Sunday, February 17, 2019

Travis judges reject public defender, DA discretion the solution to budget constraints, crime deterrent from traffic stops minimal, and other stories

Here are a few browser clearing odds and ends that merit Grits readers' attention:

Travis County judges refuse state money for public defender office
Travis County's bid to create a public-defender office isn't officially dead yet, but it may as well be after Presiding Judge Brenda Kennedy authored a letter saying local judges unanimously opposed the idea. Kennedy has urged judges not to speak for themselves and has thrown their support solidly behind the local criminal defense bar, which habitually opposes any public-defender system. Their reasoning is nonsensical. They don't want to spend $1.5 million on matching funds because it would reduce resources for the failed managed-assigned counsel system in use now. But that $1.5 million would draw down $15 million, significantly increasing resources available for indigent defense. So the judges are opposing increased indigent defense funding from the state at a time when counties statewide are pushing for the state to cover a bigger share. How does that make sense? Kennedy also disingenuously criticized the letter for vagueness, but it is a letter of intent, merely to get approval from the Indigent Defense Commission to develop a more detailed plan. If it was approved, the debate over those details begins. But no one wants to go through that if the judges won't buy in. This is an anti-#cjreform stance, by any measure, in an era when voters, especially in Democratic primaries, care about justice reform more and more. Judges up for re-election in 2020 should expect to defend this position in their primaries; they won't be able to hide behind Judge Kennedy's letter forever. More on this later.

More Houston drug-raid fallout
It's probably premature for the Houston Chronicle editorial board to declare local police could now rebuild trust after the no-knock drug raid in Houston that resulted in four officers shot, and two homeowners along with two of their dogs killed. The public isn't there yet, and couldn't be. They don't yet know how deep the rabbit hole goes. Conservative activists are already calling for Chief Art Acevedo to be fired. Meanwhile, others are calling for reforms to how SWAT-style raids are conducted.

DA discretion the solution to budget constraints
Harris County DA Kim Ogg is still stinging from the commissioners court's rejection of her proposal to hire 100 additional prosecutors. But in many ways, this opens up an opportunity to utilize her discretion to reduce caseloads if the commissioners court won't pony up. Here's a relevant academic article laying out the rationale for considered use of prosecutorial discretion to stop charging low-level offenses in the face of limited budget constraints.

Bail-bondsman empire strikes back
Bail bondsmen are suing to stop implementation of a settlement in the Harris County bail bond suit. In Travis County, a JP has come under fire for issuing personal bonds in cases where defendants allegedly committed serious new crimes. She's standing up for herself in a way that wouldn't/couldn't have happened a decade ago.

Everyone at the Texas Lege wants to end the Driver Responsibility surcharge; will they?
Grits is more optimistic than ever that the Texas Legislature may finally end the Driver Responsibility surcharge this year. You couldn't find a legislative office supportive of the program if you squinted. And while it's not clear yet where they'll get the funds to subsidize trauma hospitals, a lot more people are thinking about it than they were a decade ago when your correspondent began banging the drum on the topic.  The Texas Tribune's Arya Sundaram had a good writeup of the politics of surcharge abolition this time around.

You look like a tall drink of water, or not
A Bell County judge issued a recommendation that George Powell be declared actually innocent in a case involving junk science used to estimate the defendant's height from a videotape. The Court of Criminal Appeals must agree before the decision is final.

Evaluating Justice Algorithms
Slate's philosophy podcast, Hi-Phi Nation, had episodes on predictive policing and risk assessments that're worth a listen. Also, here's a new academic paper on the implications of "dirty data" for predictive policing.

Why, if you shoot someone, you're likely to get away with it
The Trace and BuzzFeed News have produced a pair of excellent stories about police clearance rates in violent crimes: “Shoot Someone In a Major U.S. City, and Odds Are You’ll Get Away With It” and “5 Things to Know About Cities’ Failure to Arrest Shooters.”

Crime-deterrent benefits from traffic stops minimal
Traffic stop rates have little effect on crime prevention, found a study of drivers in Nashville.

Junk-science writ stalled in VA committee
In Virginia, a legislative committee shot down an effort to expand habeas-corpus authority to challenge false convictions when new science discredits old testimony that supported a conviction. Regular readers know Texas and California presently are the only two states to have enacted "junk-science writs." Texas has been more active using the writ, mainly because our active death penalty provides attorneys to defendants to mount such challenges in habeas writs; non-capital defendants don't get an appointed lawyer at that stage.


Gadfly said...

Grits: A tax on ammunition would fund trauma centers, and since a fair amount of people IN trauma centers are there due to gunshot wounds ....

And, of course, our Lege would LOVE such a public health and public safety idea.

Gadfly said...

Oh, here's a roundup item for you:

UT does not have the legal authority to revoke a PhD, even when the reasoning is good (academic misconduct in obtaining it).

Anonymous said...

Agreed. Guns and ammo (and alcohol) taxes should be part of the trauma center funding discussion considering the degree to which they are the cause of trauma room visits and expenses. We are ignoring the ELEPHANT in the room.

Gritsforbreakfast said...

Reminds me of Chris Rock's idea to have guns widely available but charge $1 million apiece for bullets.

Chris P. said...

Any criminal defense practitioner knows there are two sides to any story. Yet, Grits continues to attack the judges and defense bar, ignoring their rationale that any fix to the indigent defense system involves more than just a public defender's office. This statement from your post is borderline libelous: "Kennedy has urged judges not to speak for themselves and has thrown their support solidly behind the local criminal defense bar, which habitually opposes any public-defender system."

How do you know that the judges aren't speaking for themselves? What's more likely: (1) that there's a vast conspiracy among 15 elected judges and hundreds of lawyers to undermine indigent defense; or (2) that the judges and attorneys are disappointed with a process that has yet to answer their substantive questions about the mechanics of the proposed PD's office?

Also, the local criminal defense bar doesn't "habitually" oppose a PD's office. Have you polled us? Have you observed our meetings? ACDLA has not indicated any opposition to the creation of a public defender's office; rather, the only opposition has been to the current process. When ACDLA found out that we had a seat at the table for the Indigent Legal Defense Workgroup, our representatives were excited to be a part of the creation of a PD's office. Unfortunately, the process didn't work out the way they hoped. Despite this bump in the road, as an ACDLA board member, let me be clear: I want a PD's office in Travis County, and I want an indigent defense system that represents all clients effectively regardless of whether the case is assigned to the PD or CAPDS. Most of my colleagues feel exactly the same.

As County Judge Eckhardt has repeatedly stated, there are two other legs (besides a PD) to the three-legged indigent-defense stool: the CAPDS system and attorney pay. Presiding Judge Kennedy is correct that CAPDS is in its infancy, having been implemented less than five years ago. Improving CAPDS is critical to delivering effective indigent defense. I agree that a public defender's office is a good idea, but how can the judges vote to approve the letter of intent to create a PD's office when the letter provides them no guidance regarding how this office will interact with CAPDS? Also, when the judges indicated from the outset that they wanted these details, it seems odd to expect them to sign a letter of intent that provides none. While vague letters of intent are common in bureaucratic circles, the judges expected answers to basic questions before implementing a second major structural change in the span of less than five years.

The public defender's office isn't dead. Let's just work out some specifics with the judges and ACDLA at the table. By polarizing our community into two warring sides on this issue, hit pieces like yours are part of the problem, not the solution.

Anonymous said...

Legalize and tax recreational MJ Reduce LEO cost and fund a lot of desirable government programs..

BarkGrowlBite said...

A PD office should be staffed the same as the DA office with full-time investigators and other support staff in addition to the attorneys. And the PD office should have funds to pay expert witnesses like the DA office has.

A well-staffed and funded PD office should take the place of court appointed attorneys. The CAAs are usually the bottom tier of lawyers or lawyers who have contributed campaign funds to the appointing judge. They often coerce a defendant to plead guilty so they can go on to the next case, etc., etc., etc. Court appointed attorneys is a poor if not bad system, and I'm speaking as a former law enforcement officer.

@oledeadmeat said...

The Houston police chief has announced an end to no knock raids, but still doesn't want the Texas Rangers to investigage.

Anonymous said...

People like BarkGrow continue to spread his ignorance of the appointed system in Travis County, aided by libelous columns like this.

The Judges DO NOT appoint the lawyers. They are appointed by a rotating list of lawyers managed by an independent organization. They have to meet strict admission standards such as trial experience, years of experience, and extensive training. Some of the lawyers are Board Certified by the Board of Legal Specialization.

None of the "work group" lawyers are Board Certified or have any trial experience whatsoever except the ACDLA lawyers who think the process is a joke. AND IT IS A JOKE.

Those that can, do. Those that can't become Public Defenders.

BarkGrowlBite said...

You got it wrong. It should read: Those that can, do. Those that can't become court appointed lawyers.

Anonymous said...

The suggestion that conservatives are only now calling for Art Acevedo's firing flies in the face of the established record. They called for his firing when he announced his complete support of Houston's status as a sanctuary city and they called for him to be fired when he called for restrictions on gun sales. Art's trouble with this raid is that he seems to be throwing an individual officer under the bus to protect his policies, nothing new for HPD, only releasing information that supports the officer as the nexus for everything that went wrong instead of everything that is asked for. Exactly how much blame eventually lands on the officer versus HPD policies, lack of supervision, and poor choices, has yet to be determined but it seems as though Art is repeating his history in Austin by commenting where he shouldn't and withholding information when the public has a right to know.

As far as Kim Ogg's demands for more prosecutor's, a major reason for this was how she politically purged so many ADA's from the office during her first year, the following year showed her inept management team driving out many more of the seasoned staff. The new employees are afraid to take any initiative without supervisor approval and lack the experience to make many decisions in the first place, leading to things backing up. But Commissioner's Court did not outright refuse her request, they asked her for more specifics and she was unable to provide any, perhaps she thought the Democrat newcomers would just hand over the funding as a courtesy without question. Kim is now implying that any review of the raid officer's records will be delayed if she doesn't get what she wants but even then she provides no specifics as to what her staff would be reviewing from the 1400 records dating back 34 years.