Friday, August 16, 2019

Additional Harris-DA staffing mustn't contribute to the 'low-rent arms race between prosecution and indigent defense' ... or, why Keri Blakinger is a journalism goddess

Now that Keri Blakinger exists, along with the Marshall Project, The Appeal, Google News feeds, and a variety of advocacy newsletters that weren't around before. Grits occasionally wonders if this blog still has much to offer.

Don't get me wrong. I know Keri existed before she showed up performing criminal justice coverage for the Houston Chronicle. I'm pretty sure I've read all she's written about her backstory. But her arrival on the scene in Texas was a game changer for journalism on criminal-justice topics, setting a new standard that's making politicians, journalists, and researchers of all stripes step up their game. In the last 30 years, I can't think of a reporter whose work has so significantly influenced the culture of Texas journalism.

The latest episode to make me consider her import involved Keri's coverage of a report from Texas Southern University's Center for Justice Research.

Normally, the findings of such a report would be promoted without comment by journalists of all stripes, first in the local newspaper, then on TV. Then, a few days later, it would fall to Grits to do all the "what abouts" and "isn't it true thats," which then may or may not be followed up on later if politicians or other stakeholders decide to press the point.

But Keri does this work right on the first pass. Amazing! What a breath of fresh air!

The biggest but not the only flaw in the report was that its top finding applied a standard of one prosecutor to 10,000 civilians to say Harris County needs 104 - prosecutors - magically, almost exactly how many District Attorney Kim Ogg asked for. Problem is, that one per 10k standard is completely made up!

The lead author of the TSU study backtracked, declaring, "the primary goal of the population analysis was to pick a baseline measurement for purposes of comparison, and that for the purposes of creating a ratio it didn’t matter if that standard was 'not adopted and not accepted.'" But for a standard that didn't matter, they leaned on it quite heavily: It's the top bullet point in their findings.

For the record, Grits is not among those, if they exist at all, who claims the Harris County DA's office has all the staff it needs. Rather, I believe 1) staffing increases should only be considered in the context of increases in indigent defense spending, where caseloads are also excessive, else the system become further imbalanced, 2) staffing increases should be targeted toward funding specific DA functions that reduce, not increase, incarceration (e.g., to manage diversion programming or expanding case screening at intake to include Class C misdemeanors), and 3) the office's decades-old structure of letting rookie prosecutors suffer high caseloads while more experienced lawyers supervise should be reconsidered from scratch. The office has been operated that way at least since Carol Vance's tenure; it's time to modernize. Funding an antiquated structure won't help.

This last point has been particularly under-considered. Jennifer Laurin at the UT-law school made the point in Keri's story that cross-agency comparisons don't consider differences in how agencies are staffed and what they do:
“There is sufficient variety in how jurisdictions staff cases, how they administratively count cases and how they structure workflow from police input to prosecutor decision-making that it is exceedingly difficult to compare,” Laurin said, after reviewing the document. “It might be that Harris County is not staffed at optimal levels but the comparisons the report provides in and of themselves do not provide evidence of that.” 
For instance, in some jurisdictions - such as Cook and Maricopa - the prosecutors’ offices represent the county in legal matters, a task taken on here by a separate entity, the Harris County Attorney’s Office.
For my money, it's possible and even likely the DA's office could use more staff. The same is true for indigent defense, and IMO those problems should be addressed simultaneously.

But Ogg proposed expanding her agency's attorney staff by nearly a third without identifying particular needs the new staff would solve. If she wants to make the case for more staff, take some of the office's asset forfeiture money and hire a consultant to identify new staffing that would contribute to reduced incarceration. Then the commissioners court will know what portions of the office's budget require expanded funding to achieve their decarceration goals, without simply aiding one side in the low-rent arms race between prosecution and indigent defense.

Cops make similar arguments to this report for more staffing all the time, complete with made-up staffing standards and fronting progressive goals while leaving lots of discretion to spend the money on regressive things. #cjreform activists, like myself, who distrust such broad grants of discretion, have simply been burned too often. If the problem is real, the request will survive (and IRL, be bolstered) by more research and specificity. What doesn't help is promoting a staffing standard somebody just pulled from their rear end.

It's breathtakingly awesome that Keri Blakinger exists and gets assigned to these stories. To me, her value has little to do with the fact that she's formerly incarcerated. I'm sure it adds something to the mix, but it's her skill set, work ethic, and tenacity that make her stand out. The fact that she essentially took over the Texas prison beat from a sycophantic senior reporter who just made stories up only heightens the contrast.

Grits for Breakfast is approaching the 10,000-post mark, and a huge proportion of those essentially add easily identifiable, counterfactual research to balance unsupported assertions published in MSM articles. I occasionally get mistaken for a reporter because that's a reporter's job, but not many of them do it. Keri does.

Indeed, the only problem with Keri Blakinger is that there is only one of her. If one or two more existed, your correspondent would have little to contribute here and could ride off into the sunset. But for now I'll remain a little longer; she is one of a kind.


Steven Michael Seys said...

It's refreshing to see a reporter who is a true journalist. Kudos to Keri.

TIFAMom said...

In the battle for criminal justice reform - specifically when we talk about the need for criminal justice oversight, government accountability and transparency, Keri IS a godsend. We are thankful for the amazing work she does and also for what you do Scott. Thanks to the both of you!!

Anonymous said...

Kim Ogg should not be surprised that she's seen resistance from some circles to her requests for more help. When you run for DA on a platform of prosecuting fewer crimes, unilaterally decriminalizing certain categories of offenses, and essentially functioning as an "anti-prosecutor," it would certainly appear to most that you could get by on fewer assistants instead of needing more. In my opinion, she would have probably had more credibility if she had originally ran on a traditional law and order, protect the community platform. I am curious as to how much money, if any, George Soros will give her in the next election.

As for your infatuation with the indefatigable, Ms. Blakinger, Grits, all I can say is "get a room!" LOL

Anonymous said...

Just legalize all drugs, take guns away from the law abiding citizens and let all the criminals (especially black and brown "underprivileged"/who have nothing in their name but run with thousands in cash in their pocket) do whatever they want. That's the only true criminal justice reform you and your colleagues seem interested in, not protecting the majority of law abiding citizens who are harmed daily. I have to lose this blog, it is soooo biased I can't breathe. Good luck and hope you stay safe.

Oprah, not her said...

Found the Trump voter at 08/18 12:24am. Let's hope he/she doesn't understand what Tuesday, November 3, 2020 means.

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Anonymous said...

Scott, I'm not a Chronicle reader. As large as the Chronicle is as a paper, it's primary focus (Harris County) is too narrow. Your blog has statewide focus, covering from Cameron County to Dallam County. You do important work. Keep on Sir.