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Jen Reel
a Texas inmate on Death Row

Today, in the nearly empty Texas capitol, a man who has survived two execution dates held up a 450-page report on the death penalty and shook it.

“I lost 18-and-a-half years,” Anthony Graves said. “Had this study been done 20 years ago, I probably wouldn’t be here today.”

Graves, who spent more than a decade on death row before being exonerated, was the featured speaker at this morning’s panel presenting the findings of the Texas Capital Punishment Assessment Team. The team, organized by the American Bar Association, spent two years analyzing Texas’ death penalty system.

Graves summed up their work. “We have a failed system top to bottom,” he said.

Indeed. The team, made up of lawyers, professors, a judge, a private citizen, and former Texas Gov. Mark White, identified 13 areas in which Texas fell short of best practices—or even, as Paul Coggins put it, short of “adequate practices.”

“If Texas is going to have a death penalty, it has to be the fairest one we can craft,” said Coggins, a former U.S. Attorney for the Northern District of Texas. He emphasized that while the ABA had organized the team, its members were all Texans who “looked for Texas solutions to a Texas problem.”

The Texas solution, it turns out, is to do at least some of what other states are doing—banning the execution of people with intellectual disabilities, for example, and using science to evaluate intellectual disability. Or using science at all.

“Texas can’t rely on junk science in capital cases that a judge wouldn’t allow in a slip-and-fall civil case,” Coggins said. And yet it does. For example, in the sentencing phase of capital cases, juries are first asked to decide on a defendant’s “future dangerousness,” which Coggins characterizes as “totally reading tea leaves.” Besides the unscientific nature of predicting future behavior, capital crimes in Texas are always sentenced to either death or life without the possibility of parole, meaning in neither case is a defendant going to be released into society. That makes the question of “future dangerousness” moot, but by posing it before addressing any aggravating or mitigating factors during sentencing, juries are primed to believe that if they think a defendant dangerous, the death penalty is appropriate.

Such is the granularity of the ABA report, which makes recommendations on every stage of the capital punishment system. Law enforcement should use model practices when dealing with eyewitnesses; interrogations should be videotaped; biological evidence should be safely preserved and defendants should be able to have it tested. Crime lab standards should be standardized and test results verified independently and often. Texas should use national standards for arson investigations, give juries better instructions, and provide adequate counsel for defendants in every stage of the process.

Yet even if these and all the other recommendations were all followed, Anthony Graves would not be satisfied.

“For years, we’ve asked the question, ‘Do you believe in the death penalty?’ he said. “I don’t care if you believe in the death penalty. That’s between you and your God. The question is, does the death penalty work?”

Graves held up the massive report again. “This says that the death penalty cannot work. Human error will not allow you to get it right every time. And if you can’t get it right every time, you have no right to be playing with the lives of other people.”

Jail hands

Yesterday, the Houston Chronicle reported on preliminary results from a study of the Harris County Jail which shows that inmates who can’t afford bail ultimately receive longer sentences than those who do.

The study, called Project Orange Jumpsuit, was conducted by Gerald Wheeler, a doctoral researcher and retired director of Harris County pretrial services, and Gerald Fry, an attorney. The pair contracted with a professor at the University of Texas-Arlington to randomly select a representative population of more than 6,500 Harris County defendants charged during 2012 and early 2013 and, after analyzing their pre-trial status and sentencing outcomes, came to some pretty firm conclusions. More than age, race, or the nature of the charge, the authors write, “what generally determines the defendants’ fate is his or her economic status. If the accused is unable to afford financial bail, he or she will quickly learn, in Harris County, the punishment is weeks or months of pretrial incarceration with the strong likelihood of pleading guilty for more time behind bars than their bond counterparts.”

First, let’s have a quick pretrial primer.

Say you’re arrested in Harris County, charged with a crime, given a court date and a bond amount. The amount of your bond will fall within a certain range according to the type of crime. If someone can give the county the amount in cash, you can leave. That’s called bailing out. When you show up for your court date, the county returns the money minus a small administrative fee. If no one can offer that much cash, you can turn to a bail bondsman, who promises to pay the county the bond amount if you fail to show up for court. That’s called bonding out. The net price of bond is more than bail, because bondsmen charge a higher fee, usually 10 percent of the bond, for providing that service. (For a more in-depth look at what’s wrong, in general, with the bail bond system, check out this Justice Policy Institute study from last year.)

So you already have two tiers in which, as it so often does, being poorer costs more money. If you happen to have access to $2,000 in cash at midnight on a Thursday, your pot-smoking son can come home and you’ll get most of your money back. If you don’t have that kind of dough on hand, it’ll cost you $200, which you will not get back.

But what about those who can’t afford the $200? They remain in detention until their court date or plea deal.

There is a third possibility: the personal recognizance bond. That’s when a person is released without financial obligation because they can be expected to show up for their court date. But while most major cities assign PR bonds about a quarter of the time, Project Orange Jumpsuit found that in Harris County, the practice is rare bordering on negligible. In 2012, the county only granted PR bonds in 1 percent of felony arrests and 7 percent of misdemeanor arrests. That means most people are either paying up (“bond defendants”) or being locked up (“detained defendants.”)

The study found that detained defendants had it worse all around. They were less likely than bond defendants to receive deferred adjudication or probation. And they were about half as likely to have their charges dismissed. That means in addition to having spent time in jail before their trial—which, obviously, the bonded defendants didn’t—detained defendants were likelier to get additional jail time.

Finally, among bonded and detained defendants who were sentenced to jail, the detained defendants received longer sentences. In brief, for being poor, they’re punished twice.

Project Orange Jumpsuit takes its name from the hypothesis that the clothes a defendant wears before a judge—whether the orange jumpsuit of a detainee or the street clothes of a bond defendant—heavily influence the outcome. Its authors, a doctoral researcher and an attorney, have done much to prove it. As this is a preliminary report, the completed study can be expected to garner more attention and, one hopes, address whether Harris County has an exceptional disparity problem or is merely a solid example of how the monetary bond system creates (at least) two tiers of justice.

TDCJ Pork Story Undercooked

pigs

On Thursday, the blog Grits for Breakfast reported the Texas Department of Criminal Justice is paying about $750,000 to build six new climate-controlled swine barns. That doesn’t look great, since only about a dozen of Texas’s 111 lockups are air-conditioned, and extreme heat has been blamed for 14 inmate deaths in the last six years.

Several media outlets including the Associated Press picked up the story for obvious reasons: It suggests that Texas cares more about animals than people. A deputy director for TDCJ called that comparison “outrageous.” A civil rights lawyer suing TDCJ over heat-related inmate deaths called the project “outrageous.” There’s enough outrage to go around.

The odd thing about this pig pother is that none of it is new. TDCJ has long used convict labor to breed swine for sale and prisoner consumption. It already keeps its swine in climate-controlled barns—it has to, because pigs have few sweat glands and would quickly die otherwise.

Whether TDCJ really needs new pig digs is a different question, as is whether the project is a good use of taxpayer money or just someone’s (forgive me) pork project. But state indifference to the suffering of prisoners and guards is de rigueur.

For example, in late July, the Connally Unit southeast of San Antonio lost running water for almost a week. First, both the prison’s wells broke. Then, as the Austin American-Statesman reported, the prison’s water towers ran dry, shutting down laundry facilities, showers, and kitchens. After TDCJ brought in portable toilets, writes Mike Ward, “Complaints about dysentery and illness quickly spread, though prison officials denied they were true.”

Those denials are less convincing next to the fact that the Texas Department of State Health Services had the Connally Unit boil its water for an additional five days.

The prison also lost water intermittently last year, but it doesn’t take a special event to make the facility unbearable. Even now, it has regular power outages as guards overload the circuits bringing fans from home. “My thermometer says it’s over 100 in my pocket,” said an officer from Connally to Ward. “There ain’t no damn breeze inside the unit. Just people sweating as the fans blow hot air ‘round and ‘round.”

That story, dealing as it does with simple, crude human misery, was not picked up by the Associated Press.

Last year, the 5th Circuit Court of Appeals ruled in favor of a 64-year-old minimum-security inmate who was exposed to weeks of heat indices up to 130 degrees, saying extreme heat can violate a prisoner’s rights. As Judge Carolyn Dineen King put it, “These guys are sitting in an oven . . . and no one gives a damn!” She said the health risks were “obvious” and prison staff “deliberately indifferent.”

That—the deliberateness King names—is what makes the pig barn story, unfortunately, not quite news.

Blood Draw
MadisonGuy/Flickr

When Mike Anderson won the race for Harris County District Attorney, the Houston Police Officers’ Union was delighted. Anderson promised to bring back old-school law enforcement with none of the namby-pamby resource conservation or legal hand wringing that had earned the incumbent, Pat Lykos, so much disdain. (Read here about how Anderson resumed prosecuting “trace” drug cases.)

But now that Anderson has applied his take-all-prisoners approach to drunk driving, the police union is upset. Houston, like many cities, regularly designates weekends and holidays “no-refusal” periods during which anyone suspected of drunk driving who won’t take a breath test is forced to give a blood sample. (Why drivers aren’t just forced to give a breath sample is a question for another blog.) In April, DA Anderson made the no-refusal period permanent and round-the-clock for all of Houston. And thanks to the pesky U.S. Supreme Court, which recently ruled that cops need a warrant to search your bloodstream, this takes resources.

None of the legal bodies debating this change seems to object to it as a potential erosion of civil liberties. To them, it’s all a matter of money and time, and both sides have engaged in less-than-airtight reasoning to justify their positions.

The Houston Police Officers’ Union says 24/7 no-refusals waste time because HPD officers don’t know how to handle the process efficiently. “They’re not going to be as savvy on how to do these warrants,” HPOU president Ray Hunt told the Houston Chronicle, “so it’s going to take them six to eight hours, and that means the officer is off the street for that entire time. It’s a major issue.” Notably, Hunt doesn’t say the process takes six to eight hours but that lack of officer savvy would make it take that long. But that’s weird for two reasons. One, HPD has done no-refusal weekends regularly for years, so many patrol officers are likely familiar with the process. Two, even if they aren’t, why couldn’t they be trained?

Prosecutors say the 24/7 no-refusal policy will actually save officer time because drunk driving cases involving a blood sample are more likely to end in a plea deal. That means sparing officers hours in court. Todd Keagle, chief of the DA’s vehicular crimes section, told the Chronicle, “If two officers are (in the courthouse) for six hours, for two days, that’s 24 hours of overtime.” Yes, and if three officers are in court for six hours for three days, that’s 54 hours of overtime. But most HPD patrol officers ride alone, so unless a back-up officer was also asked to testify, it seems likely that in many cases only one officer would be stuck in court. And while Keagle says judges often ask officers to stay for an entire trial, rather than just the part where they testify, that’s not standard, so it’s unclear how many hours officers are actually spending at trials that would have been avoided if the prosecution had a blood sample.

Defense lawyers say the policy change wastes resources because it would only apply to misdemeanors. In felony DWI cases, such as when someone has been seriously hurt or killed by a suspected drunk driver, blood draws are already standard if that driver refuses a breath test.

But in a letter to Byron Schirmbeck of Texas Campaign for Liberty, the DA’s office says the change won’t require any new resources at all. But even if it did, writes Assistant General Counsel Scott Durfee, “…money spent ensuring that sufficient evidence is gathered from intoxicated drivers to convict the guilty and exonerate the innocent is money well-spent.”

If any new money were being spent.

Which it’s not.

Unlike the rest of the voices in this conversation, Schirmbeck, whose group leans libertarian, also questions the policy’s cost to civil liberties. In his letter to the DA’s office, Schirmbeck asked what the county planned to do with its new influx of civilian blood. Durfee admitted that he “raises a difficult question.” “We recently asked the Attorney General for clarification on when such blood samples can be destroyed,” Durfee wrote, “and the Attorney General ruled that Texas law currently authorizes police agencies to destroy stored blood samples only in limited circumstances.”

The letter concludes, “Finally, we are not aware of any proposals to use these stored blood samples to create a DNA database.”

Texas Department of Public Safety logo

More than a year ago, the Department of Public Safety knew it had a problem. It discovered, purely by accident, that an analyst at its forensics lab in Houston had falsified the results of a drug test. DPS retested 100 of his cases and found two more errors. That was pretty bad. The lab technician, Jonathan Salvador, had worked there since 2006 and handled evidence from almost 5,000 cases from 36 Texas counties.

DPS suspended Salvador and sent a letter alerting prosecutors and district attorneys, and listing which of their cases Salvador had processed. “We believe it prudent to review his entire body of work,” the lab manager wrote in April 2012. “We are sorry for any inconvenience.” 

They couldn’t know how sorry they’d be.

In June the Texas Court of Criminal Appeals overturned the conviction of Leroy Coty, who pleaded guilty to possession of more than 400 grams of cocaine in 2010 and was sentenced to 10 years in prison. Coty’s case was important because the Harris County district attorney had videotapes of Coty with drugs and other evidence that almost certainly could have convicted him without Salvador’s lab results. If any case was going to survive being handled by Salvador’s, it was Coty’s. It didn’t.

The first Salvador-tainted convictions overturned by the appeals court were those in which all the evidence was destroyed during testing. Since an estimated 25 to 50 percent of Salvador’s cases had no surviving evidence, prosecutors knew right away that they’d be freeing a lot of guilty people—and likely had jailed some innocent ones. Most DAs took steps to notify affected defendants and allocated resources to handle the coming waves of habeas corpus writs. Then they set about retesting any leftover evidence.

But in March the appeals court set a damning precedent by ruling that all evidence that had ever passed through Salvador’s custody was unreliable. That meant even if a DA could find enough surviving evidence to retest, the court still wouldn’t consider the new results valid because, for all it knew, Salvador spent his days swapping baggies of cocaine for Fun Dip.

Worse yet, the lab Salvador worked for knew he was doing a bad job for years. A DPS investigative commission found that Salvador was asked to correct mistakes in about a third of all the tests he ran. Periodic job evaluations noted that Salvador struggled with an “overall understanding of chemistry” and that his problems were “very systemic” and his work “right on the edge” of tolerable, though not “catastrophic.”

It could probably be described as catastrophic now. Twenty cases have been overturned so far, voiding almost 160 years of prison sentences. If all of Salvador’s cases are thrown out, which is looking more likely, the lost sentences will total more than 10,000 years.

In Walker County, DA David Weeks has already given up. His office tried to retest evidence from Salvador’s cases, but the “results were haphazard,” Weeks told the Hunstville Item. “In a case where [Salvador] said there was drugs, there wouldn’t be. And when he said there were no drugs, there were drugs.

“It’s clear that all the cases [Salvador] worked on are irreparably damaged,” Weeks said. He’s already making arrangements to expunge the records of every affected defendant. “It blew up in our faces.”

Jail hands

A massive new study by the U.S. Department of Justice ranked more than 350 jails by the rate of sexual abuse reported by their prisoners. Houston’s Harris County Jail came in third.

On average, 4 percent of the nation’s prison inmates and 3.2 percent of its jail inmates are sexually victimized each year, the DOJ reported. At 1200 Baker Street, the largest of the Harris County Jail’s four locations, that rate was more than double: 7.6 percent.

The survey, given to more than 90,000 inmates at 606 prisons, jails, and special confinement facilities, asked prisoners to anonymously report sexual mistreatment suffered at that facility during the last 12 months. It distinguished between types of victimization (rape versus abusive sexual touch), perpetrator (staff versus other inmates) and level of force (physical force versus pressure or coercion.)

At the time of the survey, 1200 Baker Street had just over 4,600 inmates. One in 20 reported being raped by another inmate in the last year.

Harris County Sheriff Adrian Garcia has tried aggressively to stem staff sexual misconduct since an internal investigation last year found some jail employees having sex with inmates and one another, and others helping conceal it. Six staff members were fired, two indicted, and two more resigned during the investigation. Garcia promised more video cameras in the jails, additional training, and a new hotline where inmates could report sexual assault.

This is surely to the good, but even before Sheriff Garcia cleaned house, the rate of staff-on-inmate abuse at 1200 Baker Street—1.5 percent—was actually lower than the national average of 1.8 percent. It’s inmate-on-inmate violence that makes Harris County Jail one of just nine jails designated high-rate facilities in the new DOJ report.

Harris County is the only Texas jail on the list, but two Texas prisons (the Stiles Unit in Beaumont and Clements Unit in Amarillo) and one psychiatric facility (Montford Psychiatric in Lubbock) were also classified as high-rate.

The federal survey is mandated by the 2003 Prison Rape Elimination Act, another requirement of which is a study of youth facilities. The Observer‘s Patrick Michels reports here that more than one in ten youth in Texas detention facilities report sexual abuse despite a massive overhaul of that system in 2007.

Researchers analyzed the jail’s population by age, race, sex, education level, type of conviction, length of sentence and even body mass index, along with other factors. Then they weighted their sample results to be representative of the whole facility’s population. Because the survey anonymously collects allegations rather than proven incidents, and because inmates may have reasons to either over- or under-report sexual assault, the researchers say they can’t know their true margin of error. But, they say, the relative severity of sexual victimization at individual facilities is an excellent indicator of where the worst problems exist.

Houston has a problem.

HPD Badges
PHOTO SOURCE: FACEBOOK.COM/HOUSTONPOLICE

On Monday, a grand jury declined to indict the Houston police officer who in September shot and killed Brian Claunch, a mentally ill, wheelchair-bound double amputee, for refusing to drop a pen.

HPD Officer Matthew Marin and his partner had responded to a disturbance call at Healing Hands, a small residential group home in central Houston for men with mental illness. Claunch, 45, suffered from schizophrenia and was agitated because he wanted a soda and cigarettes. Police say he yelled threats at the officers and backed Marin’s partner into a corner while waving something shiny, which turned out to be a ballpoint pen. When Claunch wouldn’t drop the shiny object, Marin killed him with one shot.

The case sparked international outrage. Why didn’t Marin use a Taser? HPD has a nationally-recognized crisis intervention team for handling suspects with mental illness—why wasn’t it there? How did Marin’s partner get cornered by a man with only one arm to propel his wheelchair?

Most important, if Claunch’s death isn’t considered an unjustified use of lethal force by HPD officers, what is?

Statistically, nothing.

Between 2007 and 2012, HPD officers killed citizens in 109 shootings and injured them in 112. Houston police also killed animals in 225 shootings and injured them in 109. The department’s Internal Affairs Division investigated every one of the 555 shootings and found them all justified.

Officers fare almost as well in the criminal justice system. No law enforcement officer in Harris County has been charged in a shooting since 2010, when Sgt. Jeffrey Cotton was acquitted for shooting an unarmed man, Robbie Tolan, in his own front yard.

HPD says Internal Affairs is still investigating whether Claunch’s death was justified. That’s odd because IAD investigations are required to wrap within six months and Claunch died almost nine months ago. Investigations that exceed the time limit void their results and can’t be grounds for any discipline, which is how one of the officers fired for beating 15-year-old unarmed burglary suspect Chad Holley got his job back.

The U.S. Justice Department is investigating six questionable use-of-force cases by HPD officers, including Claunch’s death, Chad Holley’s beating, and the shooting death of Rufino Lara, an unarmed 54-year-old immigrant whom the officer said was ignoring commands in English and Spanish and made a threatening motion. Witnesses say the officer only gave commands in English and that Lara had his hands up and was complying when he was shot.

Drawing Blood

The pesky U.S. Supreme Court has once again disappointed the Texas legal system.

In 2009, when the Texas Legislature passed a bill requiring police officers to take blood samples from some suspected drunk drivers even without warrants, prosecutors were ecstatic. Blood tests showing illegal blood-alcohol levels in DWI cases can be as powerful as matching DNA samples in sexual assault cases. But before 2009, an officer in Texas could take a warrantless blood sample only if the suspected drunk driver had just seriously injured or killed someone. Otherwise, the driver could refuse a Breathalyzer test and sit around metabolizing alcohol while the officer worked to get a warrant. To cops and prosecutors, that’s destruction of valuable evidence.

Under the 2009 law, a police officer was required to get a blood sample if a suspected drunk driver refused a breath test and either had a child in the car, had two previous DWI convictions, had a prior conviction for intoxication manslaughter or intoxication assault, or had been in an accident in which anyone but the suspected drunk driver was hurt. Having guaranteed blood samples in the most serious cases didn’t just mean more successful prosecutions; it meant fewer DWI cases going to trial. As Shannon Edmonds, director of governmental relations for the Texas District and County Attorneys Association, put it, “If it bleeds, it pleads.”

Predictably, some naysayers thought that letting officers decide without judicial oversight whether to forcibly take blood samples from people in custody was creepy and weird—if not unconstitutional. If the Fourth Amendment protection against unreasonable search and seizure applies to your house, shouldn’t it also apply to your veins?

Clay Abbott, the Texas District and County Attorneys Association’s DWI Resource Prosecutor in Austin, had some pretty smug words for those people. In the September-October 2009 issue of the group’s magazine, The Prosecutor, Abbott wrote, “The initial media coverage of this new law was full of ‘concerned’ criminal defense lawyers and civil rights experts ‘wondering about its constitutionality.’ Real lawyers need not worry: The U.S. Supreme Court and Court of Criminal Appeals have both found that DWI cases present very clear exigent circumstances allowing warrantless draws.”

Alas, now even real lawyers need worry. In April, the Supreme Court turned out to be packed with those experts “wondering about” the law’s “constitutionality.” In an 8-1 ruling in Missouri v. McNeely, the Court determined that the mere fact that alcohol dissipates over time does not, by itself, create an exigent (urgent) circumstance overriding the whole Fourth Amendment thing.

But the justices also stopped short of requiring warrants for all blood draws. Exigent circumstances may occur, they said, but will have to be determined case by case and based on the totality of circumstances.

That left Texas prosecutors a bit freaked out. “The following attachment is my attempt to answer the dozens of questions you’ve sent me by email, phone calls, and texts,” wrote Clay Abbott in a letter to association members titled, “Don’t panic… thoughts on adapting to SCOTUS’s McNeely decision.”

“I am sure many defense counsel will cite McNeely as the end of everything related to blood evidence in DWI cases,” Abbott wrote, “but this is just not so.” The question isn’t whether warrantless draws will continue—Austin and San Antonio stopped the practice immediately, and the prosecutor association advised members to educate their local law-enforcement officers on the new necessity of at least trying to get a warrant—but whether the ruling will endanger prosecutions or convictions from after 2009.

The same day that the court decided Missouri v. McNeely, defense attorneys in San Antonio filed a motion to suppress the blood evidence in their client’s murder trial.

Christopher Hughes Lamar had multiple drugs in his system and a blood alcohol level nearly three times the legal limit when he caused a wreck that killed a woman and her 10-year-old daughter.

But this is still Texas. The motion was denied.

Screen grab of Joshua Gravens' Texas Department of Public Safety record.
Screen grab of Joshua Gravens' Texas Department of Public Safety record.

Human Rights Watch released an extensive report today called “Raised on the Registry: The Irreparable Harm of Placing Children on Sex Offender Registries in the US.” It makes a case for exempting minors from the requirements that lump juvenile sex offenders in with adults: registration, by which police are kept notified of the offender’s current address, work, and appearance; notification, by which this data is made available to the public, usually via internet; and residency restrictions, by which offenders are barred from living or working near a place where children congregate.

While all the laws specific to sex offenders wreak special havoc on children, perhaps the harshest are residency restrictions. Intended for adults, residency restrictions often bar children from attending school and in many cases can even break up families if the juvenile offender isn’t allowed to live with his or her siblings. One Texas child interviewed for “Raised on the Registry” had to move with his mother two hours away while his father kept his siblings. Another, age 14, couldn’t live with his mother because he had siblings but couldn’t leave the state to live with his father, and so was put in a juvenile home.

Nicole Pittman, a leading national expert on the effects of sex offender registration on children, investigated more than 500 cases in 20 states for “Raised on the Registry,” including in-person interviews with more than 200 youth sex offenders. One of those was Josh Gravens whom I profiled in last June’s Observer cover story, “Life on the List.”

Gravens had non-penetrative sexual contact with his eight-year-old sister when he was 12. He was adjudicated for sexual assault of a child, spent three years in the Texas Youth Commission, and was sentenced to remain on the list until he turned 31.

Another unintended effect of sex offender laws is that they usually reserve the harshest penalties for those who offend against children. This is makes sense when offenders are adults, but since most children offend with other children, experimental play can result in mandatory lifetime sex offender registration. Another unintended component is that while registries list the age of the victim and the current age and photo of the offender, they do not list the age of the offender at the time of offense. Josh’s age difference from his victim grows every year.

Or did, until Josh was removed from the public registry in November after he showed “Life on the List” to the judge who sentenced him. Josh is now a finalist for a George Soros Justice Fellowship. If granted, the fellowship would let him spend two years educating lawmakers about the effects of including children on public sex offender registries. (“Life on the List” also won a Sigma Delta Chi award this year for public service in magazine journalism.)

But few are as lucky as Josh. “Raised on the Registry” makes a strong case for child registration being considered a violation of human rights, and the results are dire. Besides struggling to graduate from school, find and keep a job, and make in a stable home, many experience harassment and violence, many attempt suicide, and some succeed. Though juvenile sex offenders are among the least likely to reoffend and most responsive to treatment, for many, their childhood crimes are life sentences. For others, they’re death sentences

Pop quiz. Which is worse: A) someone starving to death, or B) littering?

If you answered B), you might want to run for Houston city council.

In March, a Houston police officer ticketed a homeless man for digging through trash in search of food. James Kelly, a 44-year-old Navy veteran, was cited for “disturbing the contents of a garbage can in [the] downtown business district.” The rule cited was a 70-year-old anti-scavenging statute that’s been revised over the decades to expand the types of containers protected from, in the law’s original language, “molesting.”

HPD defended the ticket at first, explaining in a statement, “It is a violation for anyone to remove any contents … placed for collection of garbage, trash or recyclable material. An officer has probable cause to issue such a citation when a person is seen opening a lid and rummaging through contents of a dumpster or trash can.”

But then the story went viral. Media outlets from Fox News to the Huffington Post ran indignant squibs about the ticket. That’s when HPD clarified that Kelly wasn’t cited for trying to feed himself but for littering. “It’s not officers being inhumane,” Houston Police Officers’ Union President Ray Hunt told the Houston Chronicle. “It’s police officers responding to citizens’ complaints about someone removing garbage from their garbage can and leaving it on the ground. It’s creating a mess.”

Hunt said officers wouldn’t ticket someone just for removing food, although, according to the citation itself and the original HPD statement, Kelly was cited not for littering or for removing food but for having given an officer probable cause to believe he might remove food.

Still, police don’t make the laws. The Houston city council makes the laws that govern where and how their 40,000 homeless constituents can, or rather cannot, eat. Last April, over strenuous community objection, the city council passed an ordinance that banned giving food to more than five needy people at once without written permission from the property owner. On public property, that means getting permission from the city.

Mind you, businesses don’t need permission to host a picnic in the park. The statute only applies to “charitable” food service “to benefit those in need.” Originally, the statute included provisions about safe food handling and was presented as protection for the homeless against food poisoning, though the city never offered proof that this was actually a problem. During the month-long debate that followed, all the food-safety elements were stripped away, and though city laws already forbade trespassing and littering, the new ordinance passed, stipulating a $500 fine for violators.

After the fracas over James Kelly’s ticket, Houston mayor Annise Parker asked the city council to repeal the anti-scavenging statute. They balked, so she asked that they repeal part of it, then that they repeal only the part that applied specifically to what Kelly was cited for: picking through a public trash can.

The city eventually dismissed Kelly’s ticket. But at press time, the council was still debating whether to change anything at all about the rule that made his search for food a crime.