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Jani Maselli Wood court fees
Harris County Public Defender's Office
Jani Maselli Wood, assistant public defender in Harris County

In Houston, one attorney is making real change by quibbling over loose change.

Jani Maselli Wood, an assistant public defender in Harris County, is waging a one-woman war against the way Texas uses the hundreds of different fees it collects from people involved in the criminal justice system. Most recently, Texas’ 1st Court of Appeals agreed with Wood that the $250 “DNA record fee” charged to her client was unconstitutional because the state splits that money between the highway fund and the general fund for criminal justice planning. Neither pot pays directly for the expense of trying a criminal case—ostensibly the purpose of court costs. Wood successfully argued that the $250 constitutes an unlawful tax.

That’s no small potatoes for an individual—especially for the indigent clients Wood represents, since $250 is almost a full week’s pay at minimum wage. But Wood has also gone to bat over 34 cents. “Obviously, it’s 34 cents for [my client], but how much is it across the state?” she says. “It’s just not right, so I keep chipping away.”

Those chips add up. Court costs and fees contribute hundreds of millions of dollars a year that lawmakers rely on to accomplish the one task they’re constitutionally obligated to complete during their brief biennial parley: passing a budget. A 2014 study by the Office of Court Administration identified 143 distinct criminal court costs and 211 different civil fees on the books that funneled more than $350 million into the state kitty, more than a quarter of which went to the general fund—which is to say, not to courts. In fact, some mandated expenses, such as providing support for county indigent defense programs, are paid entirely out of fees rather than the general revenue fund. That’s one way legislators keep from raising taxes. The poor, who are disproportionately affected by the criminal justice system, end up footing the bill.

Case law requires that court fees be used for their stated purpose, but the Office of Court Administration review found that 14 fees didn’t even have a named purpose. Many more fees were imposed by statutes that suggested a purpose but didn’t restrict the money’s use to it. In other words, court costs are a ripe area for constitutional challenge.

So why is Wood’s crusade, so far, so lonely? Because court cost constitutionality is not a very lucrative area of law. “I could not do this sort of litigation if I was in private practice,” Wood says. “No client would pay me to do it. And no judge would pay me to do it if I was court appointed.” But her employer, the Harris County public defender, is on board. “My boss is very supportive of impact litigation and systemic change.”

Before Wood’s efforts, many courts wouldn’t even provide an itemized bill of what citizens were being charged. Now, every case she wins builds legal precedent for improved honesty in budgeting.

The state, as it usually does when it loses, appealed the 1st Court ruling to the Court of Criminal Appeals, Texas’ highest court for criminal cases. Their ruling is likely months away. But Wood isn’t slowing down. She says, “I told my husband, it’s probably going to be a decade before I’m done.”

State Rep. Eric Johnson, D-Dallas
State Rep. Eric Johnson (D-Dallas) has filed a bill that would require licensing groups to tell applicants—specifically and in writing—what parts of their records prompted rejection. It would also give applicants a chance to petition their deniers in person.

A mere decade and a half into the new millennium, state lawmakers appear to be grasping a basic tenet of facilitating employment: If you want all your citizens to have jobs, maybe don’t prevent them from getting jobs.

Texas law requires occupational licenses for more than 500 trades ranging from athletic trainer to funeral director, a sprawling bureaucracy that affects almost one-third of the state workforce. While merely a hassle for some, licensing regulations can pose an insurmountable barrier to employment for the 4.7 million Texans who have criminal records. People convicted of any felony or of a misdemeanor involving “moral turpitude”—a scary-sounding category that encompasses crimes as minor as writing a bad check—are statutorily barred by many licensing bodies, usually without regard for how long ago the offense happened or whether it was related to the job in question. (Naturally there are a few weird exceptions. If convicted of an asbestos-related crime, you’re banned from asbestos work… for three years. That’ll teach you.) In addition to these explicit bans, many licensing groups have implicit policies of rejecting any applicant with a criminal record.

That hurts citizens who’ve done their time, but it also hurts the state. People who find stable work within the first year after incarceration are the least likely to re-offend, saving taxpayer money and preventing crime. They’re also less likely to need state assistance programs for their families’ survival.

State researchers have been pointing out the problems with occupational licensing systems since at least 2008, but now a bipartisan coalition of reformers looks poised to make real progress. With support from the conservative Smart on Crime coalition, state Rep. Eric Johnson (D-Dallas) has filed a bill that would require licensing groups to tell applicants—specifically and in writing—what parts of their records prompted rejection. It would also give applicants a chance to petition their deniers in person.

Johnson’s clever bill walks a fine line. While careful not to deprive the various governing bodies of their power or discretion, it inserts a couple of humanizing steps, making it harder to rubber-stamp the “NO” that ends the ambitions of so many Texans trying to rebuild their lives.

“We train people in prison with job skills to help them get on the right track and not get re-arrested,” Johnson said. “But if they are arbitrarily denied professional licenses then all of us—taxpayers, ex-offenders and communities—lose.”

“We know that every single year, 70,000 [Texans] leave prisons, and there’s no way that they’re going to be able to do everything that society expects them to do if they don’t have jobs,” says Ana Yáñez-Correa, executive director of the Texas Criminal Justice Coalition. Licensing reform is “a win-win situation,” she says, “both for the economy but also for the families that they have to support, as well as for public safety outcomes. If they have jobs, they have hope. And if they have hope, they’re more likely to live like law-abiding citizens.”

police body cameras
© Bob Owen/San Antonio Express-News/ZUMAPRESS.com
San Antonio police officer Johnny Moreno wears a body camera on Dec. 10, 2014.

At a press conference in late November, Houston Police Chief Charles McClelland called universal body cameras on police inevitable. “I think that it’s a matter of time before every law enforcement agency in the United States has body cameras,” Chief McClelland said. The catalyst, he said, was the shooting death of an unarmed teen in Missouri by an officer who went uncharged. “It’s not ‘if’ anymore,” McClelland said. “It’s ‘when.’”

In Texas, that someday is well on its way. Fort Worth police began wearing body cameras three years ago and already have more than 600, the second-most cameras of any force in the nation. But they’ll soon be surpassed by Houston. Impressed with a successful 100-camera pilot program, Chief McClelland announced in August that he was seeking $8 million with which to equip 3,500 Houston officers with body cameras over the next three years. San Antonio has been conducting its own pilot program, and Dallas’ newly elected DA, Susan Hawk, has vowed to use civil forfeiture funds from her office to buy body cameras for Dallas police. In November, the Austin Police Department requested information from city purchasers on the specifics of outfitting their officers with body cameras.

Lawmakers are also getting into the act. One key concern of body cam critics is that law enforcement policies governing them—such as when the devices can be turned off, how the video is stored and who may access it—can vary wildly among departments. So state Rep. Eric Johnson (D-Dallas) and state Sen. Royce West (D-Dallas) have pre-filed identical bills that would codify certain body camera policies for any agency that uses state grant money to buy its cameras. Primarily, police would have to turn the camera on for traffic stops, arrests, searches, interrogations, pursuits or answers to calls for service. But there’s also plenty in the bills to pacify defenders of law enforcement autonomy. During “non-confrontational” encounters such as witness or victim interviews, the camera could be off. Video of any encounter subject to an investigation—such as in the case of deadly force—couldn’t be released to the public until the investigation is finished. Most interestingly, police officers would be entitled to view all video of an incident before making an official statement about it.

Popular momentum and standardization, however, have little bearing on the central question of body cameras: Do they help? A New York grand jury’s failure to charge an officer who choked an unarmed man to death on camera caused many to despair of video’s value. But the best information available—a multi-source study by the U.S. Justice Department—says yes. Multiple recent empirical studies found that body cameras did have a “civilizing effect,” lowering citizen complaints, police use of force and assaults on officers. If so, that inevitable someday can’t get here fast enough.

A hydroponic garden growing medical marijuana.
A hydroponic garden growing medical marijuana.

If you’re going to host a conference at which entrepreneurs pitch marijuana-based products and services, you should definitely make sure your projection equipment is working. Otherwise, the young man describing his fast-acting, long-lasting, zero-calorie cannabis drink will lose legitimacy with every frustrated shake of the slide clicker. That would be true of any conference, but it’s especially pertinent at an event where everyone is acutely aware of the need not to seem stoned.

Fortunately, the Marijuana Investment Conference, held at the swank West Houston Westin Hotel in early October, had legitimacy to spare. About 20 presenters took 10 minutes each to describe their businesses to investors who’d paid $1,000 to attend. Ideas were divided into “touching the plant” and “not touching the plant,” with most business plans involving significant distance from the ganja itself. One young man (young men were abundant) introduced MassRoots, his “social network for the cannabis community” that already has 170,000 users, emphasizing its potential for harvesting profitable data. (It’s not paranoia if they’re really spying on you.) Another pitched an app that would let smokers order weed with the press of a button. Still others offered products meant for growers—greenhouse kits, lighting, fertilizer—or consulting services, promising to use insider knowledge of the industry to vet other investment opportunities as they arise. Obviously, these products are meant to be sold where marijuana is legal, but investors were urged to anticipate the eventual opening of market after market, state by state, at which point getting a financial foothold will be much harder.

The conference was originally scheduled for September but was postponed when its founder, Stuart Maudlin, a Houston entrepreneur who became interested in medical marijuana after being diagnosed with throat cancer, took a turn for the worse. Maudlin died before he could see his dream take place, and his protégé, Gold Darr Hood, a senior analyst at Codexx Capital, took over. Hood says Houston might seem like a strange fit for the conference, at least compared with liberal Austin, but it’s not. Investors here are used to the oil and biomedical industries, which are high-risk and take years to realize a return. But the legal marijuana industry is growing so fast, she says, “You can get a full return on capital in a year. … People are willing to accept a higher degree of risk on the regulatory front if they’re going to be able to have such expectations on capital and such very high returns.”

Houston is also home to the Baker Institute at Rice University, which has extensively researched marijuana policy, and to several pro-pot organizations including Republicans Against Marijuana Prohibition. And in October, the Harris County District Attorney’s office started a new program of offering first-time nonviolent offenders caught with small amounts of weed a choice between community service and an eight-hour class, rather than jail. If the program is completed, the charge will be scrubbed.

Those steps toward legalization, tiny though they may seem, had Houston’s investors, well, buzzing.

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gloves_Fotor
Jonathan Kole
Prepared ladies at Dallas-Fort Worth International Airport sport the latest accessory: surgical gloves.

Heeeey there, buddy! How you doin’? Doin’ good? Good week? This weather is just really nice, right? You can tell it’s fall. In the morning, you might actually need a sweater. Good cuddlin’ weather. Isn’t that wonderful?

Okay, so while we’re in a good mood, and also talking about closeness and cuddling and human contact, this might be an okay time to segue into mentioning that we’re all going to die, soon, in isolation, bleeding from our eyeballs.

Wait—what’s that I hear? Suddenly, there’s calm man with a reassuring voice telling me not to be afraid. “You should have no concerns about Ebola at all. None. I promise,” he says. “Do not listen to the hysterical voices on the radio and the television or read the fear-provoking words online. The people who say and write hysterical things are being very irresponsible.”

Yeah… Yeah, you’re probably right, nice man. Now he’s also calling out the partisan gamesmanship that can influence coverage of these events. “With midterm elections coming, the party in charge needs to appear to be effectively leading,” he says. “The party out of power needs to show that there is a lack of leadership.” Wow. I hadn’t thought of it that way.

And what if something does go wrong? “Someday there may be a real panic,” he acknowledges. “Someday, something may start spreading that they can’t control. And then, do you know what we’re gonna have to do? We’re gonna have to relax and listen to leaders. We’re not gonna panic when we’re supposed to and we’re certainly not gonna panic now. We have to stop it.”

Gosh. Thank you. I feel better—really. Who was that grounding, informed, caring authority figure?

Oh yeah, it was Shepherd Smith, of FOX News.

Ladies and gentlemen, it is definitely WTF Friday.

So if FOX News is holding it together, how is everybody else doing?

Okay, not great.

On Thursday, the crew of an American Airlines flight from Dallas-Fort Worth to Chicago locked a woman in the plane bathroom after she vomited in the aisle, according to another passenger. The crew suspected her of having the Ebola virus. The trapped woman spent 45 minutes there before landing.

That’s definitely non-optimal.

As every zombie-film aficionado knows, the genre isn’t actually about the shuffling brain-munchers that drive the plot. The true horror in zombie flicks is how the un-infected act when faced with terror and unbound by social norms. Faced with a scary disease just in time for Halloween, some people are responding as if scripted.

You got your better-safe-than-sorry types:

You got your end-timers:

That’s the San Antonio-based pastor and founder of Christians United for Israel positing, “There are grounds to say that judgment has already begun, because he, the president, has been fighting to divide Jerusalem for years now.”

Okay, buddy.

And then there’s Louie Gohmert.

“You know, it’s a shame that the [Centers for Disease Control] head, [Tom] Frieden, is apparently the commander of the Democrats’ new war on women nurses,” Gohmert told Glenn Beck on Beck’s radio program Thursday. “Because, goodnight, they set them up, and then they throw them under the bus.” Gohmert was referring to Frieden’s report that the two nurses infected with Ebola by one of their patients had violated protocol.

While rest of the country is just over here like:

Other zany, non-infectious things happened this week too, though. Word broke that attorneys for the city of Houston subpoenaed the sermons and presentations of pastors who vocally opposed the recently-passed Houston Equal Rights Ordinance (HERO), which extended protections to gay and transgender people. Specifically, the subpoena asked for “all speeches, presentations, or sermons related to HERO, the Petition, Mayor Annise Parker, homosexuality, or gender identity prepared by, delivered by, revised by, or approved by you or in your possession.”

It’s hard to imagine in what universe this seemed like a good idea. Yes, some Houston churches featured sermons against HERO and even collected signatures for the petition to have it put on the November ballot for potential repeal, an effort which failed because the city says too many of the petition pages were disqualified—hence the lawsuit—but still…

Mayor Parker says she didn’t know about the subpoena until this week and that now it’s been amended to pertain only to HERO-specific sermons—but still… Let’s just say Texas Monthly ran a piece about it with a (presumably) Photoshopped picture of Mayor Parker flanked by storm troopers.

But then there’s Jim Hogan. A correspondent from Capital Tonight visited the Democratic nominee for ag commissioner at his farm in Cleburne. Amid explaining why he’s running (he promised he would) and saying that on election night he’ll be home making stew, Hogan broke open a watermelon for his guest to try. Then he asked, “You ever see a goat eat a watermelon?” Then he fed his goats some watermelon.

Asked if he’ll run again if he loses, Hogan said no. “That’s it. I’ll be here at the farm if you wanna come see me.“

Personally, if Ebola or its long shadow of panic spread to my neck of the woods, I think I will go see him. Even if the bogeymen get me, at least I will have seen a goat eat a watermelon.

smaller perry_Fotor
Gov. Rick Perry with Yao Ming for some reason.

Happy Friday! It’s the day we celebrate the fact that we, as a culture, collectively agree we spend 71 percent of our lives wishing it were the other 29 percent. (To simulate this feeling, people in the service industry should pretend it’s Sunday.)

I hope you’re doing something special tonight, like playing catch with your child as the dusk settles in around you or watching every episode of “BoJack Horseman” in a row and then questioning your life choices. At any rate, I hope you’re doing something more satisfying than what Observer staffers and their ilk were doing last Friday, which was live-tweeting the first (and yet penultimate) soundbite-off between gubernatorial candidates Wendy Davis and Greg Abbott.

I think this tweet from the Houston Chronicle’s Matt Schwartz sums it up nicely:

small tweet

Christopher Hooks and Forrest Wilder gave a rundown of the substance and significance of the event, but I’m interested in the language. If last Friday you were, I don’t know, finally finishing that novel you’ve been working on, this is the level of discourse you missed. When asked how he would improve the speed of veterans’ medical service, Abbott listed the veterans in his and his wife’s families. “She had an uncle who served in the Army during World War II,” he said. Informative! Then Abbott asserted boldly, “The men and women who serve on the front line should not have to be pushed to the back of the line when it comes to their health care needs.”

Jon Stewart slow clap

[Keith Olbermann voice] So military support staff should go to the back of the line? Is that what you’re saying, sir? That we should create a hierarchy of access to medical treatment based on physical proximity to the front lines? Where does that leave women veterans who’ve historically been denied access to front-line duty? And why didn’t any of your family serve in World War I? Are you not proud of them? What kind of a name is Abbott, anyway—Austro-Hungarian?

The closest thing to drama came when Davis tried to respond to Abbott’s rebuttal on a question about education funding. (Note: she spoke after, not over, him.) The rules prohibited this—nobody wants this to turn into a whole “debate,” okay lady?—but Davis kept talking for a full 13 seconds after a moderator tried to shut her down. That’s an hour and a half in male politician crosstalk time. She was controlled and direct and spoke in exactly the same pitch and volume as before, so naturally, Davis-haters dubbed it a “meltdown.” The term got enough traction that Ken Herman of the Austin American-Statesman titled his Tuesday column, “Wendy Davis reaction not a ‘meltdown.'”

But it wasn’t enough buzz for said haters, who got mad that the The New York Times and Politico didn’t cover the debate. “If Abbott had pulled a similar disgraceful stunt on Davis, it would be national news. Abbott would be portrayed as having come unglued and perhaps even as a sexist if he had pointed his finger at her as she did at him,” whined Tom Blumer at NewsBusters.org.

Right. Because there’s nothing sexist about calling a woman’s firm defiance a “meltdown.”

Obama eye roll

(And hey, Tom, here’s the Wikipedia page for false equivalence. That should get you started.)

In Portuguese, there’s a word for things like the Davis-Abbott debate: chato. It means, roughly, “boring and annoying at the same time.” There were ways to spice it up, though. If you decided to drink every time Abbott said “Obama,” you’re probably just sobering up. (Nine timesyes, reporting!) You could also have read the stream of tweets mentioning Davis.

Ron throwing computer away

Nevermind, don’t do that.

But that was last week. That was a forum where both sides wanted to appeal to the state’s 14 moderate voters. This week offered more conventional WTF fodder: Ted Cruz showing he’s all about that base. At the Values Voter Summit in Washington, D.C. Friday, he warned, “These are dangerous, extreme, radical times” and said Democrats are “an extreme, radical party.” (Which is what I’m throwing at my house tonight. Hey-o!)

Amid Bible quotes, personal stories and a call to abolish the IRS (nice non-extreme-being!) Cruz also, notes the Daily Beast, “offered unattributed quotes from Barry Goldwater and Ronald Reagan, telling the crowd that the GOP ‘need[s] to offer a choice, not an echo’ and that ‘we don’t paint in pale pastels, we paint in bold colors.’” (Who’s his speechwriter, Fareed Zakaria? Hey-o!)

[Ed. note: Stop doing that.]

Still, Gov. Rick Perry may have won at this week’s WTF-ery not by what he said but what he didn’t say. According to the remarks posted on his official site, Perry prepared 1,615 words to say to the Texas Public Policy Foundation’s Energy and Climate Policy Summit, but not one of those words was “climate.”

He did, however, say that through 14 years of governance, “standing by my side along the way” was TPPF, a non-profit, non-partisan research institute. Aww.

Rather than acknowledging the existence of even a conversation about climate change, Perry fixated on Russia and his plan to beat Putin by… exporting natural gas.

“With the natural gas we now produce, we can help liberate our European allies from Russian energy aggression,” he said. “Energy is a weapon in the hands of aggressors. So I say, if energy is going to be used as a weapon, America should always have the largest arsenal. The arsenal of American energy will not, however, be used to bully other nations, but set them free.”

Oh good! More liberating! And setting free! America hasn’t liberated anybody in— [covers mic] (What was that? Again?? …okay.) Well, you can never spread too much liberty.

So this weekend, enjoy your liberties. Take liberties. Hell, be libertines. A lot of people will keep saying a lot of dumb stuff, and some of it will matter, and some of it won’t, but if it does, we’ll catch you up on it Monday. That’s our job. Is it dusk yet? No? Go sit outside and wait. It’ll come.

HPD Chief McClelland
HPD Chief Charles McClelland

The Houston Police Department has had a terrible year. For several months now, a parade of exposés has tromped forth from local media, documenting sundry bad acts and drawing fresh attention to HPD’s ineffective discipline system. In each case, HPD officials have claimed (predictably) that the misbehavior in question is rare and being punished appropriately and isn’t tolerated, etc. But a quick trip through the Observer’s HPD discipline files shows that’s not true.

Take the most recent scandal. Last week, HPD Chief Charles McClelland announced that prosecutors would dismiss more than 6,000 speeding tickets written by four officers under investigation for allegedly falsifying citations to earn overtime pay for testifying in court. That’s scandalous enough that Newser.com picked up the story, but it’s also nothing new for Houston. In 2012, four veteran HPD officers were found to have been pulling the same scheme for years, netting almost $1 million in overtime pay. Not one of those officers was fired.

Or look at the April report of two HPD lieutenants removed from duty for allegedly sexually harassing their female subordinates. “Swift action is taken every time on sexual harassment,” Ray Hunt, the president of the police officers’ union, told the Houston Chronicle.

But not really. In May 2008, officer Jaime Vera was suspended for 60 days (an extremely rare punishment) for what’s described in HPD documents as “a confrontation with his wife” that resulted in a police report. Vera also had to sign a “Last Chance Agreement,” stating he understood and accepted that if he committed even the most minor infraction, he’d be fired. Then, in August, Vera was suspended for 15 days for sexually harassing a fellow female officer, including leaving his beat while on duty to continue harassing her. Why wasn’t Vera fired as the agreement said he would be? Because he had committed sexual harassment prior to May—that is, before signing the agreement. Not exactly swift, nor just. Vera was eventually fired for trying to pay off mechanics to pass the inspection of his flawed car.

As for the two HPD lieutenants suspended for harassment, both of them (ages 50 and 55) were allowed to retire and keep their pensions of more than $85,000 a year.

Probably the most serious recent scandal is the case of Ryan Chandler, one of eight HPD detectives disciplined in April for failing to properly investigate more than two dozen homicides including the shooting death of an 11-month-old girl. HPD Internal Affairs, reported the Chronicle, “revealed investigators and supervisors shirking the most basic requirements of police work: failing to show up at crime scenes, misplacing key evidence, not attempting to interview witnesses or follow up on tips.”

This behavior will sound familiar to Observer readers who caught our investigation of the HPD discipline system last year. We showed that cops who abandoned crime scenes, ignored victims, lost evidence, lied to superiors, forged signatures, stalked their exes and sexually harassed coworkers kept their jobs.

In large part, this was (and is) because the HPD discipline process has a built-in escape hatch at the end: arbitration. Any suspension of three days or more—including indefinite suspension, aka getting fired—is automatically eligible for binding arbitration by an outside party. That means after a labyrinthine six-month internal affairs investigation, if the complaint against you is one of the mere 7 percent that result in a serious punishment, an outsider will review it over a couple of days and can change it.

And change they do. An Observer analysis found that in two-thirds of the cases, arbitrators reduce an officer’s punishment or overturn it completely. The police chief can fire a bad cop, but he can’t make sure he stays fired.

Chandler, the detective responsible for 16 of the neglected homicides and the only officer fired in the scandal, is trying to get his job back. An arbitrator heard his case earlier this month and has months to decide on a ruling. Meanwhile, convictions for serious crimes that Chandler helped investigate may be jeopardized because one of the many violations HPD determined that Chandler committed was lying.

At the arbitration hearing, Chief McClelland said that was the bottom line for why Chandler should not return to the force. But the arbitrator may not agree with him.

In 2008, Officer Cynthia Marino lied under oath about a controlled drug buy, got fired, and was reinstated by an arbitrator.

In 2010, Officer Carlos Lerma was fired for repeatedly lying about the presence of a second officer at controlled drug buys, including forging another officer’s signature. He was also reinstated with just a 15-day suspension, already served. Like all officers returned to the force by arbitrators, Lerma received back pay for the period he spent fired.

In 2000, Sr. Police Officer Joseph Brashier was suspended for four days for lying and misconduct but kept his job. In 2008, he was suspended for 90 days for, among other things, repeatedly stalking and harassing his estranged wife for months in violation of a restraining order. Still, he kept his job. (There were several other incidents over the years, but these are the highlights.) Finally in 2010 Brashier was fired over an apparent illegal towing scheme. But an arbitrator reinstated him with just a 10-day suspension.

Clearly, HPD is ripe for reform, and Chief McClelland has been more active and open than his predecessors about trying to combat police misconduct. For example, he recently announced plans to equip 3,500 officers with body cameras over the next three years. But while individual (or clusters of) bad actors can be chalked up to scale—HPD does have about 5,400 officers, after all—a system that tolerates and retains and even hires them back, sometimes with a nice cash bonus, cannot. HPD has a discipline problem. What will it take to admit it?

Fotosearch_bwbw1235-698x475
Fotosearch

A new report from the U.S. Bureau of Justice Statistics found that last year the incarcerated U.S. population grew for the first time since 2009. Texas had plenty to do with that.

It wasn’t a huge increase—about .3 percent or just 4,300 more prisoners out of the national total of almost 1.58 million. Nor did it erase all of the previous three years’ progress. The prison population peaked in 2009 with almost 41,000 more prisoners than were reported at the end of 2013. But it’s still a disappointing reversal, especially since this should have been a banner year for de-incarceration. The report showed that, for the first time since 1980, the federal population dropped. But that achievement was cancelled out by growth in the number of state prisoners.

As usual, Texas did more than its share. It continues to have more prisoners than any other state, and not by a smidgen, either. At the end of 2013, Texas had about 24 percent more prisoners than California, the No. 2 state. Besides an overall growth in prisoner population, Texas also saw a modest growth in prison admissions—1.5 percent—but a striking, almost 10 percent drop in prisoner releases. In other words, authorities are locking up somewhat more people but releasing far fewer.

U.S. Prison Population 2013

Texas also incarcerates more non-citizens than any other state—more than 8,800—and, like many states, is sending more women to prison than ever before. The study doesn’t break down prisoner populations by race per state, but does confirm that nationally, almost 3 percent of black male U.S. residents are incarcerated, which is six times the rate of white men. And while the number of black women in prison decreased slightly from 2012 to 2013, the rate at which black women are incarcerated was still double that of white women.

There is one spot of good news for reformers, though. Texas still puts more citizens in private prisons than any other state—about 14,500, or 23 percent more than Florida, the next highest—but private prison use here seems to be waning. The private prison population in Texas dropped by more than a fifth in just the last year.

The Pew Charitable Trusts also released its look at the correlation between prison populations and crime just last week. While they characterized the relationship as “a complex link,” the data seems to indicate non-linkage. Between 1994 and 2012, the five states with the largest decreases in imprisonment rates saw, on average, a 45 percent drop in crime. (Texas was ranked sixth, with a 6 percent decrease in its incarceration rate and a 36 percent decrease in crime. Not too shabby.) But the five states with the biggest increases in incarceration—nearly or more than doubling it—saw much smaller drops in crime, or, in the case of West Virginia, an increase in the crime rate.

That ranking may seem simplistic, but it confirms what much more exhaustive studies have found: Long prison sentences have minimal impact on crime prevention and powerful negative social and financial consequences. That was the conclusion of the National Research Council in its massive report on the growth of incarceration released in May.

“We are concerned that the United States is past the point where the number of people in prison can be justified by social benefits,” said Jeremy Travis, president of John Jay College of Criminal Justice in New York City, in a statement about the National Research Council report. “We need to embark on a national conversation to rethink the role of prison in society.”

And by society, we should all read “Texas.”

HPD Badges

One of the many disturbing facts that have come to light in the weeks since Michael Brown was killed by a police officer is that for all the crime data tracked by the government, there is no central record kept of law enforcement use of deadly force. Individuals and groups have been making their own databases, but a citizen would need to file open records requests to learn about his or her community. 

You may have asked yourself, “Was Michael Brown’s killing lawful? And could an unlawful shooting happen in my hometown?”

Well, good news, if you live in Houston. The Texas Observer has looked at the numbers and the answer is, no. Your police force cannot wrongly shoot you.

It just doesn’t happen. Well, deadly police shootings do happen in Houston at an average of one every three weeks. But none of them is inappropriate. Every shooting by a Houston Police Department officer is investigated by HPD’s Internal Affairs and Homicide divisions. Between 2007 and 2012, according to HPD records, officers killed citizens in 109 shootings. Every killing was ruled justified.

The 112 instances of an officer shooting and injuring a person were justified, too.

So were the 104 times an officer wounded an animal, and the 225 times an officer killed an animal.

There were 16 shootings found “not justified,” but they were all ruled accidental.

In more than one in five cases in which officers fired on citizens, the citizen was unarmed.

Skeptics might say those numbers show police bias in holding their own accountable. I would direct these skeptics to the grand jury system.

Harris County grand juries have cleared HPD officers for on-duty shootings almost 300 times in a row. No Houston officer has been indicted for a shooting in a decade.

Don’t you feel better?

Now, the Houston Chronicle’s Lisa Falkenberg recently reported on a Houston cop who bullied and threatened a witness while serving as foreman for a grand jury investigating the killing of a Houston cop. And this man had served on at least nine other grand juries. But that’s probably an isolated case.

Besides the grand jury system, there are other safeguards against misuse of police power in Houston. There’s the Independent Police Oversight Board, which consists of four panels of citizens that divvy up and review HPD’s Internal Affairs investigations. The panels don’t have subpoena power; they can’t do their own investigations; they can’t interview witnesses; they can’t force anything to happen. But they can suggest that Internal Affairs do a more thorough investigation or reconsider its findings. Internal Affairs doesn’t have to do anything they say, but it’s nice that the people have a voice.

Last week, Houston City Councilman C.O. Bradford, a former HPD chief wrote an editorial in the Chronicle saying Michael Brown’s killing was “a wake-up call for Houston” and noted that the Independent Police Oversight Board was “without substantive authority.” Yet his solution was to let stakeholder groups like the NAACP appoint their own representatives to the authority-less board.

That’s different from the idea stakeholders themselves have, which is to replace the IPOB with a citizen oversight board with subpoena power—that is, the ability to do their own investigations into shootings or alleged misconduct.

One of those stakeholders is a Houston police officer I met for coffee this week. He had read the two features I wrote on HPD shootings, beatings, and lax accountability for the Observer last year and just wanted to talk. A 20-year veteran of the department, he plans to leave the force soon. There are too many problems, and the department is so sealed, so shielded from scrutiny, he said that “It’s like a Communist country. A lot of us wish we could talk but they’re nervous as a cat in a room full of rocking chairs…. Boy, I hope they get that citizen oversight board soon.”

But if we did, all that good news might go away.

Louie Gohmert
Louie Gohmert talking. Gonna be a good week.

Dear ones, we have a problem. WTF Friday is in a rut. Every week, we set out to bring you the best in absurdity from this state we all love and/or are stuck with, and every week, we fall back on the usual suspects: Rick Perry; Ted Cruz; the border crisis. When short on material, one has but to ask, “Did Louie Gohmert open his mouth this week?” If yes, you’re in business.

That said, there are things you can’t ignore. So let’s mix it up. Sure, we all know Texas is full of problems to be solved and people who deserve better, but there’s more to Texas than that. Did you know that Texas allows the keeping of raccoons as pets? It does. Colorado doesn’t. California doesn’t. Even Alabama doesn’t. But Texas does. That’s worth something.

Keep that in mind as you ponder this week’s WTF.

1) Perry Part One. On Sunday, still-Gov. Rick Perry told CNN’s “State of the Union” that the deployment of the 1,000 National Guard troops to the border isn’t to fight migrant children but because “countries that have substantial terrorist ties, whether it’s Afghanistan or Pakistan or Syria—we have historic record highs of individuals being apprehended from those countries.”

[covers the mic] (Do we even have to fact-check that? I mean, does that even deserve a response? … President? Again? Okay, fine.)

PolitiFact rated that claim “Pants on Fire.”

2) Here’s a raccoon doing somersaults.

3) Perry Part Two. The squinting statesman also said some awesome stuff in a National Journal story this week. From the “Not At All Defensive—Why Do You Ask?” Files, author Michelle Cottle notes Perry spent “a generous 15 minutes or more walking me through his ophthalmological history” in response to her question about his famous new frames. When she met him in South Carolina, he’d forgotten them in Austin. “Shortly after our conversation, an aide was dispatched to a North Charleston shopping mall to procure an identical replacement from a one-hour optical shop,” Cottle writes.

Then he smells a woman’s boot. A woman he meets in South Carolina says she’s wearing some uncomfortably stiff new cowboy boots made from a gator she shot and “next thing you know, one of Pam’s boots is off her foot and in the governor’s hands,” Cottle writes. “Perry flexes the sole, then sticks his face down inside the shiny black footwear and inhales deeply. ‘I just love the smell of new leather!’ he announces happily. He pauses, looks over at me, and asks, ‘This is going to wind up in your piece, isn’t it? “He likes to sniff women’s shoes!”’”

Yes. Yes it is.

4) Here’s a raccoon watching TV.

3) Ted Cruz. After having derailed the American political process with pizza, the junior senator had a quiet week. The most notable Cruz quote came from the Ghost of Cruzes Past, who three years ago primed a crowd for Gov. Perry at the RedState.com convention by saying, “My prediction is Rick Perry will win the nomination and in November 2012 he will defeat Barack Obama.”

Oops.

Cruz and Perry are speaking again at the RedState.com gathering in Fort Worth, but as frenemies and potential 2016 rivals. Perry kicked things off this morning and Cruz closes them down tonight. I hope they wear the same red tie. So awkward!

5) Here’s a raccoon fixing a car.

6) Actual-U.S.-Congressman Louie Gohmert appeared on “The Sean Hannity Show” on Thursday and told not-kidding guest host Col. Oliver North that a Border Patrol agent told him, “[Y]ou know what the drug cartels call the homeland security in America? UPS. We’re their logistics. They get people to the border and then Homeland Security is their logistics to get their package to wherever they wanted it to go.” I have no idea what that means, but my favorite thing about it is that Breitbart.com wrote it up as “Rep. Louie Gohmert reported” [italics mine.] Because that’s what reporting is. Come on, people. Reporting is serious work undertaken by serious people who seek the truth behind all the spin and deceit and play a crucial role in a functioning democracy.

7) Here’s some baby raccoons following a little girl around.

8) Texas also continued its dysfunctional relationship with sex and gender this week. Tea party state Rep. Jonathan Stickland (R-Bedford) claimed on Facebook that he’d just drafted a bill to bar the state of Texas from providing gender reassignment surgery to inmates. Which it doesn’t. In fact, as Lone Star Q reports, the state successfully went to federal appeals court in 2007 to keep from having to provide even hormone therapy to transgender inmates. But you can’t be too safe, I guess. Priorities.

Good for you, hon.

And 63 state legislators signed an amicus brief supporting Texas’ defense of its gay marriage ban that said allowing gay marriage “could lead to the recognition of bigamy, incest, pedophilia, and group marriage.”

It’s not that these arguments haven’t been made before, in public and by people who apparently dress and feed themselves. It’s just that an amicus brief is so public and official, part of the historical record, that you’d think they’d at least drop the “pedophilia” thing in deference to decency and common sense. But no.

Don’t despair, though, dear ones. Many gay rights advocates say a win for Texas in that case would be something of a blessing, fast-tracking the issue for the Supreme Court.

And at any rate, Perry and Cruz and Gohmert and those 63 state legislators may get the spotlight, but they aren’t the only Texans that matter. There are tens of thousands of hard-working Texans making this state incrementally better every single day. One of them is Brenda Rioja, who edits the church newspaper at Sacred Heart Catholic Church in McAllen. Sacred Heart has aided more than 5,400 migrants since June and they’re not done yet, no matter what lawmakers on the state or national stage do or don’t do. “We always say, leave politics at the door,” Rioja told the National Geographic. “It’s about helping those who are right there in front of you. Imagine if we did that all around the world, how different it would be.”

Yeah.

9) Happy Friday, dear Observers. Here’s a raccoon skipping away.

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