Sunday, January 29, 2017

Tyler mayor to run B&B for racially profiled black men, and other stories

Blogging was slow last week but that doesn't mean there weren't quite a few items in the news which merited Grits readers' attention. Here are a few of them:

Medical neglect at TDCJ espied after prisoner death
Alton Rogers died of head trauma in an Amarillo prison unit about a year ago after his cellmate slammed his head into the concrete. But autopsy results and medical records revealed he was extremely malnourished and significant medical problems had long been neglected by TDCJ which also contributed to his death. The Intercept has excellent coverage of this story. 

Tyler mayor to run B&B for racially profiled black men
Heisman trophy winning running back Ricky Williams was stopped by cops in my hometown of Tyler earlier this month and questioned in an exchange caught on police dashcam. He'd been taking a walk around his hotel, where he was staying in order to attend an awards dinner for Earl Campbell's foundation, when a homeowner called the cops to report a black man had been standing near his back fence. In Tyler, this apparently will get three cops sent to the scene ASAP. Two of the officers recognized Williams before they stopped him. But the third did not and began to aggressively question him, even lying to him to try to get him to confess to a crime. He told Williams he knew "more than you think I know," including that Williams had been in a neighbor's backyard, not just walking past it. Williams didn't bite, but he did question whether this was a racially motivated stop. This spurred the other two officers, who by this time probably knew the encounter was about to end up online, to interject that this is how they'd treat anyone in this circumstance and try to defuse the situation. Later, Tyler's mayor Martin Hines reached out to the former Miami Dolphns star, offering to let Williams stay in his personal family home the next time he's in town. (“I even invited him to stay with my family when he’s here. We have a guest room he’s welcome to.”) Grits imagines the mayor similarly extends this offer to all black men in Tyler who feel they've been racially profiled by police, don't you think? No chance Williams only got that offer from a starstruck mayor because he's a celebrity and a famous Texas football player. Nah! That can't be it.

Expunge this
For those in and around Austin, the UT law school's Expunction Project will hold a couple of intake sessions next month. Go here for more information.

Austin gets new police monitor
I don't know the new Austin Police Monitor, but the last one, Margo Frasier, was the best we ever had. She made the most of what, on paper and in practice, is a weak and ineffectual office. But it possesses a bully-pulpit function that only works if the Monitor uses it. She did. Will her successor? That's the question lingering in my mind. We'll know soon enough.

Dallas pension fight further devolves
Talks over a pension deal in Dallas have completely broken down and the city may soon pull out of the pension fund and create a new one going forward. Police unions' scorched earth tactics probably will preclude additional negotiations (anybody who questions their demand for a bailout is immediately dubbed a liar, said to have "conned" officers, accused of hating the retirees, etc.), setting the stage for years of litigation that's in the best interest neither of taxpayers nor retirees. The likelihood that police pensions drive the state's second largest city into bankruptcy increased this week.

'New breed of prosecutors'
Freshly minted DAs in Austin and Houston were among those profiled in the Marshall Project item about reformer prosecutors elected on the same day as Donald Trump. I'm kind of surprised they didn't mention Nueces County, which was truly a race decided on reform issues. In Harris, the flip was more rooted in partisan shifts that also impacted the judiciary and other countywide offices.

Death decline
This item from Houstonia magazine credits better-quality lawyering for Texas having the lowest number of executions last year in two decades. And that's certainly part of it. Unmentioned, though, was a change in the law from 2015 which required prosecutors to notify the defense when they request an execution date from a judge. This additional notice has given the defense heretofore unavailable opportunities to challenge execution dates at the time they're requested, rather than find out later only when the judge issues an order based on an ex parte request. Some of those whose dates were delayed will still eventually be executed, but the change prevents some of the last-minute wrangling and postponements that historically surround such events, While the effect likely is short-term, that new law probably explains the dip in executions in 2016 better than broader macro factors like attorney quality.

Harris DA accused of withholding snitch deal, conflicting testimony
Attorneys from Baker Botts have alleged in filings to the Texas Court of Criminal Appeals that Harris County prosecutors engaged in misconduct in a capital murder case, failing to disclose that a key witness "had provided two separate and conflicting statements to police," as well as failing to "disclose a deal not to prosecute another prosecution witness in exchange for his testimony."

Reduce drug penalties, expand treatment, opportunities for addicts
Treatment, not incarceration, is key to reducing drug-related crime, wrote the executive director of Austin Recovery in a column calling for reducing penalties for low-level drug possession from a state-jail felony to a misdemeanor. "Lowering penalties for minor possession can save Texas more than $60 million – funds that can be used to decrease the waiting list for treatment and overdose prevention. Decreased penalties also mean that people with addiction still have the opportunities to achieve their full potential," she concluded.

Cowtown cop's disciplinary file secret
See an update from AP on the episode out of Fort Worth in which an officer arrested a black mother and daughter while verbally defending the white man who had allegedly assaulted her son. The story noted that disciplinary records for past incidents involving the officer are secret unless they resulted in a firing or suspension. That's a problem not just for public accountability but also for prosecutors. In cities which have adopted the state police and fire civil service code, prosecutors similarly lack access to "impeachment" information in disciplinary files of officers they put on the stand as witnesses, although they have a duty under the Michael Morton Act to disclose such information. The Legislature needs to plug this gap in the MMA, which puts prosecutors in a particularly rough spot.

Crime by the numbers
Vox took a deep dive into the new FBI crime statistics providing important context to the "American carnage" demagoguery emerging from the White House these days.


Anonymous said...

The irony...'New breed of prosecutors' the same post as...'Harris DA accused of withholding snitch deal, conflicting testimony'.

The more they change, the more they stay the same.

Until there is a paradigm shift where the unethical and incompetent are penalized or jailed for such, the status quo will remain. Putting lipstick on a pig does not make it any better. The Ken Andersons and the Charles Sebestas and the John Jacksons and the John Bradleys (welcome home ??) and the Ketzer/Volberings and the laundry list of other so-called zealous attorneys who have proven to be anything but, will remain to provide unaccountable and incalculable damage to the public.

Pucker up, Texas. We have a new shade of red.

Gritsforbreakfast said...

I'm sympathetic to your frustrations, 9:25, but that was from a prior administration. Ogg just got there in January. And Anderson, Sebesta, and Bradley all got their comeuppance in the (bitter, far-too-late-but-better-than-never) end. Government is really messy, but Ogg and Gonzalez represent a departure from their predecessors. I don't really know much about the new gal in Austin, though I was glad to see she performed a thorough housecleaning when she got in.

Is electing a few reformer prosecutors the end all be all of reform? Not IMO, though sometimes John Pfaff seems to think so. But as my father likes to say, it's better than a sharp stick in the eye. Would have been worse if Texas had elected a bunch of regressive, anti-reform DAs on the same ballot as Trump, that's for sure.

Steve said...

Regarding the reduction of penalties for drug possession, I think that's a great idea in many ways. Addiction is a health problem and shouldn't be treated like a felony crime. The penalties for someone with a felony conviction can be draconian, and the way we treat ex-felon addicts is itself a crime.

Unfortunately, right now this proposal is NOT going to work in Texas for a couple of reasons. First of all, the money for treatment is 95% at the felony level. The state pays for treatment for felons through probation, prison, and parole, and there are LONG waiting lines for treatment in that system. If the drug possession offenses become misdemeanors, the state is NOT going to magically funnel money down to the counties for misdemeanor addicts. And the counties are strapped for cash because the state keeps pushing expenses down on them, so they aren't going to provide money for treatment. Therefore, if you believe that treatment money is going to come from the state to the counties or that the counties are going to provide a bunch of treatment money, you are smoking some strong stuff.

Second, people in active addiction very rarely want treatment. Until they get sick and tired of being sick and tired, they will do everything in their power to avoid treatment. Moreover, they know how to do math. When presented with a choice of spending many months in treatment and being monitored for their drug use versus doing some time in county jail and getting all that hassle behind you and no one bothering you any more about your drug use, they will choose jail time a vast majority of the time. They won't accept treatment at the county level because they can do their county jail time and be out in a lot shorter time than they can do treatment.

In theory, this is a great idea. In practice, it would be a disaster for treatment of addicts. Just read the December 2016 Mother Jones article on California's experience. If you can convince me that the Texas legislature will be more generous and forthcoming with treatment money for misdemeanors than California, I'll back you all the way. But I'm not holding my breath.

Gritsforbreakfast said...

Steve, the proposals I've seen have treatment dollars follow the defendants onto misdemeanor probation. So that's a soluble problem. Also, CA was under federal court orders to radically reduce incarceration levels. That's not Texas' situation. We're able to do this more methodically, and in the state's own interest, not because the feds are making us. Also, our incarceration rates are nearly double California's. We house a lot more lower risk people, so our situations are not particularly comparable.

RE: addicts "rarely want treatment," that's true at the felony level, too. Hence state jail felonies' high recidivism rates. Given that, wouldn't it be better not to ALSO leave them with a felony tag that makes employment, housing, etc., even more difficult? It seems like you're acknowledging the problems then insisting we double down on them.

Steve said...

Grits, I'm surprised you have this much trust in the Texas gub'mint. Remember that the promise of state jails was that money would go there for treatment and it never happened. If you think the state is going to send money for treatment to the counties when it is already facing a 4% budget cut, you have way more optimism than I can muster. Moreover, medium and small counties absolutely depend on the state for residential drug treatment for their addicted offenders; they don't have those resources available, and the economy of scale just won't let them open residential treatment programs for relatively small numbers. That's why the SAFPF program was so well-received by the medium and small counties in the 1990s.

IMHO, the best solution would be to charge the offenders with a state jail felony, and when they complete treatment and aftercare successfully, the courts are required to drop the charge to a misdemeanor. Therefore, you get the incentive to complete treatment and you don't end up with a felony conviction.

Gritsforbreakfast said...

I don't trust the gubmint, Steve, that's why I want to reduce its ability to stick a felon tag on every addict. As for the rest, the budget cut saves money. If a budget rider shifts that money to probation, that's the deal. And it's a deal possible with the 4% cut because the shift to a misdemeanor produces savings. And if we don't create savings, the 4% savings cut will likely come from treatment, so that's the worst-case scenario.

Your solution, though it's unstated, is designed to maximize felony probation fees, keeping people on felony probation so you get more money and then only giving them the misdemeanor at the end. That's good for you guys (the probation bureaucracy) but not for the system or the probationers. It's a lot cleaner and more workable to just drop the sentence to a Class A and deal with the treatment funding issues directly.

Anonymous said...

9:25-add Matt Bingham and David Dobbs from Smith county both should be in jail.

Steve said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Steve said...

Grits, I absolutely and totally resent that statement that my proposal is to maximize fees. I'm surprised you would use an old Rush Limbaugh trick to invent motives about someone's proposal. It's easy to sit in Austin and lob lies like that, but I invite you to come to my department and see how we work with probationers regarding fees.

My concern is first and foremost about helping addicts. My life has been dedicated to advocating effective treatment because I was a Certified Alcohol and Drug Abuse Counselor and a Licensed Chemical Dependency Counselor long before I became an adult probation director. I started the Drug Court, the DWI Court, and two re-entry courts in Lubbock. I started four special caseloads to help addicts in recovery. I hired six in-house counselors to work with our addicts. I still work actively with our Drug Court and I still facilitate a class for addicts and alcoholics. How many addicts and probationers have you worked with to get the chaos out of their lives? I actually do the work while you stay in a bubble to push a political agenda that is based on wishes, hopes, and fantasies instead of realities. Read the Mother Jones article. This proposal to drop felonies to misdemeanors sounds great, but the record shows it would be a disaster for actual treatment, especially in the small and medium counties across the state.

Anonymous said...

It took a celebrity like Rickey Williams harassment to make the news but this is a daily occurrence in tyranical Tyler, TX. And then the slime bags offer him a sleep over!
Tyler, TX promotes racism and are proud of it, it is a way of life there.
Where are BLM when you need than?

Anonymous said...

I am a former drug user. But like George Bush, I was never arrested and eventually outgrew my taste for drugs. I maintained regular employment throughout my druggie years, and even managed to raise a family of productive adults. Had I been arrested I would have lost my job, my home, my cars, and probably my family. Then my children likely would not have graduated college and be the successful citizens they are today.

Gritsforbreakfast said...

Steve, your proposal WOULD keep them on felony probation paying fees and only give them a misdemeanor at the end. That's simply a fact. Whether or not fee generation is the purpose of your proposal, it's the real-world effect. And since other probation directors and TPA lobbyists were vocally upset about lost revenue from the bill last session, it's not a stretch to think that plays a role in your thinking. That's not a denigration of your position, I understand it. It's just that my responsibilities are different from a probation director.

Otherwise: why don't we start "helping addicts" by not putting a felony label on them for being one? What's wrong with that idea? Do you not think the label harms them in the job market and myriad other arenas? Do you imagine it benefits them in some way? Do you believe it's justified? If so, explain why, since you've dedicated your life to helping them. Why are you so resistant to helping them in THAT way, if it's not the money?

I respect the work you do but I also understand the self-interest of bureaucracies, and you run one. There's no reason treatment money can't follow defendants to the misdemeanor courts, and that could be written into a budget rider to make it stick. That you simply insist you can't trust the gubmint, even if that's written into law, isn't a credible stance. And that makes folks like me wonder if there's an ulterior motive - like the additional probation fees your proposal would bring in that you think no one should talk about - that might explain your position. If you weren't deflecting and obfuscating on this one when solutions to your complaints are presented, and if those patterns weren't being replicated writ large by other probation directors, I wouldn't be looking for alternative motives like the fees.

Maybe you can help me understand why, even if by law savings from the law change is diverted into treatment for the new Class a misdemeanants who'd be created, you still think it could never work and you'd never get the money. What's the rub? I've heard a lot of naysaying from the probation crowd but it's all very vague and nebulous. Meanwhile, half yall's revocations are technicals, so you're a big part of the problem. Maybe you should think of responses besides breaking into an off-key chorus of Meghan Trainor's "No" whenever this stuff comes up. We could always refocus on those technicals to find the 4% savings by doing a better job of holding probation offices accountable, which was a major failure of the 2007 reforms. This avenue gives you money; that avenue gives you oversight and makes you the SOURCE of savings. They've been told they have to find savings. You decide which is preferable.

Steve said...

I think I've been consistent throughout this exchange that I think it's a great idea to keep people from being burdened with a felony. I watch my own son suffer every single day from being branded a felon, so you better believe my heart is into that concept. My proposal would remove the felony label from the defendant, and I don't advocate it because of money, in spite of your continued innuendos. My concern is first and foremost about effective treatment.

The problem your proposal is that it doesn't matter if the money follows defendants to the misdemeanor level if the addicts won't take advantage of that opportunity. I've watched time after time as we try to get misdemeanor addicts into treatment and they say, "Just let me do my time." We send them to residential treatment facilities and within a couple of weeks, the jailhouse lawyers have convinced them to do their time. In other words, they know how to do the math. If they face treatment and aftercare for over a year or county jail for a year (which in reality is usually less than six months), they all-too-frequently will choose jail time. It will not give me any solace to watch someone die of an overdose by saying, "Well, at least he/she didn't have a felony when they died."

I don't expect you to believe me because it appears that you've already labeled and stereotyped me, and there's nothing from the Mother Jones article or from from my knowledge or experience that will convince you otherwise. However, I don't mind you arguing with my proposals, but when you impugn my integrity by continuing your refrain that I'm a bureaucrat who is motivated primarily by money, I do take exception to that. I keep challenging you to take a look at how I run my department, but maybe you're afraid that if you did, it might ruin your stereotype and you might actually have to think outside your small box. But add this to your information bank when you talk about technical revocations and probation departments. Which probation department of the largest 15 adult probation departments in Texas has consistently had the very lowest technical revocation rate year after year? (And don't forget that when someone absconds for Timbuktu to avoid going to treatment, that's a "technical" violation.) My department's low revocation and technical revocation rates aren't a coincidence; they're the result of intentional planning and training. Try looking up some facts with this link: