Wednesday, October 27, 2021

Not that anyone cares, but "violent victimizations" were actually down last year

Your correspondent has not been writing here recently because I'm in the process of evaluating the continued effectiveness of making fact-based arguments on public-policy topics. Texas politics no longer seems to value facts, so I'm not sure what benefit there is from discussing them. Hewing to them just makes one a target and causes one's enemies to believe the opposite out of some twisted, oppositional principle.

And yet, facts persist. Sigh. Let's talk about one that nobody in the political class wants to believe, and that will certainly only bring Grits grief for even mentioning: The just-released National Crime Victimization Survey - one of the two main measurements of crime in the United States - found that, "From 2019 to 2020, the total violent victimization rate declined 22%, from 21.0 to 16.4 victimizations per 1,000 persons age 12 or older." Burglaries and trespassing complaints declined, the survey found. And the decline was especially pronounced among youth age 12-17, for whom violent victimizations decreased 51%.

Does that jibe with the breathless news coverage about crime you've read in the last year? Of course not. The decline in violent victimization won't attract viewers/readers the same way as "Be afraid, killers on the loose," so it won't be reported. Compare this to how the increase in murders played out in the press last year.

As John Pfaff observed on Twitter, this news reinforces the extent to which the reported crime increase being touted near-daily in the press has been largely about homicides. Assaults and violent victimizations overall were down last year, according to this metric, particularly in suburban areas. Simple assaults were down, but also more serious ones. Firearm victimizations, which in this survey includes pointing a firearm as well as firing one, declined from 481,950 in 2019 to 350,460 in 2020. Burglaries were down 19%.

The NCVS is one of two main, national crime measurements in the United States. The "Uniform Crime Reports" (UCR) count crimes reported to law enforcement agencies, while the NCVS surveys crime victims to include crime victims who didn't report to police.

The NCVS is especially important right now because of changes to UCR data. Without going too deep in the weeds, the feds are shifting to an incident-based reporting system that supposedly is more accurate but results in data that's not an apples-to-apples comparison to what was reported before. Plus, many smaller agencies haven't yet made the switch. So for the next few years, it will be problematic to judge crime trends based on these data: They'll be establishing a new baseline that's not comparable to the old numbers.

The NCVS, by contrast, is still performed as it was in the past, though in-person interviews were halted last year for a time bc of COVID. Moreover, the story it tells corroborates UCR data on crime beyond homicides: News reporters and criminologists have puzzled that murders increased but reports of other types of violent crime went down. The NCVS confirms that crime victims simply were victimized less, not just that reporting went down because of distrust of police (or whatever reason one wants to assign).

So many in law enforcement have taken the recent murder spike as an excuse for a money grab, there's little reason to hope public policy might adjust to reflect actual, in-real-life crime data. So Grits offers up the NCVS analysis without any real belief that it will convince anybody of anything. Everyone will just look at it for evidence that confirms their priors, cherrypick that, and move on.

In the context of declining violent crime victimization, it's worth revisiting recent research from Dr. Bill Spelman at the UT LBJ School. He analyzed the major risks of death for Austinites and found murder was a far less salient risk than traffic deaths, suicides, or drug overdoses.

Anyone truly concerned about "public safety" in this town would, by any reasonable measure, be chiefly concerned with the causes of death on the right-hand side of this chart. But we spend most of our time in city politics and a majority of the city budget on the causes on the left hand side. It's exhausting. And stupid. And I don't know if it can or will ever change.

A good start would be for Austinites to vote against Prop A. Early voting is going on right now and election day is next Tuesday. But if you've read this far, you're probably already a Prop A opponent. 

Wednesday, September 22, 2021

More police won't help with Austin's biggest public-safety threats

Let's talk for a moment about public safety in Austin.

The argument for Prop A - the GOP-backed initiative to force the city of Austin to hire 500+ more police officers - is premised on the notion that Texas' capital has become uniquely dangerous as a result of the city council's anti-law enforcement policies. Local media have doubled down on this meme, touting Austin's "record" number of homicides while downplaying the fact that we're now a city of a million people and the record was set 40 years ago. 

How journalists present this information tells us more about them than whether Austin is a safe town. You can run with the scary headline, "Austin hits all-time murder record," or the equally accurate, "Austin has slightly more murders than when it was a much smaller town 40 years ago." The former may work better as clickbait (which is why they do it - hi, Tony Plohetski!) but the latter, contextualized account gives a more accurate sense of the threat.

Though you wouldn't know it from the local media's framing, the murder spike in Austin last year tracked nationwide trends and other Texas cities - including Republican-led communities like Fort Worth and Lubbock - saw even greater increases. So the notion that the murder spike resulted from Austin-specific policies or local attitudes toward police are dubious at best: Nobody thinks Lubbock's city council is anti-police, and they saw a 105% increase in homicides last year.

Even if you think crime is a problem, there's strong evidence hiring more police won't help. The question of whether hiring more police reduces crime has been intensively studied for decades with consistent findings, according to a 2013 metastudy analyzing hundreds of research findings over 40 years. Those researchers concluded, "This line of research has exhausted its utility. Changing policing strategy is likely to have a greater impact on crime than adding more police."

Prof. Bill Spelman, a criminologist and former Austin city council member, now retired from UT's LBJ School, made similar assertions on local Fox news this week. He pointed to the lack of correlation between police staffing size and homicide increases last year, noting that departments of all sizes saw murder spikes, including agencies with high and low staffing ratios alike.

Indeed, Prop A arises from a fundamental misunderstanding of the safety risks faced by the public. Murders are a scary way to die, but in Austin they're an incredibly uncommon one. By comparison, more than one thousand Austinites have died from COVID in the past year and a half. Prof. Spelman analyzed the various death risks in Austin and compared them to national averages. Here's what he found:

Austinites are far less likely to die from murders than other Americans, but we're not doing nearly so well on drug overdoses and suicide. In fact, former Austin Police Chief Brian Manley refused to allow police officers to carry donated Narcan to prevent overdose deaths, declaring that providing medical care was EMS's job. His successor, Joe Chacon, reversed that policy earlier this year, but police in Austin have not until VERY recently considered drug overdoses their problem.

Austin PD has also resisted efforts to send mental-health workers to suicide calls. The city funded a pilot to have teams led by medical professionals handle most of these cases, but after the first year, few real-world calls had been diverted.

Suicides and drug overdoses aren't areas where police play a meaningful role and increasing their number won't prevent deaths by those causes.

Similarly, there's little evidence increased policing will reduce traffic deaths. Statewide in Texas, traffic enforcement decreased by more than half since 2008, during a period when the population and miles driven boomed. And yet, accidents-per-mile driven fluctuated over this period then declined: There's been no apparent public-safety detriment from most traffic tickets going away.

Indeed, in Austin, in particular, the biggest sources of traffic deaths stem from flaws in traffic engineering. This city has until recently prioritized automobile traffic over bikes and pedestrians, so when those groups interact with cars, it often doesn't end well. Public-works improvement like segregated bike lanes and pedestrian tunnels will do more to prevent these deaths than hiring extra cops. But ironically, Prop A would prevent such spending by forcing the city to prioritize hiring police.

For that reason, on traffic, Prop A arguably makes Austin less safe.

Spelman's research re-frames the public-safety question more broadly to include ALL the threats people face, not just scary murderers. And as soon as one considers that broader question, the murders don't seem so scary. They're terrible events happening to small numbers of folks, but their existence shouldn't cause us to de-prioritize responses to threats that pose equally grave danger to far more people.

Friday, September 03, 2021

Politics explains oddities and strange bedfellows in Harris County bail debate

Harris County District Attorney Kim Ogg issued a 56-page report disputing the findings of federal bail monitors overseeing the settlement agreement between plaintiffs and the county.

Her arguments are so disingenuous, it's a bit tiresome to go through them for rebuttal. But since the Houston Chronicle editorial board recently anointed themselves the DA's PR agents, it's worth at least pointing out her most egregious misstatements. 

The biggest one is a common misrepresentation that you rarely see people claim in writing; it's always something whispered behind the scenes, until now. Ogg claimed: 
“Bail reform” has not been confined to misdemeanors, but has been implemented, in practice, for felony defendants at every level, even repeat violent offenders charged with some of Harris County's most notorious and deadly crimes, including, but not limited to murders and capital murders.
This is inarguably, factually, a lie. Not an overstatement. Not an alternative point of view. Not a difference of opinion. A bold-faced lie by someone who should know better. It's something opponents of bail reform say over and over, but when you dig into the stories, the person inevitably paid cash to get out. The Houston Chronicle looked at more than 200 murders committed by people out on bail since 2013. Less than 1% involved someone out on personal bond.

Regardless, over and over we see personal bonds blamed for crimes committed by people who paid to get out. On the floor of the Texas Senate this summer, Joan Huffman told her colleagues during the first special session that five people who were out on bond had been charged with murders in Houston since that body had adjourned. But it turned out, none of them were out on a personal bond. All of them had paid to be released and their cases wouldn't be affected by the bill. 

By contrast, misdemeanor bail reform involved the use of personal bonds, and misstatements like this are why the Legislature focused on banning them. But that won't affect "repeat violent offenders charged with some of Harris County's most notorious and deadly crimes." It's just not true, no matter how often it's repeated, including by Republicans I respect.

Ogg's central argument is that the number of crimes committed by people out on bail is increasing in Houston. Which is true -- and also far more people are currently awaiting trial than just a few years ago. She frames the discussion in a way that elides that key fact, knowledge of which might lead to different conclusions. Her key "findings" were presented as follows:
  • Re-offending by criminal defendants who have been released on bail is up.
  • Bond failures by criminal defendants are up.
  • Violent offenses committed by defendants free on bail is up.
As an improv comic might say, "Yes, and ..."

None of that is because Houston judges are hesitant to jail people. 

Here's what's really going on, and anybody who's not focused on these specific problems isn't shooting straight with you about wanting to reduce crimes by people out on bail: In the wake of Hurricane Harvey, flooded courthouses created a court backlog that increased the number of people out on bail three-fold, from a little over 30,000 people on bail to more than 90,000, reported the Houston Chronicle recently. COVID exacerbated these delays, while the latest COVID spike has heightened pressure to decarcerate local jails as a growing public health imperative

Harris County's criminal case backlogs could take years to work through unless, as Elizabeth Rossi and Amanda Woog suggested earlier this week on Grits,  the District Attorney begins using her discretion to dismiss broad classes of lower-level cases en masse.

Until then, one would expect the number of crimes committed by people on bail to increase as long as the number of people on bail is increasing.

That said, here's one more datapoint in defense of the federal monitors Ogg is ostensibly criticizing. By the data in her report, the number of crimes committed by this cohort (people out on bail) increased LESS than did the total number released pretrial. So she's complaining that the numerator in a fraction went up without telling you the denominator went up even more. I realize some people go to law school because they're not good at math, but even in that context, this is a little extreme. Her whole memo is based on such preconceptions.

In fact, there's evidence that, faced with a significant problem of the number of people out on bail tripling in a short period of time, judges did a pretty good job of vetting cases. Since the number of people out on bail tripled but the number of crimes committed by that cohort increased less than that, in aggregate, judges seem to have been making the best public-safety oriented decisions they could in response to a bad situation. 

In Texas politics, however, no good deed ever goes unpunished.

Grits believes the DA's complaints and indeed, the entire Texas bail-reform debate, can't be understood outside of a highly politicized context. Between County Judge Lina Hidalgo (who hasn't approved Ogg's open-ended budget requests) and recently elected Democratic Houston judges, some of whom supported her more progressive primary opponents last go round, Ogg and the governor find themselves, at least in the short term, with common enemies. I'm not saying it's planned; more like she's taking potshots, looks up, and all of a sudden she and the Governor are shooting at the same targets. The enemy of my enemy is my friend, etc..

Regardless, there's no way for Harris County to incarcerate its way out of court backlogs. It's a practical impossibility and from a perspective of responsible governance, absurd to demand it. But that's the simplistic vision of "justice" and "safety" that Ogg, Andy Kahan, and Governor Abbott would have you buy into.

If Ogg were working with other Harris County officials to problem solve by getting rid of the backlog, judges might give more credence to her requests for higher bail on actual "repeat violent offenders." And perhaps she'd get a more welcoming reception in her budget asks at the commissioners court. 

But some prosecutors believe it's never their place to negotiate. They see their role as either "I get my way or I'll fight you." That's what we're seeing with Kim Ogg, and it's a severe disappointment.

Thursday, September 02, 2021

Prosecuting crimes of poverty isn't the same as combating a "crime wave"

The following is a guest blog post co-authored by Elizabeth Rossi of Civil Rights Corps and Amanda Woog of the Texas Fair Defense Project. Their organizations are among the civil rights groups involved in bail litigation against Harris County. Related: this discussion of the District Attorney's claims to be fighting a "crime wave" in Houston harken to this analysis of media coverage of crime and jails from a century ago. Sometimes, the more things change, the more they stay the same.

The Chronicle’s recent editorial “How Harris County prosecutors are trying to stop Houston’s crime wave,” casts District Attorney Kim Ogg’s office as engaged in some heroic task of ferreting out the County’s most dangerous “criminals,” when in fact the DA is funneling millions of dollars toward the prosecution of poor people charged with crimes of poverty. Without a shred of evidence, the Chronicle adopted the DA’s party line, asserting that “more prosecutions means more justice and a safer community.”

Expert research -- including some paid for by the County -- shows that's not true.

The County hired national experts at the Justice Management Institute last summer to address exactly this question. JMI assessed the backlog and concluded that the safest and most fiscally responsible solution to the backlog would be “to dismiss all non-violent felony cases older than nine months,” with certain exceptions for cases like DWI, so that the DAO could devote its resources to prosecuting violent cases. The experts at JMI pointed out that only 42% of all felony cases (not just “violent” crimes) closed in 2019 resulted in a conviction. The other 58% resulted in dismissal, deferred adjudication, or acquittal. And even among the 42% of cases that resulted in conviction, the majority involved people who were released immediately into the community on probation. The idea that the DAO is rescuing Houston from a “crime wave” by prosecuting years-old theft-by-check cases and other poverty crimes is laughable.

But the Chronicle ignores this information.

The paper also ignores a recent academic study by researchers finding that non-prosecution of low-level offenses can lead to less crime without any negative effects on public safety. Ogg has offered no answer to these findings. And now she is asking for millions of dollars more to fund 22 additional prosecutors to conduct intakes -- which will bring even more people into the broken system, exacerbating a problem that Ogg created.

The DAO is to blame for this tragedy. Ogg has enormous discretion to decide whom to prosecute, and most of the cases that Ogg is now begging for resources to resolve shouldn’t even be in the system. Evidence and research show that expanding the wasteful punishment bureaucracy through initiatives like the DA’s “triage” program does nothing for public safety, but does a lot to expand the government’s control over and surveillance of poor people and Black and Brown people, exacerbating poverty, separating families, and making it more difficult for people to find jobs and housing - all conditions that tend to increase future crime, not decrease it.

Ultimately the Chronicle piece is hailing prosecutors as heroes for solving a problem that they created and that they can end without spending a single penny more. Ogg doesn’t need more money to do her job. Instead, Harris County needs to invest that money in proven solutions to public safety issues-- programs like violence interruption, mental health, youth programs, non-carceral crisis response, streetlights, and other interventions that prevent harm before it occurs -- and should stop spending millions of taxpayer dollars for the DAO to prosecute crimes of poverty from 2016.

Wednesday, September 01, 2021

Time for the Texas #cjreform movement to get back to basics

Your correspondent hasn't been writing on Grits during the latest special session because it wasn't a time when Texas state leaders were willing to listen to reasoned argument, and this humble opuscule has little else to offer.

As I wrote after the regular session ended, it's important to be clear about what's happening here: Without exaggeration, we're witnessing the spearpoint of American fascism piercing the body politic in Texas. One is not proving Godwin's Law by observing this, it's just a fact.

Abortion laws based on mass snitching regimens that read like something out of The Handmaid's Tale. Gun statutes that appear to have been authored by Yosemite Sam. More border wall building, this time with DPS troopers making petty arrests for trespassing and mass magistrations being held in county-jail parking lots. Making the bail system harder on poor people. Homelessness rendered a crime. High spending levels for police mandated. Dozens and dozens of new crimes (including a first-degree felony for doctors performing unauthorized abortions). And everything including new voting restrictions done in a highly partisan, often retaliatory fashion.

Republicans were angry and much of what passed this year was done to punish their opposition for daring challenge them in swing districts or publicly talk about negative impacts from their policies.

Grits largely blames the Governor and Dan Patrick. Speaker Dade Phelan appeared well-intentioned, but the rookie Speaker was steamrolled by the other two and, in the end, was afraid to exercise his power in ways that would displease either of them.

As the poet long ago lamented, the best lacked all conviction while the worst were full of passionate intensity.

At the state level, it's only going to get worse before it gets better. The only way to stop what's happening is for Republicans to pay an electoral price. That can't happen until November 2022, and conventional wisdom says it won't, even then.

Republicans should be vulnerable, having utterly vacated the political center, but Democrats have so far fielded no credible candidates to challenge them, and proved with their failure to hold their quorum break that the party is devoid not just of strategic thinking but fundamentally of an identity as a coherent group. Republicans are united around a dystopic, right-wing ideology that is unworkable and harmful but at least consistent. The Democratic field brings to mind Will Rogers' observation more than a century ago: "I belong to no organized political party: I'm a Democrat."

At the local level, there are more opportunities. A lot of the energy from protests last year continues to animate less high-profile but still significant changes, particularly surrounding mental-health first response and addiction. Local groups are beginning to focus on police contracts, which by their nature are long-term fights that may not see results for many years, but which alter the terms of debate locally. And shifting the culture of policing is still on the table in a variety of ways.

None of this will happen quickly. But we can already see a desire to divert people out of the local jails during COVID, especially when their problem is primarily mental health, housing or addiction, starting to align with those trying to get police out of the social-services business. Where those collaborations flower, local work can produce big changes for people in the real world, even in the current political climate. That's where the criminal-justice reform movement should focus now. Unless and until statewide Republicans - particularly Abbott and Patrick - lose at the ballot box, there's nothing to do at the state level anymore but play defense against the bad stuff.

Thursday, August 19, 2021

#SandraBland Act data used to identify Texas' most aggressive, small-town speed traps

Everybody hates speed traps. There are few things more annoying than driving along a state highway at 70 mph then having it ratchet down to 35 mph in a matter of a few hundred yards while a cop hides behind some billboard waiting to pounce.

Our pals Eric Dexheimer and St. John Barned-Smith at the Houston Chronicle have performed a great mitzvah by analyzing traffic stop data from Texas' Sandra Bland Act to identify the most prolific Texas speed traps

They found 21 small town agencies giving out more than 500 tickets per officer per year, making up up to 40% of municipal budgets. Anti-speed-trap laws passed by the Legislature, they found, are riddled with loopholes and seldom enforced.

Remarkably, "It doesn’t take many officers to affect a small city’s bottom line. Wells didn’t have an active police force in 2017 and collected less than $10,000 in fines. When it reactivated the department a year later, fine collections rose to $592,865." 

Another example: "In Riesel, Chief Danny Krumnow is adamant: When his two officers aren’t working other calls, they better be working traffic. State data show about 87 percent of motorists stopped last year drove away with a ticket. Municipal court fines last year made up more than half of the town’s general fund." Perhaps unsurprisingly:

Many of the state’s most aggressive traffic enforcers shared key characteristics: small towns situated on busy high-speed thoroughfares where the speed limit quickly drops from highway to local-street speeds — or even lower where school zones intersect roads. Virtually all of the departments had fewer than a dozen officers.

Your correspondent was quoted in the story, citing data first published in this blog post back in April. Because no MSM news outlet has covered it, most people even in law enforcement don't realize traffic enforcement in Texas has plummeted over the last decade, with the number of tickets given declining by more than half from 2008 to 2020. (Notably, non-traffic citations declined by a similar amount over the same period.)

The logic of traffic enforcement is that it improves safety by decreasing traffic violations. But Texas' experience doesn't reflect such a trend. Over the same period, traffic fatalities per mile driven in Texas fluctuated year by year, but ended up slightly lower overall and certainly evinced no large bump in fatalities.

As I asked at the time, "If radically less traffic enforcement seems to have no noticeable impact on traffic fatalities, what precisely were we doing it for?"

The Houston Chronicle story provides at least a partial answer, particularly for small towns: Revenue. Indeed, "In Wells, in East Texas, the chief’s report at every city council meeting consists of a tally of traffic stops and tickets written." That's apparently the only "public safety" metric they care about.

I'd made a comment to the reporters I figured would be controversial: 

Others say departments whose officers can afford to spend so much time writing tickets signal a jurisdiction that is over-policed. “These are cops who don’t seem to have much police work to do,” said Henson

But the cops they interviewed corroborated that assessment:

In Gregory, a city of 2,000 across the bay from Corpus Christi whose officers are some of the state’s most prolific ticket-writers, Chief Tony Cano said there was some truth to that.

“Our number of call-outs is low, so I guess you could say they have more opportunity to work traffic,” he said. Although “officers are not encouraged to write tickets, that’s what they do. I’ve seen the numbers and I’m like, whoa, those are high.”

If only he were in a position to do something about it! (smdh)

Grits welcomes this new analysis, and not only because I dislike speed traps and cops who prioritize revenue generation over crime fighting. It also represents the first time data from Texas' Sandra Bland Act has been used in an analysis not focused on racial disparities.

The Sandra Bland data should be a gold mine for law-enforcement research providing extremely detailed information about what goes on at traffic stops at a granular level, allowing robust analyses that to my knowledge couldn't be performed in any other state. But no academic researchers have latched onto the dataset, and before now, MSM reporters who analyzed it were solely focused on racial disparities. That's an important aspect of the new data,  but it's by no means the only analysis that can be done with it. 

I'm hopeful this article opens the door to more such uses: You can't manage what you don't measure, the saying goes, but the flip side is measurements don't matter if managers don't use them to seek improvements. Identifying speed traps is only one of many useful analyses the Sandra Bland Act data newly allows. But it's a good start.

Thursday, August 12, 2021

Bring on Austin's police staffing debate: Proposal to hire 400-800 new cops would require budget tradeoffs the public won't support

In Austin, the Republican-led group that ran a successful ballot initiative criminalizing homelessness has put another one on the ballot for November that would require the city to hire hundreds more police officers. Their main backers so far are the police unions, who're salivating at the prospect of hundreds of new dues-paying members. Backers think the folks who voted to criminalize homelessness will now support a vast expansion of the police force.

Grits isn't so sure. I think they've overreached. And the biggest reason is the budget math, which has been called "irresponsible" but may be straight-up "impossible" without massive tax increases the Legislature has forbidden via municipal revenue caps. 

Yesterday, the city council put the Save Austin Now initiative on the November ballot and the financial services department released an estimate of the proposal's cost. There's some fuzzy language in the measure using undefined terms, so it's a range: To meet the requirements of the initiative, Austin would need to hire somewhere between 400-800 more police officers than it employs today, at a cost of $54 million per year on the low end to $120 million on the high end.

The difference arises in part because the initiative calls for officers to have 35% "community engagement" time. Currently, they have about 1% "community engagement" time, based on definitions the city has used in the past. But the phrase is sometimes used interchangeably with "uncommitted time," which includes things like checking email or restroom breaks, not necessarily "community engagement." The low estimate assumes the latter definition; the high-end estimate assumes the former.

Courts may eventually decide which definition to use. But even on the low end, increasing the budget by $54 million per year - given legislative revenue caps - would force draconian cuts

The other factors driving the cost estimates are wage increases and the size of Austin's population. The $54 million figure assumes lower population growth and police wage increases than we've witnessed in recent years. Grits believes that figure is probably too low and the real number will be closer to the high end of the range.

SAN suggests all this could be paid for by eliminating money spent on homelessness. But even if you closed all the shelters and eliminated every service to that group (which doesn't sound particularly wise), it wouldn't raise nearly enough money. Money for recent expenditures purchasing hotels to get folks off the street came from the feds as part of the COVID stimulus: That's one-time money, not an ongoing revenue stream from which the city can pay salaries. 

The truth is, you can't get to $54 million per year without cutting things the public STRONGLY supports: The entire budget for the city's animal shelters is about $10 million, for example. You could eliminate them entirely and still not be 1/5 of the way there.

Thanks in large part to the 40% of the city budget already spent on police, the overwhelming part of the city budget arrives at city council every year fully baked in: The amount they have for discretionary budget choices is generally in the low seven figures: a few million dollars. $54 million in new spending can't be done without closing things most Austinites don't want to eliminate.

This is the police unions and the Republican party doubling down on their anti-homeless ballot initiative this spring, but Grits predicts they'll find this a much harder sell. For starters, they did the last one during the legislative session when most of the criminal-justice reform advocates in town were focused on fighting bad bills at the Legislature. SAN outspent their opposition by more than 15-1 and the opposition campaign was led by inexperienced folks with nonprofit backgrounds who'd never run a campaign before.

This time, they'll find groups like the Austin Justice Coalition and its allies more fully engaged in the fight. A new PAC was formed to oppose the measure and experienced campaign staff has been hired, so don't expect the fundraising gap to be nearly as significant. And whereas the Mayor and most city council members stayed out of the homeless fight, the outlandish budgetary issues ensure they'll be vocally opposed to this one.

Local TV news has been SAN's biggest ally, giving their leadership a platform to spread misinformation with impunity. (The local FOX station has the SAN leader on frequently to "debate" different folks but the supposed debate moderator never fact checks his lies: It's really pretty embarrassing.) That's the biggest risk of this thing passing; if they let SAN pretend Austin can hire hundreds of new police with no budget tradeoffs, people might be duped into backing something they otherwise wouldn't support.

But the upgraded opposition campaign means there will be somebody out there informing the public besides local TV news. It's not going down like Prop B, where the opposition didn't have resources to counter the message.

Indeed, Grits welcomes this debate and am near-giddy that SAN has framed it this way: The anti-homeless initiative passed because West Austin was mad about public camping and wanted homeless folks out of their sight line. Now, the policy discussion shifts to the real-world tradeoffs involved in spending so much new money: A very different debate.

Prop B passing left the impression that Austinites oppose criminal-justice reform. Defeating this measure will reverse that false meme and perhaps give local media a chance to reboot their sycophantic cop coverage.

Monday, August 02, 2021

In what world are mask mandates too draconian but COVID justifies massive law enforcement deployments and new detention camps for migrants? Oh yeah: Greg Abbott's Texas

I was lookin' for a job when I found this one.
Don't need the work like you need the work done.

                                                       - Todd Snider

Given that he has forbidden local governments in Texas from requiring masks in public spaces, Gov. Abbott's executive order telling Texas DPS troopers to arrest people suspected of being a) migrants and b) who could possibly be carrying COVID reeks of hypocrisy nearly as great as the constitutional crisis he has created. 

The Biden Administration has asked federal courts to intervene. Lets' hope sanity prevails.

Grits has said before, I believe the 87th Texas Legislature featured the ascendance of a brand American fascism that had heretofore been constrained by business and libertarian factions in the Texas GOP. But 2020 saw Allen West win the state GOP chairmanship and immediately begin courting QAnon types in the party ("We Are The Storm"), giving voice to far right-wing populists to whom mainstream politicians in Texas had heretofore refused to pander.

Greg Abbott and Dan Patrick evince no such compunctions. With West now challenging the Governor in the primary, he has taken to using COVID as justification for draconian immigration stances that make no sense as either labor or public-health policy, but please the anti-immigrant fringe among his base to no end. 

All this is especially hypocritical because Texas elites courted illegal immigration for generations, preferring to have a large body of second-class citizens with fungible rights performing some of the most grueling and dangerous work in the state.

Shut down immigration, illegal or otherwise, and the result is severe labor shortages in industries that rely on those workers: agriculture in rural areas; construction and hospitality in the cities. We've heard Gov. Abbott and really the entire Republican message machine blaming these shortages on lazy workers and too-generous unemployment checks, but immigration policy is almost certainly the more direct cause. Labor shortages increasingly appear to be structural, and expanded immigration is one of the only solutions on the table. Maybe the only one. From the perspective of Texas Chamber of Commerce types who in past generations were considered "conservative," the state is cutting off its economic nose to spite its slightly-more-brown face.

The other problem is all this is being done under the Governor's "emergency" powers, which foolishly empower him to override any law or upend any legislative budget decision once he's declared an "emergency" (as evinced by taking $250 million from the prison system for wall building). The Legislature has become nearly irrelevant in Texas (so it's just as well the Democrats are gone, anyway, lest they contribute to any pretense of legitimacy). No matter what they do, the Governor can apparently turn around and do something else as soon as session ends, redirecting money and personnel however he sees fit.

The law enables him to essentially operate as a dictator, and Greg Abbott is beginning to do just that.

Friday, July 30, 2021

Austin PD teaches cadets US Constitution using material from John-Birch-Society shill

Your correspondent appears to have lost the capacity for surprise or outrage, or this might affect me more. Instead, it mostly makes me feel exhausted and sad to learn that cadets at the Austin police academy are taught a version of constitutional history based on an oft-debunked historical account of America's origins as a Christian Nation, written by a former John-Birch-Society Speakers Bureau member recruited by JBS founder Robert Welch himself. After his death, right-wing talk-show host Glenn Beck discovered one of his books, "The 5,000 Year Leap," and promoted it as a seminal text among early aficionados of the Tea Party movement.

These days, the book and its imagery - particularly the "three-headed eagle," which weirdly also appears in the APD curriculum - has become popular among QAnon-type conspiracy buffs. (I don't know what language to use to apply to such folks!) We also saw it cited during the Texas Legislature's effort to ban "Critical Race Theory." I won't waste my time or yours going through the details of the foolishness being taught, which can be dizzyingly bizarre. See an actual historian's assessment of the book's often dubious and self serving claims; here's another one.

Suffice it to say, "The 5,000 Year Leap" appears to have been the sole source on which the instructor based his review of constitutional history for new Austin PD cadets. My jaded reaction upon discovering this: "Of course it is."*

It's worth recalling how we got here. In December 2019, the Austin City Council told the city manager and police department to perform an audit/review of the police-academy curriculum, declaring problems identified by cadets were so serious they didn't want to have more classes until they were resolved.

Six months later, the city manager and police Chief Brian Manley came back to city council to say 1) they hadn't conducted the audit or begun the review in any way, and 2) they wanted to hold more cadet classes, anyway. By that time, though, George Floyd and Mike Ramos had been killed, cops were firing less-lethal rounds indiscriminately into crowds, and at city budget hearings, the public overwhelmingly backed delaying the police academy until the audit and curriculum review could be conducted.

To be clear: If City Manager Spencer Cronk and Chief Manley had performed the audit when they were instructed, they would only have missed one cadet class and the city council planned to renew them last August. The delay happened because city management DID NOT WANT THIS REVIEW TO OCCUR.

But it did. And the results weren't pretty.

First, several consultants were hired to perform the "audit" piece. They discovered a culture of hazing and violence against cadets, starting with a sadistic "Fight Day" in which instructors beat them up in a boxing ring before they'd had any self-defense training. Women and minorities were especially likely to drop out based on these approaches.

Then, a team assembled to review videos used for training also found quantifiable racial bias and  modeling of selective use of de-escalation tactics (they were used on white suspects but not black ones). Dozens of problematic videos surfaced.

The final step was supposed to be a curriculum review. But the Greater Austin Crime Commission and Republican leaders at Save Austin Now - with the Governor adding a statewide megaphone - hammered the city council to restart the police academy before it could be completed.

So they did, even though advocates opposed it. The strained metaphor going around City Hall was that they could build the plane while they were flying it, which, of course, is not how planes work.

My wife was one of the people appointed to the curriculum review panel, but instructors quickly got far ahead of them and most of what's been taught so far (they've had about six weeks of classes) has not been vetted. 

That includes the history lessons from Mr. Bircher, which has already been taught to the new class of cadets.

Indeed, the review panel might not have taken up that section at all because, with their late start, they're only able to consider a fraction of the curriculum material before it's taught. Because of this, they'd chosen to prioritize the section on search and seizures and the Fourth Amendment. But my very-smart, better half insisted she couldn't evaluate the Fourth Amendment piece without knowing what they'd been taught in the section on the constitution. When the city finally gave that part of the curriculum to her, she was puzzled at what she saw and asked my help figuring out the origins of the strange interpretations being proffered. I reverse-Google-searched the images being used and found they were from "The 5,000 Year Leap."

With the benefit of 20/20 hindsight, why do we think the Chief and City Manager did not want this review performed? Was it because they knew that cadets were being hazed, physically assaulted, and indoctrinated into spurious, right-wing ideologies? That would certainly explain it. And if they didn't know, why would they oppose the review? And what does such ignorance say about the city's leadership and/or police management?

Manley is gone now and one of his assistants, Joe Chacon, has been named as interim. Likely because he wants the "interim" title removed, Chacon has been more supportive than his predecessor of revamping the academy (although not supportive enough to hold off on more classes until the review is complete). I doubt "The 5,000 Year Leap" will be used again, though w/o greater transparency, something similar could certainly happen down the line.

The effort to revamp the police academy in Austin began years before the George Floyd protests and was necessary regardless of whether people rose up last year. Unfortunately, Gov. Abbott and the local Republican party have chosen to politicize these decisions and dubbed this delay "defunding the police." But the process began long before the protests and was inarguably needed: Bircher history taught to APD cadets is Exhibit 1B for that argument (the hazing and violence against cadets is 1A).

That said, it's accurate the protests are what gave the city council the stomach to stand up to the cops: My belief is that the city council wouldn't have held their ground if it weren't for what amounted to a wide-scale uprising in the streets.

Given what we've discovered about the academy since then, it's a damn good thing they did or this stuff would never have surfaced, much less change.

*I need more vacation time.

Wednesday, July 28, 2021

What if any changes to police deployment patterns might reduce violent crime? Hotspot policing vs. ↑ resources for detectives

A friend emailed to ask my opinion of "hotspot" policing tactics being promoted by Houston PD. Here's how I responded:
There are SO many studies on this topic, many of them very micro-focused and not particularly useful, let me give you a big-picture, 50-year overview of the research findings on this.

One of the most robust findings in criminology is that patrol doesn't reduce crime overall or make people feel safer (going back to a major field study in Kansas City in the '70s), and police staffing levels appear to have no relationship either way to crime going up or down.

However, this result didn't sit well with police or their advocates, and in the 1980s, criminologists began to revisit the question, this time shrinking both the geographic areas examined and the time periods considered. Finding a negative result wasn't considered a failure of the tactic, just evidence that the geographic and temporal constraints hadn't been sufficiently narrowed. Eventually, they were able to demonstrate that flooding a neighborhood with police to perform stop and frisks and/or pretext stops correlated to reduced reports of serious crime IN THAT GEOGRAPHIC AREA for whatever period of time they kept it up. There are a bunch of studies out there like that.

However, few of the hotspot studies I've ever seen claim this is anything more than a short-term effect that goes away as soon as police leave.  And most researchers will admit it's likely crime just bleeds into other geographic areas, the way air moves to the sides when you squeeze a balloon.

N.b., generally, what you see when these studies are portrayed in the policy arena is a bait and switch. Cops say "hot spot policing works" then use that to call for increased staffing. But we KNOW increased staffing doesn't correlate to greater safety. The hotspot research is about deployment of EXISTING officers, not an argument for hiring more overall.

Finally, if I were making public-safety recommendations for Houston based on the current data, I wouldn't be focused on patrol or hotspot policing, but beefing up the detective ranks, maybe even AT THE EXPENSE of patrol. Again: The real issues are how officers are deployed, not how many there are. 
There are 200 Narcotics Division detectives at HPD - far more than in homicide. I've argued Narcotics should be entirely disbanded, and those detectives should be moved to investigate 1) homicides and 2) shootings that do NOT result in death. The latter are almost completely ignored but are essentially similar to the murder cases; whether the victim lives or dies has more to do with the EMTs and doctors than the intentions of the shooter. (I'm not generally a fan of the Manhattan Institute, but they recently published a report reaching the same conclusion.) 
So that's the redeployment I think we should be pushing for if the goals are to reduce racial disparities (they're TERRIBLE in Narcotics) while reducing violent crime: Expansion of detective resources to investigate non-fatal shootings. That'd do FAR more to improve safety than anyone would ever claim for hotspot policing.

If you ask what police are actually DOING to reduce crime in hotspot areas, criminologists have no answer. It boils down to what I've dubbed the "Scarecrow Theory" of policing: Their mere, occasional presence wards off potential criminals. But cops aren't deployed theoretically, and as a practical matter, what they do while they're there (if they're deployed to a hotspot and not responding to IRL crime reports) are traffic stops and stop-and-frisks of pedestrians. And most of the people with whom they engage are not and never will be shooters; there's a disconnect between the strategy and the desired results.

I don't consider it some radical position to say homicides and non-fatal shootings should be better investigated: Clearance rates for murder in Houston have declined from 89% in 2011 to 49% last year. And "hotspot" policing would do nothing to change that dynamic.

If the problem you want to solve is violent crime, focus on violent crime. Don't engage in generalized harassment in black and brown neighborhoods then assume reduced murders will somehow be a secondary effect.

Tuesday, July 27, 2021

Austin PD's "early warning system" is a failed PR stunt, like pretty much all of them

"Early warning systems" for police are one of those ideas that's touted by institutional players in the wake of bad police misconduct episodes - doubling down on the idea that we just need to identify and oust a "few bad apples" - but IRL, your correspondent has never seen one that worked well.

When I was Police Accountability Project Director at ACLU of Texas back in the day, I spent a fair amount of time trying to understand what information might be probative for managers to monitor in an "early warning system," and concluded that 1) there's no consensus about how these programs should operate and 2) in practice, they were touted by officials as a solution but never had real-world impact. As a result, it's not a reform Grits generally recommends.

It's been many years since I've been that deep in the weeds on the topic, but a new Austin city auditor report on their police department's "early intervention system" - known within the department as the "Guidance Advisory Program" (GAP) - confirms my sense that they're essentially worthless. Austin's, the auditor found, "does not effectively identify officers who may need assistance."

As is typical, there has been no local MSM coverage of the audit. (I know, gentle readers, you're shocked at the omission!)

APD's police early-warning system suffers both from over-identification and under-identification. It gathers only three, not-very-probative data points and ignores data used by systems in other cities. The thresholds to trigger review are set too low, so too many officers are identified for intervention and the system has little predictive value. At the same time, many officers meeting thresholds are not identified at all. On use of force (at APD, called "response to resistance), the department failed to identify about a third of officers who should have met the threshold for review. Moreover:

When officers are identified for assistance, the GAP does not connect these officers to existing APD support or wellness services. Also, APD does not track or analyze program trends to evaluate officer or program performance to ensure the GAP is fulfilling its mission. In addition, APD management has not generated true program buy-in and the GAP is not working as intended.

The auditor sampled 60 activations and found supervisors identified no issues 93% of the time, resolved the issue with a conversation 7% of the time, and NEVER created an action plan to correct officer behaviors, even though that's theoretically supposed to be triggered by the system. As a practical matter, they're just not doing anything with the information: 

APD staff said there are no performance metrics reported in relation to the GAP and they have no way to measure the program’s success. In addition, the department is not analyzing results to identify trends or determine if certain officers, assignments, or supervisors need additional support services.

Even an officer triggering the system three times in three quarters based on 45 total use of force incidents was found to have displayed no "pattern" that caused concern. Intervention after 45 incidents wouldn't seem particularly "early" to this writer, but if they're not going to review outliers, anyway, IRL it hardly matters.

The reality is, as the auditors wrote, "APD is not creating an environment of trust and transparency" regarding its responses to officer misconduct, either with officers or the public, and failures of the early warning system are a symptom of that broader problem.

That said, none of the other early warning systems in Texas work well, either. There are no real best practices and as a result, their structures are all over the map. Here's a summary from the report of the information gathered in each one, which varies quite widely.

Dallas' last chief Renee Hall proposed spending nearly a million dollars to revamp their system, with no results so far. The one in Houston tracks 10 different metrics, compared to 3 in Austin, but the Mayor's task force on police reform last year found it ineffective and recommended an upgrade (without specifying details).

I suppose it's possible an "early warning" system could be devised that would fulfill the goal of reducing misconduct, but academic reviews have found little evidence for their effectiveness (if plenty of enthusiasm for giving it the ol' college try). Grits believes their popularity stems largely from their PR value: It's something police chiefs can say they're implementing, improving, etc., that will take the heat off them in the near term because they ostensibly need time to launch a new program. The program never seems to work, though, whether they monitor three data points or 10. Then another scandal happens and suddenly we're revamping the early-warning system again.

Austin doesn't need APD to waste time on this pointless paper shuffling and IMO they should scrap it. If managers want a list of officers who need retraining or intervention, they should ask Farah Muscadin, the head of the Office of Police Oversight, for a list. She knows perfectly well who the problem officers are at this point, even if APD brass isn't paying attention.

Thursday, July 22, 2021

Murders in Texas increased 37% statewide in 2020, with Republican-led communities suffering the biggest spikes. But overdose deaths doubled murders. Are we focused on the wrong problems?

Much attention has been given to the nationwide murder spike, but Texans were more than twice as likely to die from a drug overdose in 2020 than to be murdered. And like murders, overdose deaths saw a big increase during the pandemic. "More than 4,000 Texans died of drug overdoses in the year ending Nov. 30, 2020 – a 33% increase compared to the previous year," reported Libby Seline at the Houston Chronicle.

By contrast, DPS reported 1,403 homicides statewide in 2019, and 1,927 in 2020. While that's a big increase - 37% statewide, and not at all concentrated in Austin and Houston, as the Governor would have you believe - it still means overdose deaths are killing far more Texans than murderers.

Republicans are pointing to the murder spike to call for massive increases in police spending and regressive changes to the state's bail system, even though there's  no evidence that higher police department budgets or limits on charitable bail organizations will stop these murders (Abbott's pet projects). 

By contrast, there are proven policies that reduce drug overdose deaths. One is reminded at this point that Gov. Abbott in 2015 vetoed Good Samaritan legislation that would have let people who call 911 when someone overdoses on illegal drugs avoid criminal charges. The following year, 1,257 Texans died from overdoses; since then the number has ballooned to more than 4,000! Local programs launched and funded last year in Austin were aimed directly at reducing overdose deaths, sending paramedics instead of police to respond. (Then-Chief Manley had insisted his officers would not administer naloxone to overdose victims, declaring EMS should play that role.) But before we could see the results, Abbott pushed through a law to punish Austin for its public-safety budget choices. Apparently, some dead sons and daughters are more important to the governor than others.

And what Abbott thinks, regrettably, has a lot more to do with what the MSM deems "news" than the relative death counts. While Seline's story is the first we're hearing of last year's overdose death increase, how many stories have we seen on the murder spike in this or that city, usually based only on a partial year's worth of data, and WITHOUT acknowledging the statewide numbers?

Before this blog post, I've been unable to find anyone reporting Texas' 2020 statewide murder totals in the press: Google the topic and nearly all the stories involve city-level analyses, at most. (To be fair, the statewide "Crime in Texas" report from DPS for 2020 hasn't been published yet; I found the 1,927 number in a DPS report on border crime.)

No matter how you slice it, the statewide murder increase last year was far too big to attribute to Democrat-led cities alone. Even Houston, which saw its murder total spike by more than 100, can't explain more than a fraction of the increase. Like overdoses, this was something that happened everywhere in the state. It would not be unreasonable, in fact, for voters think the governor should be held to account for that. But that hasn't happened because skewed press coverage handed Abbott a megaphone to attack his enemies instead of vetting his claims. To their credit, the Texas Tribune pushed back on this meme, and now, finally, a few outlets are joining in. But the damage has been done.

Some days I think the media beating the drums about homicides while downplaying or ignoring much greater public health/safety risks reveals a partisan agenda; others, I think it's an economic one. Texas' lapdog press may be mostly content to recycle misleading and politicized crime headlines because the MSM's business model has been built on sensationalizing crime for more than a century

But this year, in this election cycle, there's a new level of hyperbole. Governor Abbott and his local acolytes want to blame leaders in Austin for murder increases, but the capital city, with more than a million people living here, had just 19 more murders in 2020 than it did the year before. That's tragic, but by comparison, Texas saw murders increase statewide by 524 last year on the Governor's watch, and Republican-led cities like Fort Worth and Lubbock saw much bigger percentage increases than Austin (e.g.: murders increased 60% in Fort Worth, whose population is slightly smaller than Austin's, from 70 to 112; in Lubbock, which is a quarter of Austin's size, murders spiked 105%, from 20 to 41.)

You'd almost think the demagoguery about Austin was a smokescreen so no one would ask about murder increases statewide under Republican leadership, much less overdose deaths and how much Abbott's policies (and veto) contributed to them. 

In reality, murder and overdose deaths - which increased in both Democratic and Republican-controlled cities and counties - appear to be things which are IRL unaffected by your party of choice. They aren't partisan problems, they don't lend themselves to partisan solutions, and when the media and government leaders insist on considering them through a partisan frame, it makes the situation much more stupid and untenable.

Monday, July 19, 2021

Arguments for Republican bail bill become nonsensical when debating rural jails

I've gotta say, 2021 has been dispiriting on many levels, not the least of which is the partisanship injected into criminal-justice topics turning once-rational individuals into liars and/or idiots.

Over the last week, Just Liberty has been walking around to rural members - almost all Republicans, since the Dems are in Washington, D.C. - discussing the effects of the Governor's bail bill (HB2/SB6/HJR1) on rural jails. (See Grits' testimony to the House Criminal Jurisprudence Committee on the topic.)

The basic argument is that 97 mostly rural jails, as of July 1st, were already full and contracting to house prisoners outside their facilities. Boosting pretrial detention in HB1 is aimed at supposed problems in Houston, but the laws they want to change would affect all of Texas, and would harm rural counties the worst. 

Most member offices were happy to receive information about how the bail bill would affect jails in their districts. But we received bizarre pushback from the offices most closely involved with the bill: They insisted that the claim pretrial detention would increase was "overstated."

This is bizarre because we didn't make any claim about the scope of the increase, just that there would be one. But staffers working on the bill pushed back to say magistrates forbidden from giving personal bonds could just set bail at $1 and then pretrial detention wouldn't go up.

Which would be fine, except then what's the point of the bill? My understanding was that there is a class of defendants currently being released on personal bonds that Andy Kahan, the Governor, and Joan Huffman think should be held in jail instead. To the extent that the bill achieves that goal, it does so by increasing the scope of pretrial detention. If the bill authors don't mind those same defendants being released on $1 bond, and don't think pretrial detention will go up, I'm not sure what the hell we're doing here.

IRL, no serious person believes that HB1/SB6 would not increase pretrial detention. That's a political stance, not a legitimate policy take. If Republican legislators admitted these thoughtless policies put rural counties in an economic bind, the conflict between this legislation and rural interests would quickly become apparent. Historically, that's one of the axes on which even popular legislation can die at the Texas capitol.

But as long as rural, Republican legislators value attacking Democrats in Houston more than protecting the economic interests of the counties they represent, rural interests will continue to be sacrificed on the altar of the Governor's political ambitions.

To be clear, this isn't just about bail; it's part of a larger trend. Texas' government at this point is broken, driven by national, partisan agendas with little connection to the eclectic, diverse communities that make up this state. I'm sure ignoring rural interests to "own the Dems" on bail seems super clever to the Governor's political consultants, but that's the core of their base: Taking them for granted and even harming them to score partisan points may work out in the near term., but long term it's not great politics.

CREATIVE ASIDE: For handouts at the capitol, I'd created this little booklet with a general discussion of how the bail bill affects rural jails:

Then I created member-specific flyers discussing specific issues in members' districts, including the little orange booklet as insert. Here's the one for Rep. Shelby Slawson:

These pieces are a bit of an experiment: With many offices still hard to reach due to COVID protocols, staffers working remotely, and the rise of Zoom meetings, it's become harder to reach legislators and their staff. Whereas it used to be easy to drop into an office and talk to whomever you needed to speak to, these days you're likely to be asked to schedule a Zoom meeting in a week or just drop off a fact sheet. But I question whether anybody's reading the mountain of 8.5x11 paper being dropped off in member offices, so I'm testing different forms for legislative communications, using methods more commonly associated with movement zines to communicate with offices.

I figure if I'm bored with the 8.5x11 fact sheet format, staffers would likely be completely fed up with it.

Humorously, the missus was skeptical about distributing my "arts and crafts project" in a professional environment, but members' staff loved them and our lobbyist came back wanting more of the individualized versions. People liked them because they're unique, relevant, and personalized. We may be living in the Digital Age, but there's still some room for more creative papercraft in political comms.

Saturday, July 10, 2021

Rural counties hurt worst by politicizing bail policy: My testimony against Texas' bail bill

Today your correspondent testified against HB 2 - the Governor's bill attacking judicial discretion in bail setting - in the House Select Constitutional Violations and Remedies Committee, but in 3 minutes couldn't get through it all. So lets post my (mostly prepared) remarks here.


Good morning Mr. Chair, Madame Vice Chair, and esteemed committee members, 

The bill before you as written is bad for Texas.

This is true for many reasons, some of which will or have been raised by others. But I want to talk about how it will boost local jail incarceration rates and put additional upward pressure on property taxes with no particular benefit to public safety, but with many identifiable harms.

As I speak to you today, according to the Commission on Jail Standards, 93 Texas counties are paying to house prisoners outside their county jails to avoid exceeding state overcrowding standards. Nearly all of these are rural and border counties.

A few years ago, the big overcrowding problems were happening in the large counties, and many of you will remember when Harris County was farming out inmates in Louisiana and several of its neighboring counties. Now, the big counties mostly have those problems under control and it’s rural counties feeling the squeeze. And after 2019, they must face these challenges with new limits on property tax revenue.

This legislation will harm counties by increasing pretrial incarceration in cases where judges previously recommended release. For those 93 counties and maybe even more in the wake of this legislation, it will mean more prisoners housed outside the jail for which counties must pay per-diem contract rates.

It’s not some scary thing that judges have discretion to release defendants on bail. They had it when crime was going up in the ‘70s and ‘80s, but also when it was going down for 30 years beginning in the ‘90s. That it’s ticked back upward - nationally, it should be emphasized, not just in Houston where they’ve had judicially-mandated bail reform - is no reason to change such a fundamental part of the justice system on the fly.

This bill is completely different from the bills we saw in the regular session. It doesn’t feel like there’s a plan so much as a political agenda, and that never leads to good outcomes in the justice system.

While I’m here I wanted to refer this committee, if you haven’t read it yet, to the Houston Chronicle coverage of the bail system there which you’ve already heard about today. Despite the hair-on-fire quotes from Andy Kahan and the police unions, if you look at the numbers, for a city as large and diverse and Houston, they were really rather modest.

So much of this bill is about limiting personal bonds, but when the Chronicle looked at data since 2013, only 2 people out on personal bonds  had been accused of  violent crimes. 

About 376,000 people were released on bond over this period. 79 went on to kill someone while out on multiple bonds, or 0.02 percent; only 0.01 percent, or, 38 alleged killers, had received multiple felony bonds over the eight years the Chronicle looked at, or an average of just less than 5 per year. In a city of 2.3 million, with a justice system as vast as Houston’s, these are tiny numbers.

The Chronicle and Andy Kahan made much of recent increases in the murder rate, but individual anecdotes aside, statistically those were much larger increases driven mostly by murderers who WEREN’T out on bond.

The Chronicle found that 7 percent of murders during the period they studied involved people out on bail. But that means the overwhelming majority, 93 percent, were committed by people who hadn’t been released on bail. 

If you do this, it’s not going to do squat to reduce Houston’s murder problem and none of you should pretend it will. Lubbock and Fort Worth saw bigger murder spikes, percentage-wise, and they haven’t undergone bail reform at all. This an effort to politicize the justice system and I believe y’all should oppose it.

Thank you for your time.

Sunday, June 20, 2021

Abbott vetoes demonstrate continued antipathy toward #cjreform, bootlicking toward police unions

My better half, Kathy Mitchell, posted this on Facebook about Gov. Abbott's criminal-justice vetoes, and since I hadn't written anything on the subject yet, with her permission I'm re-posting it here. For a more sanguine perspective on what Grits has called the worst Texas legislative session on criminal justice in the 21st century, see Marc Levin's column in the SA Express News summarizing everything that passed which reformers might consider a (small) victory. Rep. Pacheco's HB 385 may be the most important of the bills that made it through (congratulations to Terra Tucker, who shepherded it through on behalf of the Alliance for Safety and Justice). But even this was small potatoes, especially in the watered down form in which it passed the Senate, compared to major reforms in years past or even that passed the House this time.

By contrast, most of the big stuff never made it to the governor, and here's how Kathy described the reform bills Abbott vetoed:

The Governor's vetoes are a final punch in the nose for the bipartisan criminal justice reform movement, and a clear reminder (in case we forgot for a second) that the 87th from start to finish has been mainly about Abbott's re-election on a platform of "tuff" on the poorest and most desperate among us.
Abbott vetoed SB 237, predictably, after announcing that he was clearing out a prison to hold migrants arrested for trespassing by his promised army of troopers. That bill would have added criminal trespass to the list of Class B offenses for which an officer could (discretion only) issue a citation instead of arresting.
Abbott vetoed HB 686, juvenile "second look" after even Dan Patrick found a version he could live with. The final bill allowed a person who committed a violent offense as a kid to get a review and possible release (just the possibility, that's it) after serving at least 30 years. Hardly soft on crime, and a bill supported by the Catholic Conference of Bishops, TPPF, Goodwill, United Way and a host of others. Who opposed? Only Ray Hunt on behalf of the Houston Police Association. Hmmmm....
Abbott vetoed HB 1240, a bill with no formal opposition at all. That bill would have authorized fire inspectors to issue citations over fire code violations the way health inspectors do. Apparently now, you have to be a sworn police officer. A bill that would have empowered other public safety agencies to make the public safer without having to use police....Hmmmmm....
Abbott vetoed SB 281 that would have finally ended a police investigative technique from the 70s and 80s called forensic hypnosis. Which is pretty much what it sounds like. A "specially trained" police officer applies hypnosis to a witness or suspect and elicits, well mostly garbage. Because...hypnosis.
Finally, and this is the one that, for me, shows Abbott's hand. He vetoed HB 787 that would have allowed formerly incarcerated people and people on probation to get together (without violating terms of probation against fraternizing with criminals) for purposes of "(1) working with community members to address criminal justice issues; (2) offering training and programs to assist formerly incarcerated persons; and (3) advocating for criminal justice reform, including by engaging with state and local policy makers."
It appears that the voices of the formerly incarcerated were very effective this session, so we can't have any more of that.
I could not find any veto messages for these bills posted yet, just the fact of the veto listed on the Capitol website. So if the Governor has anything useful to say for himself, I'll add more later. For now, these vetoes kind of speak for themselves.

Monday, June 14, 2021

Travis County jail expansion makes no sense, so of course they might do it anyway

For many years, combating unnecessary jail expansion around the state was a central focus of this blog. But over time, the jail building boom relented and this blog roamed in other directions. So I'm surprised to find myself drug back into the debate on my home turf, with politicians I've known for years leading the charge to build new jail space Travis County doesn't need. I'd hoped we were past this.

The issue is construction of a new women's jail, a proposal originating in the county's 2016 strategic plan. The county will vote tomorrow on whether to spend $4.3 million to plan construction for a proposed $80 million women's jail expansion, though high construction prices due to recent commodity price spikes make it likely the costs would be higher.

But a lot has happened since 2016, most notably that the jail population has plummeted, starting before COVID then accelerating over the last year. County Judge Andy Brown and Commissioner Ann Howard have proposed a resolution to reevaluate the 2016 plan in light of current needs.

At this point, the jail is less than half full. Among women, most of them remain in the jail less than three days. Of the current population, only about 40 women have been incarcerated longer than that.

Spending $80 million on facilities that will mostly benefit so few women makes no sense. Yes, it's true bond money can only be spent on facilities. But bond PAYMENTS come from the same tax revenues that fund every other part of the budget. The idea that this investment doesn't compete with resources for services simply doesn't hold water and apologists for the new jail should stop saying it. We all know where the money to make debt payments comes from!

Even more disingenuous are those who raise the "murder spike" to argue for expanded jail space. Most murder suspects aren't women, and most people in jail aren't murderers. Anyway, the new facilities wouldn't be ready for four years! Short-term crime trends aren't an argument for long-term capital investments, especially when there's so much vacant jail space to begin with.

All sorts of factors have contributed to Travis County's jail population reduction and make it likely it will be sustained. Judges who began using more expansive pretrial release protocols to save lives during COVID say they largely intend to continue them once COVID abates. The county has largely ceased prosecuting marijuana cases, and many other nonviolent misdemeanors and low-level felonies are being handled through front-end, pretrial diversion. A new public defender's office is just getting set up but will soon provide more defendants better representation, making pretrial release more likely.

At a minimum, the jail population reduction in the five years since the 2016 plan provided breathing room for the county to reevaluate. Back then, the jail already had more people in it than it does today and lumber prices weren't through the roof. There's simply no need to build more jail space now and from a cost perspective, it's a bad moment to do so. Let the overheated lumber markets die down and give the system time to see if the reductions will be sustained. There's no immediate pressure to do otherwise.

In many ways, this is a bizarre debate. Usually, when Grits argues against new jail spending, jails are full and I'm suggesting diversion programs and cohorts of arrestees who can be safely released as an alternative to jail expansion. But in this case, Travis County faces none of those pressures.

Commissioners Shea and Travillion want to build a jail because the Sheriff wants it, not because the county needs one. But there's a reason the Texas constitution separates jail management functions from budget writing: It's the commissioners' job to vet such proposals, and any rational analysis of county needs argues against jail building right now.

We live in such an odd political moment. Jails are so expensive and cumbersome for counties, usually commissioners only want to build them as a last resort. To have self-avowed liberals wanting to build one when they don't need the space feels like a bit of a through-the-looking-glass moment. But for long-time observers, perhaps it isn't as surprising as it seems.

Liberals pushing to build a jail we don't need feels to me like a throwback to the Ann Richards era. Then, liberals championed prison building as a last ditch effort to stop the state from flipping to Republican control. Trying to "out incarcerate" Republicans didn't work then and it won't help today. Instead, it will dissuade voters Democrats need from coming to the polls at all. 

Jail opponents have presented the County with a robust set of alternatives that address Travis County's real needs -- build mental health crisis centers and intermediate treatment options, housing, substance abuse services and more. People like those ideas. They poll well. They actually work. Why not stop trying to out-Republican the Republicans and stand for something different?

UPDATE: After a fairly dramatic hearing in which three commissioners for a time appeared to lean toward moving forward, more than 100 speakers against from all walks of community life convinced them to delay the jail project for a year in a unanimous vote. This got uglier and weirder than it needed to be. Unless it was contractor-driven, I still don't understand the urgency behind jail proponents' push while the jail is half full. Glad they delayed it.