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.


  1. Still here, Grits and you're still on my blogroll. Sadly, the Border/Lines Substack is, as you may know, currently on hiatus, but that's not supposed to be permanent.

    Looking at SCOTUS 12 years ago on Aridzona's SB 1270, I think but in no way guarantee Biden beating SB 4. I have zero idea on the border razor wire issue's play in court.

  2. So happy you are back!

  3. Patrick Timmons1/08/2024 01:53:00 AM

    Great review, Scott. I just want to add the whole El Paso DA Yvonne Rosales ouster (metaphorically speaking, I call it a beheading), with her being replaced by Abbott’s pick in DA Bill Hicks. Just how Republicans managed to grab control of the EP DA’s office in a deep blue city continues to perplex me, especially for the atrocious coverage in local outlets. I don’t think we should mince words about the Democratic Party of Texas. They have clearly given up. Which is why Grits is so important. Welcome back. Come to El Paso!

  4. So excited to see this in my inbox this morning!!!

  5. I am curious about the 600,000 warrants, which is mostly traffic violations.

    Sec. 543.010. SPECIFICATIONS OF SPEEDING CHARGE. The complaint and the summons or notice to appear on a charge of speeding under this subtitle must specify:

    (1) the maximum or minimum speed limit applicable in the district or at the location; and

    (2) the speed at which the defendant is alleged to have driven.

    However, for the signs to be applicable apply to me. Then I must be one of the following:

    TX Transp Code § 201.904 (2022)

    Sec. 201.904. SPEED SIGNS. The department shall erect and maintain on the highways and roads of this state appropriate signs that show the maximum lawful speed for commercial motor vehicles, truck tractors, truck trailers, truck semitrailers, and motor vehicles engaged in the business of transporting passengers for compensation or hire (buses).

    There is a maxim of law that says "what is included cannot be excluded and what is excluded cannot be included". I do not have a commercial vehicle, but most individuals have not read the transportation code.

    Next, deals with failure to appear. I would recommend reading Azeez vs Texas (2008). Which means you cannot switch codes. The transportation code failure to appear is a fine, but the penal code is a felony. Two different types of law. One is civil and the other criminal.

    So, why the warrants? How many will be screwed by their lawyers? I like Eddie from Rule of Law radio. I learned to read the laws, codes and court cases. :-)

  6. Glad your back, Grits. You have been my primary go-to on all things criminal justice / political since my career began in Texas in 2005.

  7. I am very happy to see you are back. I am now in Bell County practicing criminal defense.

  8. So glad to see you back this morning! You can probably add the over 100,000 persons listed on the SOR which is by far more than any other state. DPS has said only about 10% of them are worthy of monitoring. What is that costing Texas?

  9. "Nutballery"? Classic Grits! We've missed you!

  10. Glad you're back, brother. Snarkery is about all we have left. Oregon, where art thou?

  11. Good to hear from you Mr. Henson. Have you followed the Kiheem Grant incident?

  12. Scott, what is going on here? The number of persons held in local jails increased by 16% from 2020, while the number of persons in prison decreased by 1%.
    Projected Texas Department of Criminal Justice Prison Population Decreasing
    2015 - 2025

  13. Hey Les, COVID reduced jail pops dramatically for a while, while prison pops were more stable and have been recently going up a little.

    @8:13, I have not, but will check it out.

    Thanks to everybody for the comments and good wishes!

  14. I've been here all along hoping you would return. I have always enjoyed your work.
    What would I like for the future? Evidence-based reporting of what works, like you did on the old lights and sirens cancellation, especially about prisons.

  15. Thank heavens you're back, Grits. Your insights and institutional knowledge have been much missed. That said, glad you had this past year for a much-deserved break from all this craziness. Welcome home!

  16. Yes, Great to have you back!