Saturday, December 29, 2018

Top Texas #CJreform Stories of 2018

Passage of the First Step Act was clearly the biggest criminal justice policy story of 2018, and congrats to all the Texans who were a part of that. But Grits wanted to take a moment to identify the biggest state-level Texas criminal-justice stories of the year. Here's the list I came up with. Let me know what else you think should have been included.

1. Elections: Creuzot, Gonzalez, in, Abel Reyna, Nico Lahood out; Harris Co. and appellate courts sweep Democrat: Texas statewide races failed to "turn blue," but Harris and Fort Bend County went solidly Democratic, ousting numerous, longstanding Republican incumbents and installing supporters of bail reform. In Dallas, Democrat John Creuzot defeated Greg-Abbott appointee Faith Johnson on a platform of reducing mass incarceration, while in San Antonio, defense attorney Joe Gonzalez defeated the enigmatic Nico Lahood in the primary and went on to win the general election.

2. TDCJ Youthful Offender program upheaval: The Texas Department of Criminal Justice was caught out of compliance with the Prison Rape Elimination Act when adult inmates were able to access and have sex with 17-year olds housed in the agency's Youthful Offender Program. The agency fired the staff involved and moved the program to Huntsville. But it all could have been avoided if the Legislature had passed raise-the-age legislation approved in the Texas House last session. County jails across the state face similar challenges separating 17-year olds by "sight and sound" from adult inmates.

3. Bail reform litigation roller coaster: Bail reform litigation in Texas saw many ups and downs. A federal district judge in Houston issued a favorable ruling for reformers, which a 5th Circuit panel scaled back temporarily pending the court's final decision. New leadership in Harris County may settle the suit rather than litigate further. But another suit in Dallas is challenging pretrial detention, including in felony cases, on essentially similar grounds. All this sets up 2019 as a decisive year, whether the outcome is determined in the courts, or if the Legislature steps up to disallow unconstitutional bail practices in the session about to begin.

4. Austin Justice Coalition and allies win accountability victories in police contract, new oversight ordinance: Advocates who had stalled a new union contract at the Austin Police Department last year doubled down on that new leverage to secure new transparency and accountability reforms. Observers say it's the first time police-reform advocates have successfully used leverage from a defeated union contract to push accountability reforms.

5. Firing TJJD Ombudsman Debbie Unruh: In January, Governor Greg Abbott responded to allegations of mistreatment of juveniles incarcerated at the Texas Juvenile Justice Department by firing the executive director and, more problematically, Ombudsman Debbie Unruh, whose work at TJJD units first exposed the problems reported later by journalists. It was an ignominious way to start the year.

6. TDCJ begins to give elderly inmates dentures after HouChron story: Keri Blakinger at the Houston Chronicle without question would merit a Texas Justice Journalist of the Year award, if such a thing existed. Her story on TDCJ denying dentures to toothless, elderly inmates ended with an amazing outcome: The agency agreed to change its policy and began delivering 3D-printed dentures to inmates by this fall. Many journalists go their whole careers without such an accomplishment. Great job.

7. Mike Ward faked stories: On the other end of the journalistic spectrum, the primary person who covered Texas prisons for the last two decades - and the only reporter for many years to attend TBCJ board meetings - resigned after it was discovered he fabricated quotes in dozens of stories after leaving the Austin Statesman to become Austin bureau chief of the Houston Chronicle. Almost as soon as other reporters began covering that beat - particularly Keri Blakinger, mentioned above - a wave of major stories came out. Grits considered Ward a "sycophant to power" and was unsurprised, if dismayed, by his dishonesty.

8. Junk-science writ doing the work: Bite-mark testimony toppled: Texas' junk-science writ had one of its best years yet, helping overturn bite mark evidence and playing a central role in courts reevaluating blood spatter evidence, forensic hypnosis, and more. Texas increasingly is emerging at the forefront of forensic reforms, in part because of the new-science writ and in part because we have an active death penalty, so at least those defendants have access to attorneys to lodge challenges against bogus evidence in their cases.

9. Bipartisan justice reform agenda emerges from party platforms: The group I work for, Just Liberty, spearheaded a campaign to install criminal-justice reform planks into both Texas state party platforms, securing agreement on issues from raising the age of adult accountability to reducing marijuana penalties and eliminating arrests for people who can't afford to pay traffic-ticket debt.

10. Governor, GOP platform endorse marijuana reform: In a debate with his Democratic opponent heading into the election, Gov. Abbott endorsed reducing penalties for user-level marijuana possession, suggesting the Legislature lower the charge for possession of up to two ounces from a Class B to a Class C misdemeanor. Legislation to do just that has cleared committee several times since 2005, but never received a floor vote in the Texas House. Abbott's endorsement gives the bill much more momentum.

And here are some "honorable mention" stories that deserve to be remembered as the calendar turns.

Dallas cops indicted for murder: In her final two years in office, Republican District Attorney Faith Johnson prosecuted more cops for misconduct not just than any Democratic DA in Texas, but more than any prosecutor in the entire country. It didn't save her in Texas' last straight-ticket voting election, which she lost to John Creuzot. But indictments in the Roy Oliver and Amber Guyger cases were unusual and significant.

Class C Misdemeanors emerge as reform priority: Lots of small action on this topic around the state. Both political parties urged limits on arrests for Class C misdemeanors and failure to pay traffic tickets in their party platforms. First data showed 2017 debtors-prison legislation was a rousing success; Fort Worth, Austin, ended warrant roundups; Austin pioneered changes to limit Class C arrests.

Heat litigation settlement leaves unanswered questions: Texas must now install A/C at the Wallace Pack Unit after TDCJ settled years-long 8th amendment litigation. The question becomes, will those terms ultimately extend to the whole system? It's unclear at the moment, but there's additional litigation in the pipeline that may clarify.

TDCJ guards setting up inmates with disciplinary cases: Another Keri Blakinger special, TDCJ staff were caught fabricating evidence to accuse inmates of disciplinary cases, in part to meet an illegal quota of disciplinary cases at certain units. People are getting fired and indicted over this.

More than one percent of adult males in Texas still incarcerated: Texans in Washington were full of boasts over Texas' decarceration efforts, but the Lone Star State remains one of the nation's top incarcerators, with far more people in prison per capita than other large U.S. states.


Anonymous said...

links for Dallas cops indicted for murder

rozmataz said...

I've heard the "First Step Act" promoted by Trump's son-in-law and affecting only federal prisoners, is in order to assure that soon-to-be federal prisoners (the Trump family and their minions) won't be incarcerated i.e., locked up and can pretty much stay at home with ankle bracelets (and after a time, no ankle bracelet) because they aren't a danger to society. Without my having to read that law, can someone who has explain to me if this is true or not?