Monday, January 22, 2024

Icarus in Heels and Fur: A Murder Mystery

My next neighborhood history zine, Icarus in Heels and Fur, comes out February 22nd. Without exaggeration, I think it may be the best thing I've ever written. Pre-order here. This one is essentially a noir murder mystery from the 1940s:

When, after her husband's murder, a petite but ruthless widow builds a thriving nightclub empire in 1940s Austin, her roller coaster of bebop-era decadence, ambition, and danger climaxes in a sordid, unsolved murder, leaving her young lover on trial for his life.

Cover art by Lakeem Wilson

The central character, Vera Barton, more or less put the fatale in femme fatale, with friends, husbands, and employees all at risk seemingly just from proximity. And yet, she was big-hearted, family-oriented, and a savvy young businesswoman. Until she showed up dead in the back of her Caddy.

Vera was the sister-in-law of Essie Mae Barton, the entrepreneur profiled in my first neighborhood zine, "Meet Me At Hudspeth's Corner," published last July. Vera was a much spicier figure, though: basically a gangster version of Essie Mae. Zine launch will be February 22nd, 6:30 p.m., at the Future Front meeting space, the site of Vera's old Barton's Tavern on East 12th Street. District Attorney Jose Garza will co-host the event: Open records requests for historical documents from his office made the research possible, and all sorts of fascinating criminal-justice policy questions arise from the story.

Josie Duffy Rice, a well-known criminal-justice-reform advocate and former editor-in-chief at The Appeal, served as guest editor. That was particularly fun; I've been looking for a project to work with her on for a while.

Please help spread the word. Pre-orders really help w/ the economics of zine publishing, so if you're interested, order now and I'll mail it to you as soon as it's out. 

Tuesday, January 16, 2024

Six observations and a question

My mind has only partially been on anything criminal-justice related, lately, as I finished up the second of my little neighborhood history zines (pre-sale coming soon), and settled back in to Austin routines during the holiday season, after 4.5 months in Mexico. But as 2024 unfolds, here are six observations and a question.

1) I was never a great fan of the "progressive prosecutor" movement, both from a conceptual and a strategic perspective. Conceptually, I believe the prosecutor's role is inherently regressive. Their only power -- to seek state punishment for rule violators -- is a regressive function. IMO, there's no "progressive" way to do that job. Strategically, I believe, based on reams of polling data, that criminal-justice reform doesn't consistently win in majoritarian election contexts. We do better when the debate is over facts, arguments, and experts. Elections related to crime, by contrast, are more typically about unexamined, inchoate voter feelings and scary anecdotes. In certain towns, like Austin, Democratic primaries are liberal enough to pull it off. (We're lucky to have José Garza.) But Texas has 254 counties, nearly all of which have their own DA. And we need look no further than the largest (Harris) to see that Democrats running as "progressive" don't necessarily live up to any meaningful usage of that term.

2) The debacle around the city park in Eagle Pass clearly is an intentional provocation by Greg Abbott, politicizing DPS and the National Guard to obstruct the Border Patrol, ironically. Now that people have died, we'll see litigation surrounding this. I don't blame Biden for high migration levels, but I do blame him for waiting to confront Abbott until it got this far, with armed agents of the federal government in a standoff with the National Guard while migrants drowned in front of them. One appears less noble when you're forced to act and do so only when backed into a corner after pointless, predictable deaths occur. The fecklessness equals that in Uvalde, if not the scope of tragedy. It's amazing how Abbott can be so profoundly in the wrong, and at the same time the Biden Administration can still seem to find no high ground.

3) The AG's open records process has become increasingly politicized, particularly on law enforcement and criminal-justice records. They deny records based on the flimsiest of claims now. It's incredibly frustrating, particularly for someone who started this work in the halcyon pre-Holmes-v-Morales era.

4) Since I'd written on Grits about the Texas prison system's long-defunct prison-baseball league, I should mention finding this article recently referencing the "Satchel Paige" of the Texas prison system, Claud "Scottie" Walker, a negro-league alum who played for Rube Foster's Chicago American Giants and was still hurling for the Clemens Unit Panthers, at age 68, in 1963. Walker said the greatest baseball experiences in his life were pitchers' duels versus John E. Hines, another American Giants alum who pitched for 8 years or so for the Ramsey (Unit) Hard Hitters. I wanna track down more on these two men, so maybe more on these topics, soon.

5) Between Keri Blakinger moving to SoCal, Jolie McCollough getting laid off, and Grits taking most of 2023 away, it's REMARKABLE how much shit TDCJ and TJJD can get away with with nobody paying close attention. Michele Deitch is right, they need their own oversight agency. That's a full time job if you have staff, not something one reporter (or blogger) can do by themselves.

6) It's hard to get too worked up about the Houston mayor's race because, though I'd prefer John Whitmire have not won, Sheila Jackson Lee couldn't have been a lamer, less inspiring choice. At least he's no longer in the senate to block air conditioning in prisons or drug-policy reforms that other red states enacted long ago. To paraphrase Jim Hightower, if God had intended us to vote, She'd have given us candidates.

Finally, here's my question: What do folks think are the main criminal-justice races to watch during the primaries? Obviously, the Harris and Travis DA races are big: An incumbent win in the latter would be a sanguine result, while an incumbent loss in the former would be an earth-rumbling victory. I haven't been watching the blow-by-blow in El Paso, but that DA's race seems like an important one, too. Beyond that, you tell me: Where's the drama this season?

Sunday, January 07, 2024

New Year Check In: Anyone still out there?

Having taken all of 2023 off, my spouse absolving me of all income generation responsibilities for the year, I left this humble blog to lie fallow, checking in only to promote other interests. I still don't know what the future holds for this lowly opuscule, but having had multiple reporters seeking me out since I got back from Mexico (mid-December), all asking what's being missed now that Keri Blakinger and Jolie McCollough are no longer working the Texas justice beat, I thought I'd say to y'all what I've been saying to them:

The vast scope of Operation Lone Star is a game changer. The annual budget layout has become extraordinary, dwarfing Texas' entire community supervision and parole budgets combined. The result has been local/county jails filling up with low-level immigration holds and now, new charges being cooked up each session by nativists in the Texas Legislature. Meanwhile, prison populations are going back up, spurred in part by new statutes criminalizing a growing percentage of the same gun owners being encouraged to open carry.

Belatedly, the Biden Administration has taken some of the more extreme immigration-enforcement-authority issues to court, from lining the Rio Grande with concertina wire to deputizing Texas law enforcement as immigration agents. But if Abbott/Paxton prevail at SCOTUS, the nature of Texas state and local government could change radically, and suddenly, as county by county elected sheriffs and constables begin utilizing this authority in earnest.

A quick check in at TDCJ finds probation revocations to prison remarkably down, while parole violations remained a reliable source of new prison entrants. Still, their numbers were small compared to straight-up new receives.

Texas has the largest prison system of any state (though California has more people, they also have both lower crime and incarceration rates). About a quarter of TDCJ inmates are aged 50 or above, which is why inmate reductions haven't led to cost reductions. We're keeping inmates longer, paroling them less often, and so health care costs increase for the older cohort remaining more rapidly than decarceration reduces costs from covering fewer people.

Looking at the Texas justice system from the 30,000 foot level: The most recent topline data available in the TDCJ Annual Statistical Reports comes from August 30, 2022. At that time, roughly 651,000 people were  under control of the justice system either in prison, jail, on probation, or on parole. Probationers made up the biggest total (54.5%), followed by prison (18.7%), parole (15.8%) and county jails (10.9%).

In that context, consider that a roughly similar number -- northward of 600,000 -- have outstanding warrants for (mostly) trafic violations. Long-time readers of this blog may recall this author spent 12 years working to get the wretched Driver Responsibility surcharge eliminated. When we finally did, more than 1.5 million people received relief. But nearly half of them still couldn't get their drivers' license back because of unpaid traffic tickets -- a process tracked and enforced in Texas via the Omnibase system.

In 2022, Texans were arrested at traffic stops 121,979 times, according to data reported under the Sandra Bland Act; 52,748 of those were for outstanding warrants.

More than 1.2 million people in prison, on probation, on parole, in jail, or with outstanding warrants may seem like a lot. And it is. But it wasn't long ago that north of 1.5 million people had had their drivers' licenses stripped over traffic violations. For a system as vast as Texas, some of the big-volume inflators -- especially probation violators filling prisons and debtors-prison policies filling jails -- have reduced in pressure just bit thanks to specific policy changes. 

In other areas, pressure has ramped up. We've seen the criminalization of doctors playing out on the national media stage, and local governments experimenting with crazy travel restrictions ostensibly criminalizing women driving through their counties to seek abortions in New Mexico or other states. This news to me seems even more bizarre/ominous given that the governor is stringing concertina wire not just along the Rio Grande but on the New Mexico border, as well (running north from El Paso). While meaningless today, with the current US Supreme Court and a potential Donald Trump second term on the horizon, who knows what nutballery may suddenly become legal tomorrow, as evidenced by the draconian "heartbeat bill."

Politically, we're seeing the limits of progressives' ability to influence local criminal-justice politics. The Dallas mayor -- a former Democratic state rep -- came out as a Republican last year, as for all intents and purposes did the new Houston mayor. The Harris County DA is running for reelection under attack from her party's left flank; the Travis County DA is running for reelection under attack by his party's conservative wing. Either her victory or his defeat would be seen as a major progressive loss.

On a perhaps related note, if you're looking to get your ass beat when getting pulled over at a traffic stop, Houston PD is the police force for you: 45% of instances of police use of force at Texas traffic stops -- 2,877 out of 6,363 -- were at Houston PD in 2022 (2023 data comes out in March).

Finally, the number of felonies one can commit with an oyster in Texas has risen from 11 to 16, according to the latest list compiled by the parole board. As a reminder, Texas eschews most types of traditional shellfish regulation, because, freedom, or something, and instead relies on criminal law to punish commercial misbehavior, which is how you get to 16 oyster felonies and perennially fished out oyster beds. That represents about one half of one percent of all felonies, btw, the total number of separate, discrete felonies, according to the parole board, now exceeds 3,200.

Happy new year, gentle readers. Let me know in the comments what issues criminal-justice reporters/advocates should be looking at in 2024. I have been quite intentionally not paying attention.