate its crime lab from the Austin Police Department, a move presaged by recommendations from the National Academy of Sciences in its landmark 2009 report. Grits agrees with that assessment, with one caveat: They should make the lab truly independent, as was done in Houston. What they shouldn't do is shift those functions to the county medical examiner, as some have suggested. Let's please do this right the first time. In related news, Sen. Cornyn is pushing legislation to reauthorize federal funding for crime labs and reducing rape kit backlogs.

Contempt of cop: A case study
This article from Meagan Flynn at the Houston Press depicts a class example of an arrest for "contempt of cop" by a Harris County Sheriff's deputy.

Can bureaucracy prevent jail suicides?
Despite this Texas Tribune story, Grits suspects that far too much credit is being given to a new intake form when it comes to reducing jail suicides. We'll have to see if reductions hold long-term. But it's just as likely that jails stepped up prevention efforts because the Commission on Jail Standards began making suicides a greater point of emphasis and Sheriffs didn't want to end up in the paper with the next Sandra-Blandesque death occurring in their facility. If that's the case, suicides will continue to fluctuate and may go back up as new incidents arise. I hope I'm wrong, but it seems hard to believe such a small bureaucratic change could make a huge dent in a problem rooted deep in the human psyche. My instincts say to look for a) alternative explanations and b) future increases.

Veterans courts are cool, but don't scale up
This Houston Chronicle article touts veterans courts as an intervention that works, and they do, but it's also true that they're resource intensive and don't scale up well given the volume and gaping needs of the target population. Reported the Chron, quoting the judge in charge of the project: "The common denominator of the veterans in his court is a 'very low sense of self-esteem and self-purpose,' along with self-hate." But couldn't you say that about defendants in every criminal courtroom in America? Strong probation methods work, but they require more resources than most county governments are willing to provide, and you can't place it all on the backs of defendants through expensive court fees. These courts are important experiments, but they are not yet scale-able solutions and are unavailable to most veterans who commit crimes.

Asset seizures skyrocketed since turn of century
Total assets seized by Texas law enforcement increased more than 150 percent from 2001 to 2013, according to Right on Crime. At this point, agencies have become reliant on the income in unhealthy and problematic ways. If the interdiction strategy were working, one wonders, wouldn't authorities seize LESS illicit assets over time?

LWOP for illegal immigrants makes no cost-benefit sense
Here's a legislative proposal that would cost a small fortune with little public safety benefit to show for it: Authorizing life without parole for first-degree felonies committed by illegal immigrants. Life without parole didn't exist in Texas until 2005, when death penalty abolitionists made a deal with the devil, creating the new punishment as the sole alternative available to their clients in death-penalty cases. IMO that legislation threw their clients under the bus. Since then, we've seen hundreds of people sentenced to LWOP while death sentnences dropped. But LWOP is also a death sentence, just in slow motion. Next we had people wanting LWOP for sex offenders, then for sex traffickers, and not for illegal immigrants. There's no public safety argument for this policy and the cost-benefit analysis cannot stand up to scrutiny. This is just pandering to nativist sentiments in a crass and ham-handed way. One hopes cooler, wiser, and more cost-conscious heads will prevail as the bill is considered at the Lege.

1033 program: Not as free as 'free' sounds
Lots of Texas agencies got "free" personnel carriers through the Pentagon's 1033 program, but the Texas Public Policy Foundation points out that that statement masks significant costs to locals from operating the vehicles.

CAN-DO Clemency
Grits was interested to learn of the CAN-DO Foundation, which stands for Clemency for All Nonviolent Drug Offenders. As folks push Obama to maximize his use of clemency on his way out the door,  it's worth mentioning there's still time for him to posthumously pardon the writer O. Henry, as this blog along with Pete Ruckman has long advocated.

Locked up for the holidays
In an item titled, "Locked up for the holidays," the Pew Charitable Trusts' Stateline site examined the impact of the holiday season on inmates and their families and charity work aimed at supporting both.


Anonymous said...

Some years ago the Houston Police Department offered their SWAT officers to any local department that didn't want or need a full-service, full time SWAT team. The only stipulation was the police force that called could not have its own SWAT team. It saved many a community the cost of equipment and training (ongoing expenses) and it prevented any conflict between two macho commanders as to what tactics were viable for a given situation and who was in charge.

Now days everyone wants one (including places like Texas Southern University!) because they're cool, damn the expense.

Anonymous said...

The problems discovered at the APD crime lab were not necessarily because the lab is not independent from law enforcement. The problems were a result of mismanagement and improper oversight, inept auditing agencies, and investigative agencies (such as the Texas Forensic Science Commission) failing to perform the duties they are legally obligated to do.

Even if the APD crime lab was "independent" of the Police Department, these same problems that were found in 2016 would have occurred.

One solutions would be to imposed a hefty fine against ASCLD/LAB and the individual auditors who gave the lab accreditation status but failed to identifying the glaringly obvious issues. Publicly chastise the Texas Rangers and TxDPS for their incompetent and shoddy investigations (or cover-up) in 2010 when they were first notified of the problems in the APD lab by analyst Cecily Hamilton.

And b*tch-slap the members of the TFSC for not getting up off their collectively bloated asses and going to the APD lab in 2010. Those Commissioners do not deserve to be there if they are not going to do their job. Find better Commissioners.

And, hey, let's not appoint igmos like D. Pat Johnson as a commissioner to the TFSC. As deputy assistant director of the Texas Department of Public Safety (TxDPS) Crime Laboratory Services, responsible for crime lab accreditations across Texas (pre-2015), he did a pretty stellar job of downplaying or covering up problems in the labs (including the atrocities found at the APD lab). He might not be best candidate for an investigative agency that is responsible for identifying acts of negligence or misconduct in the crime labs.

Harry Homeless said...

Articles like this won't earn you your Scapegoating merit badge.

Gritsforbreakfast said...

FWIW, 10:21, I'm with you that the FSC blew it on the APD crime lab. That might be their worst result so far.

OTOH, when Pat Johnson was at DPS he did not flinch at disclosing or confronting errors on his watch. Whether he's up for aggressively applying oversight remains to be seen, but based on his record at DPS, I wouldn't agree with your characterization of him.

Anonymous said...


The TFSC did more than just fail. Their dereliction of duty failed to reveal information that would have been favorable to defense attorneys. They've violated the law.

The TFSC requested an Opinion of the Attorney General (July 2015),
"If a laboratory disclosure involves professional misconduct by a forensic scientist with the potential to impact criminal cases in many different jurisdictions, does the Commission need to notify the prosecutor in each jurisdiction or may it communicate the information to the Texas District and County Attorney's Association for distribution to its membership?"

The Attorney General's Request for Opinion KP-0055 (January 8, 2016) responded,

"...The Texas Forensic Science Commission ("Commission") asks [July 2015] about its responsibility to "notify relevant parties of exculpatory, impeachment or mitigating information" [that the TFSC receives in submitted complaints] under the Code of Criminal Procedure..."

"...We can advise you, however, that the lack of a duty under article 39.l4(h) does not negate the requirement in article 38.01, § (4)(e) for the Commission to make its completed investigation reports available to the public. See generally TEX. CODE CRIM. PROC. art. 38.01, § (4)(e).

If the TFSC refuses to perform an investigation that qualifies per 38.01, and no investigation report is created by the TFSC, they've violated the law.

According to the TFSC Annual Report 2016, only 3 reports have been released since December 2015. Surely, they've had more complaints than that. Just look at all the complaints that were finalized as "No Further Action" without an actual investigation or report.

Anonymous said...


Interestingly, Pat Johnson did not participate in the 2010-11 investigation regarding Cecily Hamilton's allegations of APD problems. At least, there is nothing noted from him or the TxDPS in the September 2011 TFSC "review".

So I guess he can't be blamed for the accreditation violations found at the APD crime lab by the TFSC in 2016 (problems that date back to 2009). Maybe if Pat Johnson had participated, the APD DNA section would still be open today.


Also interestingly, while there is a small blurb stating "OPINIONS OF THE ATTORNEY GENERAL. Investigative Authority" in the TFSC 2016 Annual Report, the annual report does not mention either RQ-0032-KP (Lynn Garcia's questions) or KP-0055 (Attorney General's Response).

While it is a strange question to be asked, given the nature of the details typically provided in the submitted complaints, the number of Investigation Reports already published (and full of "exculpatory, impeachment, or mitigating information"), and the 2013 White Paper written by the TFSC regarding "Defendant Notification After Major Forensic Nonconformance" (i.e. exculpatory, impeachment or mitigating information...The TFSC notifies EVERYONE!!), it's even stranger that RQ-0032-KP and KP-0055 are not included from any official TFSC report. Also, I couldn't find mention of either on the TFSC webpage ("News").

A strange oversight.

How much exculpatory, impeachment, or mitigating information is the Forensic Commission withholding from the public?

Anonymous said...