Saturday, April 10, 2021

Ridding South Texas of DPS part of forgotten populist agenda for the region

Many Democrats were surprised in November when their candidates lost ground in Texas border regions, but Grits was not: The party has no substantive agenda either to entice voters in rural areas or to address the unique challenges facing the sprawling mass of increasingly urban voters in the Rio Grande Valley.

Here's a topic state candidates could run on: From the Rio Grande Guardian, "Heavy DPS Presence in Starr County is Unnecessary." Starr County Judge Eloy Vera articulated populist criticisms of DPS' presence that would no doubt resonate with most border residents who don't profit from it:

Drive along U.S. 83 and they are parked every 100 or 200 feet, he said. Unless there is a speed chase they have nothing to do but write tickets for motorists with tail lights not working, the judge said.

“Our people are complaining that they are getting stopped and getting cited. So, even though that was not the purpose of DPS being down here, and I was assured that they were not going to be stopping people and giving a lot of warnings, that is what is happening,” said Vera, pictured above. “I think a lot of our people are being cited.”

Debtors-prison practices, including the state's Omnibase program which uses arrest warrants to collect debt, turn this over-policing into a de facto, year-round warrant roundup:

“The other problem this causes is on the warrant side. If someone has a warrant, and this is by statute, they (DPS) pick them up and they take them to the jail and that is putting a burden on our jail. Now, we don’t have beds for paying inmates because we have a bunch of ours.”

Vera said he wanted to reiterate that he is pro-law enforcement.

“I guess in a nutshell we certainly appreciate the law enforcement help that we are getting but again they must stick to what their mission is and that is to curtail drug and human trafficking. If someone has a lightbulb that is not working, there is not need to cite them or anyone else, in my opinion.”

For those who don't live in the region, these criticisms fly in the face of glowing praise from politicians for DPS' presence we routinely see in the press. DPS and the Governor will always be able to find locals to sing their praises because a small minority of people profit from their presence. But for average folks, it creates more problems, reported the Guardan.

The one good thing about having so many state troopers in Starr County, Vera said, is that they fill up the local restaurants and hotels.

“Our restaurants and hotels and those people, they love it because it is more business for us. But the average citizen that is barely making it, it is a big burden for them.”

These are not isolated sentiments:

McAllen Mayor Dim Darling has also spoken about the recent influx of DPS troopers to the Rio Grande Valley. Appearing on a Zoom conversation with U.S. Rep. Veronica Escobar that was hosted by the Texas Tribune, Darling shook his head and rolled his eyes when asked a question about DPS.

“I’ve always said they need social workers not DPS. And we have a lot of DPS officers. If you ride around near Chimney Park and all that, I feel sorry for them. Sitting out there and there really is not much for them to do from the standpoint they do not have jurisdiction,” Darling said.

Chimney Park in Mission is on the banks of the Rio Grande.

“If you really want to do it, at least maybe split it half DPS and half social workers. The social work could get done by the people that know how to do it and send the Border Patrol back out to protect the border like they want to do and they are paid and trained to do,” Darling said.

“It is just ridiculous. If you talk to the average Border Patrol person, they are miserable, they are not doing what they are supposed to do. They are not trained to take care of kids. They are not social workers.”

It's been long acknowledged DPS border deployments have had little impact on drug trafficking. Meanwhile, DPS has pulled all these troopers from the rest of the state, contributing to DWI enforcement statewide declining, despite large population increases during this period, after their border deployment began. Here's a graphic from the 2020 Office of Court Administration Annual Statistical Report depicting the decline:


So there's your political messaging: DPS over-polices border communities, resulting in ratcheting up debtor's prison practices along the border, while reducing DWI enforcement elsewhere and making all Texans less safe. Hell, I've even got theme music for the debtor's prison angle:

It's been years - maybe since Carlos Truan, God rest his soul, was state senator from the Valley - since I've heard politicians talking about a populist agenda to benefit South Texas. In recent years, the debate's all been about preventing imaginary terrorists from sneaking across the border. But for a Democratic statewide candidate, it wouldn't be hard to find a justice-reform-and-infrastructure agenda that would excite South Texans: Scale back DPS' presence; build a new, job-creating South Texas port and another international bridge to take traffic pressure off the Houston port and I-35. Tack on Medicaid expansion, and bada bing, bada boom, there's an agenda that would speak to South Texas voters.

You're welcome, Gov. McConaughey.

Thursday, April 08, 2021

Abstract 'sweet spot' imagined on bail reform probably doesn't exist

Your correspondent has mostly stayed out of bail debates this year at the Texas Legislature for two simple reasons: 1) There are many opportunities for criminal-justice reform legislation that Grits believes have a real chance to pass, and 2) IMO there don't exist any opportunities for bail reform in the 87th Texas Legislature that reform-minded advocates will find acceptable or which will stand the test of time once federal courts finally address the issue.

There are three centers of gravity in the bail debate: Governor Abbott, whose positions largely reflect those of the bail industry and tuff-on-crime political ideologues like Andy Kahan; the 5th Circuit, which has at least three Texas bail cases bubbling up in its direction which will establish a new constitutional floor for Texas bail policy; and reform advocates who want to end money bail.

There are several dynamics that make a viable legislative outcome impossible in 2021. Advocates and the 5th Circuit cases are largely focused on bail issues surrounding indigent defendants and reflect concerns about excessive detention. By contrast, the bills filed by Sen. Huffman and Rep. Murr, which reflect approaches more in concert with the Governor's priorities, don't necessarily agree with one another but both reflect a desire to expand detention and to eliminate local options to release defendants pretrial. (There are other bail bills that are better, including one from Rep. Ron Reynolds, but they don't have a prayer while Abbott is Governor.)

Meanwhile, advocates themselves aren't all on the same page. Some think risk assessments are racist harbingers of evil; some think they're fine, or at least inevitable and not worth fighting over. Some want to find a sliver of agreement with the bills moving in order to retain a "seat at the table." Others, and Grits is in this camp, think nothing supportable can pass this year and we should wait for the 5th Circuit to lay the groundwork for what's next.

Essentially, there remain people who believe there's a Venn diagram of bail reform out there that looks like this:

Somewhere, theoretically, they imagine there's a policy no one has found yet that hits the sweet spot and if they just stay at the table long enough, maybe they'll discover it. The problem is, that's not the diagram. The IRL version of bail reform probably looks more like this:

The 5th Circuit cases and reformers are largely engaged in the same project: Reducing pretrial detention for defendants who can't afford bail. It's possible, even likely, that federal courts will choose a route to that goal that's less aggressive than abolishing money bail entirely, as most advocates would prefer. But there's more overlap than distance between the court rulings so far and what #cjreform folks would like to see happen. Certainly the courts are pushing local actors toward bail reform more aggressively than had ever been possible through the political process.

By contrast, Abbott and his legislative enablers are mainly concerned with expanding pretrial detention. Some of their proposals are so radical they'd require amending the Texas Constitution to accomplish. The tiny shreds of overlap between Abbott and the conservative wing of a bipartisan reform movement don't coincide at all with the project the federal courts have undertaken. There was a time several years ago when legislators could have headed off federal litigation by passing bail reform. But they failed to act so the federal judges moved forward and did their jobs. Now that ship has sailed. If the Texas Legislature passes a bill at this point, it will either address issues tangential to the federal litigation or likely be overturned by it in the near future. 

In that light, I don't see a sweet spot on bail reform in 2021 that's a) legislatively viable and b) conforms with what are likely to be new federal court mandates arriving in the next 2-3 years. At this point, bail-reform supporters in Texas should just oppose these bills en toto. For the moment, it's a can't-get-there-from-here situation.

Tuesday, April 06, 2021

Podcast: When is slavery profitable? Texas' "Law of Parties," why traffic enforcement doesn't make us safer, and breaking down the #TexasGeorgeFloydAct

Here's the April 2021 episode of Just Liberty's Reasonably Suspicious podcast. co-hosted by me and Mandy Marzullo. This is Part Two of our special on the Texas George Floyd Act (here's part one). Listen to it here:


We started with a discussion of the hearing on the Texas George Floyd Act and then broke down aspects of the bill we didn't get to in Part One:
  • Qualified Immunity, featuring interviews with Arif Panju and Keith Neely from the Institute for Justice (4:50)
  • Corroboration in Drug Cases, featuring an interview with Innocence Project of Texas founder Jeff Blackburn (13:45)
  • Use of Force and Duties to Intervene/Render Aid (19:29)
When is Slavery Profitable? Texas prisons operate several agricultural businesses in which they can't break even using prisoners' slave labor. Can you guess which ones they are? (27:40)

Texas Law of Parties: Mandy wrote a report on the topic earlier this year for the Texas Public Policy Foundation and we go through the details. (37:45)

Suspicious Mysteries: Traffic enforcement in Texas has plummeted over the last decade but road safety remains un-affected. What's going on? (47:24)

Find a transcript below the jump. Enjoy!

Saturday, April 03, 2021

Texas radically reduced traffic enforcement with no noticeable impact on road safety

What's the relationship between traffic enforcement by police and roadway safety? Arguably not much. Over the last decade, the number of traffic cases brought by Texas cops has plummeted, according to the Office of Court Administration's 2020 Annual Statistical Report:

Over the same period, though, roadway deaths per hundred-million miles first rose and then declined to pre-2010 levels, despite major population increases over this period coupled with radical reductions in police enforcement. From TXDOT's annual crash statistics:

Whatever drove that up-and-down trend, it doesn't seem to correlate with the trend in traffic enforcement. 

Question: If radically less traffic enforcement seems to have no noticeable impact on traffic fatalities, what precisely were we doing it for?

How to square these seemingly contradictory notions? Grits has long believed the disconnect can be explained because road safety has little to do with anything police do. Instead, it's largely a function of consumer habits, anachronistic road rules, and most importantly, traffic-engineering decisions. CityLab featured an essay this week making that point. It blamed a national spike in pedestrian deaths last year on "laws that lock in dangerous street designs and allow vehicles known to be more deadly to non-drivers."

CityLab suggested street-design issues had outsized influence. In particular, with fewer cars on the road in 2020, people drove much faster on wide, American streets. With more people working from home, thus more likely to be out walking, this structural defect caused pedestrian deaths to spike even as miles-driven declined.

That makes much more sense to me than looking for local causes to explain national phenomenon. Same goes for murder rates: Don't look for local issues like homelessness in Austin or bail in Houston to explain a murder spike that also occurred in Lubbock, New York, Los Angeles, and dozens of other US cities.

In Austin, partisans want to blame increased pedestrian deaths on the city's homeless policies. Somewhat more plausibly, others blame the problem on speeding. But in the bigger picture, it's that Texas cities where most people live are designed for cars, not people. For these and related reasons, Grits favors turning many of Austin's downtown streets into pedestrian-only thoroughfares and building out pedestrian infrastructure across the highway into East Austin.

Indeed, there are pedestrian-friendly capital projects all over the city that would improve quality of life and boost safety much more than comparable sums spent on cops.

I'm not surprised to see pedestrian deaths creeping up even as overall deaths-per-mile-driven declines. To me that likely reflects the changing nature of Texans' land use, as most people use their vehicles for shorter drives in urban settings and urbanization spurs a boom in pedestrians that challenges the state's car-centric urban planning culture.

These are predictable problems. And surmountable ones. And most of the solutions don't involve police.