If we were ranking criminal-justice stories, those protests would be the biggest one from any traditional newsroom perspective, even if the coronavirus in jails and prisons claimed more lives. But those protests were also part of an ongoing dialogue that began before the protests and continued after them, particularly in Austin. So I decided not to rank the top ten 2020 stories and just choose ten. From a certain vantage point, some of them might be considered different parts of the same narrative. Regardless, looking back at 2020, here's what Grits considers the biggest Texas criminal-justice stories from what by any measure was a tumultuous 12-month stretch:
The Beginning of the End of (Most) Marijuana Enforcement in Texas: 2020 was the first full calendar year in which marijuana was effectively decriminalized in much of the state after the Texas Legislature inadvertently redefined it to exclude "hemp," which is a less potent part of the same plant that gets people high. The Texas Tribune estimated arrests for marijuana possession dropped by more than half. Some jurisdictions still want to prosecute, but Texas DPS has said it won't provide testing for misdemeanor marijuana cases because the volume would overwhelm its crime labs. That means most smaller jurisdictions around the state don't have access to testing unless their governing body chooses to pay for an outside lab. For most, the cost-benefit analysis for doing so just doesn't make sense. Gov. Abbott and Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick have taken full-blown "legalization" off the table, so the Texas Legislature in 2021 can either 1) pay for expanded marijuana testing, 2) repeal the hemp law, or 3) leave things be. Grits is fine with option #3, at least until the Legislature musters the political will to do something closer to full-blown decrim or legalization, which is what the public prefers.
Ransomware attack sidelines Texas courts: A ransomware attack briefly crippled Texas' appellate court system; no journalist or government auditor has ever given us a detailed report of the complete fallout, but Grits is looking forward to reading it when it happens.
COVID in Texas Prisons: As of 12/8, according to the Texas Department of Criminal Justice, 167 Texas inmate deaths were either confirmed or presumed to be caused by COVID in 2020, with another 50 awaiting testing. The agency attributes 25 additional employee deaths to COVID. Much-publicized COVID infestations at some of the larger units contributed to already-severe staffing shortages to drive understaffing at Texas prisons to heretofore unseen levels. Luckily for the agency, prisoner levels dropped precipitously, driven by plummeting intake, as most types of crime along with jail admissions dropped like a stone around the state this spring. Jail populations began creeping back up in the fall, but many court systems are only beginning to hold criminal trials and cases are backlogged.
George Floyd Protests: Nationwide protests over Houston-native George Floyd's killing by Minneapolis police, including large protests in Texas cities large and small across the state. Texas saw protests in places like Tyler, Jasper, and Hondo which the civil-rights movement had bypassed without them. In Austin, peaceful protesters were severely injured by so-called less-than-lethal crowd-control weapons deployed by police. Despite isolated incidents of arson and property damage, mainly in Austin and Dallas during the final weekend in May, the overwhelming majority of protests in Texas were peaceful. Journalists starting with Texas Monthly's Michael Hall quickly realized George Floyd was from Houston, a friend and peer of DJ Screw, and a potential victim of corrupt Houston narcotics cop Gerald Goines, who lied about informants and has had hundreds of his old cases, including Floyd's, called into question. State Rep. Senfronia Thompson of Houston has filed the eponymous George Floyd Act, ensuring his death remains central to public debates around policing in his home state into the new year.
Brian Manley Under Fire; Renee Hall Goes Down: In April, a month before George Floyd died in Minneapolis, more than two dozen community groups called for the firing or resignation of Austin police Chief Brian Manley after police shot an unarmed man named Mike Ramos based on a policy Manley personally overturned regarding shooting at moving vehicles. The episode surfaced an array of complaints against the sitting police chief, mobilizing groups which would later work together over the summer on budget issues and related topics. But when the smoke cleared from the summer protests, it was Dallas' police chief Renee Hall who resigned while Manley and his patron, city manager Spencer Cronk, spent the entire second half of the year within the crosshairs of at least half the city council, which issued a unanimous "no confidence" vote criticizing the chief and his leadership in June. A few weeks later, Just Liberty and the Austin Justice Coalition issued this commemorative jingle to remind people of the city council's vote:
Austin Budget Cuts: In the wake of the Mike Ramos protests, which in Austin morphed into the George Floyd protests, the city of Austin restricted the Austin PD budget for the first time in decades, including a 4.6% cut derived mainly from delaying cadet classes while the department's training curriculum undergoes a soup-to-nuts revamp. The City Council suggested spinning off other aspects of the department, including forensics, the 911 call center, and potentially the Internal Affairs Division. The Council created a task force to reconsider certain other aspects of local policing, including the future of mounted and K9 units. Even now, though, some of these gains are being undermined while most changes recommended have yet to be implemented. The decisive battles will all come in the new year.
Murder spikes; other crimes dip: As the nation's economy waned this spring, an unusual crime trend emerged: murder spiked while other types of crime, including both violent and property crime, plunged as the streets emptied and large portions of the public began to work from home. In response, everywhere, opponents of criminal-justice reform attributed these spikes to whatever recent, local policies they didn't like: In Austin, murders from the spring and summer were blamed on the city budget which took effect in October. In Houston, local officials blamed a comparable murder spike on misdemeanor bail reform. In Dallas, the mayor would like to blame the murder spike on the outgoing police chief, since she's leaving, anyway. This pattern played out in state after state, with reform opponents pointing to increased murder rates as an excuse to roll back whatever recent, usually small local gains their enemies might have made. (Indeed, the blame-the-locals tactic was already being used before the first US COVID shutdowns.) Usually, there was only a tenuous link between the despised policies and murder rates, if critics bothered to draw one at all. While such rhetoric may have had political implications, it's likely that, in the coming years we'll come to understand that, just as the reduction in homicides in recent decades was an international trend not directly attributable to any narrow local development, the murder increase of 2020 is (at least) a nationwide phenomenon. Grits can't find sufficient 2020 international data on murders (yet) to tell if the US trend holds true in other countries. But reports from large cities in other states show that Texas' increases aren't some isolated trend.
Governor Abbott Embraces His Inner Demagogue: What Austin did was significant, if hardly radical. And Texas' murder increase is rightfully concerning, even if Grits finds alarmist rhetoric unhelpful and the city-by-city blame game a little silly. Gov. Greg Abbott's response, however, has became increasingly unhinged from any reasonable interpretation of real-world public-safety facts. Weirdly, he held a press conference in Fort Worth declaring Cowtown's approach to policing was superior to Austin's. But if Austin's murder rate were as high as Fort Worth's, we'd be at double the current total. Why should Austin emulate Fort Worth, exactly? For the alleged crime of not copying cities with worse outcomes, Gov. Abbott first threatened to freeze Austin's taxes in response to the new budget, only to face backlash from conservative constituents who'd like their own taxes frozen, thank you very much. Then he suggested de-annexing portions of cities that "defunded the police." Finally, he suggested the state might take over the Austin Police Department and operate it through the Department of Public Safety, despite the fact that APD officers make more than DPS troopers or even Texas Rangers. None of this seems very realistic to your correspondent, though I'm told some big Republican donors are pushing these ideas behind the scenes. OTOH, the Governor is angrily lashing out at Austin, which is never a good thing, and eventually some of the ideas he throws at the wall may stick. One can certainly tell Abbott wants to punish Austin for its budget, which can't be good, even if the punishments suggested so far seem ... er, uh ... ill considered.
Texas prison population plummets: In the biggest story nobody's paying attention to, whether due to COVID, declining crime, county court backlogs, or other causes, Texas' prison population this year reached levels unseen since the mid-'90s, allowing TDCJ to shutter several additional units. A dozen years ago, one in 22 Texans were in prison, in jail, on probation or on parole. I re-calculated that number this week: We're now at one in 62. There's still a long way to go, and nobody's stopping, but that's not an insignificant change in a year with not featuring a lot of high points.