Friday, August 17, 2018

State policy worsens driver license waits, how to expand drug treatment, police-union demagoguery redux, and other stories

As Grits catches up on all the Texas criminal-justice news that happened while the blog was on hiatus, let's clear some browser tabs with a roundup posts, on the off chance that some readers missed these stories, too:

Massive 8-hour waits at DPS license shops worsened by state policy
While there are many causes for continued, massive waits at Texas DPS drivers license centers, they're undoubtedly worsened by the nearly two million people who've had their licenses revoked thanks to nonpayment of traffic tickets and driver responsibility surcharges. Using license revocations as punishment for nonpayment instead of simply to certify driving acumen has clogged facilities with people trying to get their licenses renewed outside of the regular seven-year cycle, and many of them face complicated bureaucratic scenarios that take more time than average customers. Trying to squeeze poor people for every last dollar that way is penny wise and pound foolish. Better to eliminate those surcharges and stop revoking licenses for debt altogether, leaving unpaid fines and surcharges to traditional collections services to sort out.

TCJC: Tailor probation for young defendants
The Texas Criminal Justice Coalition put out a new report by our pal Doug Smith calling for expanded probation services and revamped requirements for probationers aged 17-25. By their count, 42 percent of 17-year olds who receive probation are revoked after two years, and statewide more than half of all revocations are for technical violations, not commission of a new crime. Moreover, 31 percent of those who go on probation aged 18-21 are revoked within two years, with revocation numbers declining substantially as probationers age. The reforms suggested would require new investments for specialized probation caseloads, but would pay for themselves in the medium run.

Bail-reform boost
Bail reform efforts received a boost from Gov. Greg Abbott's endorsement, as he suggested naming the legislation after a state trooper was killed by a defendant who would have been deemed high-risk but was released on a money-bond. Abbott focused more on keeping high-risk defendants locked up, but the legislation cannot pass - much less with the 2/3 majorities needed to amend the state constitution to authorize preventive detention - without addressing low-and-medium risk defendants locked up solely because they cannot afford to pay. With litigation in Harris County already dictating new rules for misdemeanants and the Dallas litigation over bail threatening to extend those requirements to felony defendants held pretrial, there's a lot more pressure for the Legislature to pass bail reform in 2019 than there was for the bill that failed last year. Whether or not Abbott's endorsement pushes this legislation over the top - and the bail-bond industry will fight it bitterly to the very end - Texas counties are poised to change how they make pretrial detention decisions in the short-to-medium term. It's impossible right now to predict when change is coming to any given county, but rest assured, it's coming.

Redundant red-light camera debate finally convincing pols
Gov. Abbott also came out in favor of abolishing red-light cameras in Texas after a new study found that the cameras increase injury accidents overall. The study concluded that, "the cameras changed the (angle) of accidents, but (there is) no evidence of a reduction in total accidents or injuries,” according to a recent report by researchers at Case Western Reserve University in Ohio who reviewed Texas traffic data." Of course, studies have been finding the same thing for years, but I'm glad this one finally caught the governor's attention and/or finally convinced him. Better late than never.

Unearthing the dark and bitter legacy of convict leasing in Texas
Large numbers of unmarked graves of black prisoners used in the convict leasing program at the old Imperial Sugar Company in Sugar Land sparked some excellent journalistic conversations the topic, including editorials from the Houston Chronicle and the New York Times. For more background, see this website created about the Sugar Land site and an academic offering on "Penology for Profit" documenting the Texas convict leasing system from the end of the Civil War to just before WWI.

Two options for increased drug treatment
Legislators investigating how to respond to increased drug overdose deaths were told that the state faces a chronic shortage of drug-treatment services. There are two ways they can solve that problem without raising taxes: A) Expand Medicaid under the Affordable Care Act, or B) reduce penalties for low-level drug possession and use the savings from reduced incarceration to pay for more treatment services. There is no option C.

Cowtown pension pitch would take cash from cops pockets
A proposed plan to stabilize the police pension fund in Fort Worth would require officers to pay more, reducing their take home pay, and reduce benefits going forward so that there will now be two tiers of retirement benefits, with new retirees getting less. Not everybody is thrilled about it.

Police-union demagoguery redux
Demagogic union attacks on the San Antonio police chief are really a proxy for their feud with the mayor and city council members who were tough on them in contract negotiations, the SA Express News reported. The SA police union is utilizing the most aggressive, Saul-Alinskyite tactics long advocated by Texas police union mugwumps for undermining politicians who oppose union ends. In Austin, those tactics backfired and caused the city council to reject a negotiated police contract last December. Now, the Austin Justice Coalition is pressing the city council to spend the money they previously paid for police bonuses and perks on non-law-enforcement measures that benefit public safety. See an interview by Grits with police-union consultant Ron DeLord discussing why those hardball union tactics may be outdated and ineffective in the current political environment.

Mata matters
Grits first met civil rights activist Johnny Mata around 1997, and he'd already been fighting the good fight on police accountability for two decades. At 82, he's all but a local icon in Houston. I was glad to see the Houston Chronicle give him his due in this feature story. The article reported he's been diagnosed with leukemia. Good luck, Johnny, I'm rooting for you.

Prison abolition vs. reform
Politico published a feature on prison abolition, but to me the differences between abolitionists and other #cjreformers are vastly overstated, certainly in the short-to-medium term. (And as John Maynard Keynes opined, "In the long run we are all dead.") Whether your goal is to cut the prison population by 20 percent, by half (e.g., #cut50), or to abolish prisons altogether, the first steps toward decarceration remain the same. The first fight is over the next big chunk of prisoners we can decarcerate, no matter what is one's ultimate goal. And if abolitionists oppose short-term reforms because they're holding out for the Big Kahuna of total abolition, they're allowing the perfect to become the enemy of the good and IMO are hurting the people they purport to help.


Finally, here are a few stories from outside of Texas that merit Grits readers' attention:


Anonymous said...

Those Red Light cameras are not even right and some of the towns are just plain greedy because of their mismanagement of tax payer dollars to begin with. The town of Little Elm sent me a notice for "making a right on red turn, while yielding to NO oncoming traffic. I could not believe that someone would even sign off on that, unless you just like taking advantage of tax payers. I could beat it in a court of law but I let it go. I got bigger battles to fight right now (cancer). They then turned it over to a law firm for collections, who sends out threaten letters. I would say with the combination of supper high property taxes in neighborhoods that let investors turn the house next door to you section 8 and the red light cameras, a person would be mad to move or live in Little Elm! It is for sure not military or veteran friendly! Military and veterans should look else where to live!

Anonymous said...

Don't forget the sex offenders who have to renew their licenses every year... Because you know, being a pervert impairs their ability to drive?

And in the same month they'll go to the local police to register there too... Because telling the police where you live so they can tell DPS is somehow different than when they go to DPS directly and tell them the same thing?

Anonymous said...

I got one of those tickets in Little Elm also. It was either go through the yellow light or slam on brakes and cause an accident. Funny how that works in Little Elm! I have disable veteran tags on my car and I will say this town is not veteran or military friendly at all! They are only dollar friendly.