Political Intelligence

Criminal Injustice

The choir assembles: Day One of the 81st Regular Session.

The behemoth criminal corrections industry in Texas requires constant vigilance. We execute more prisoners than any other state in the nation and release an appalling number of citizens who’ve been imprisoned for crimes it later turns out they didn’t commit. Nonprofit advocacy and reform groups go to battle for justice on a daily basis.

The end-of-January closing of the JEHT Foundation, another victim of the $50 billion Bernard Madoff debacle, is dealing a body blow to several such criminal justice nonprofit groups in Texas. The New York-based JEHT Foundation (the acronym stands for justice, equality, human dignity and tolerance) was the largest funder of criminal justice reform in the country. The foundation, supported primarily by donors Jeanne and Kenneth Levy-Church, has disbursed more than $100 million since 2002 and had scheduled a budget of $45 million for 2009, at least until Madoff was arrested for defrauding investors in his massive Ponzi scheme.

The Levy-Churches drew all their foundation money from investments managed by Madoff’s firm.

illustration by Alex Eben Meyer

Ana Yañez-Correa, executive director of the Texas Criminal Justice Coalition, says her nonprofit lost $119,000 in JEHT support for its juvenile justice program. “I’ve got a short amount of time to fill that gap,” she says. “Or else we have to let our program staff go.”

The JEHT closure came as a shock, she says, since foundation staff had visited Texas in early December. JEHT was poised to give millions to innovative pilot projects designed to reduce criminal behavior in Texas. Representatives from Travis County, Harris County and the cities of Dallas, San Antonio and Houston met with philanthropy staff to discuss funding, she says.

“It meant a lot, because JEHT was supporting programs that were doing it right,” she says. “Then literally the next day we got an e-mail that they were closing.”

Other state nonprofits taking a hit are the Innocence Project of Texas, which had a grant to review 400 cases for evidence of wrongful convictions, and the Texas Defender Service, which focuses on death penalty reform. The ACLU of Texas has also received JEHT funding.

While advocates are still reeling from the news, they remain undeterred from their missions. Yañez-Correa says the cities and counties brought together by JEHT are committed to finding new funds to keep their programs afloat, as is her own Texas Criminal Justice Coalition. “We’re not going anywhere,” she says.

-Melissa del Bosque


Too Young for Life


One of the Legislature’s leading voices on criminal justice issues has decided that teenage killers too young to face execution should also be exempt from being sentenced to life in prison without the possibility of parole.

“To me it’s a matter of fairness and consistency,” said state Sen. Juan “Chuy” Hinojosa, D-McAllen. “If the U.S. Supreme Court said to Texas and all the other states, ‘You cannot give these juvenile offenders the death penalty’ [which the Supreme Court did in 2005], then I believe the state of Texas should not be sending them to prison for life without parole.”

Hinojosa, a long-serving lawmaker who sits on the Senate Criminal Justice Committee (and led the House Corrections Committee during his final years as an eight-term state representative), plans to introduce legislation this session that would cap sentences for youthful offenders convicted of capital murder at life in prison, with the possibility of parole after 40 years behind bars.

Such a sentence would be in line with non-capital punishment death sentences handed down before the 2005 Legislature’s enactment of the life-without-parole law. Hinojosa says he decided to push for the new legislation after reading a recent article in the Observer examining the effects of the law (“The Life Penalty,” Nov. 28, 2008).

That law draws no distinction between offenders who commit capital murder before turning 18 and those who kill as adults.

“I think, for someone so young, there is a chance to rehabilitate their lives,” Hinojosa said.

Four under-18 offenders are now serving life-without-parole sentences in Texas. All were sentenced before the 2007 Legislature required the state’s district courts to report demographic information on capital murder cases to the state Office of Court Administration.

When the Nov. 28 Observer went to press, the Office of Court Administration had no information about the ages of the offenders serving life without parole. That information was made available by the Texas Department of Criminal Justice in December, after Hinojosa’s office requested a closer examination of life-without-parole cases.

State Sen. Eddie Lucio, who advocated the life-without-parole law for six years before it was finally enacted, says he’s open to Hinojosa’s proposed exclusion of youthful offenders, but he wants to see the fine print before committing.

“While I have not seen the language in the proposed bill, I would certainly support an effort to allow juveniles convicted of capital offenses to receive sentences whereby they might be considered for parole after 40 years,” Lucio said. “This was an additional option to life without parole that I also supported for adult offenders. I have faith in Texas jurors and believe juries should be given as many options as possible to be appropriate for the crime.”

Gov. Rick Perry, who signed Lucio’s 2005 legislation into law, is withholding judgment on Hinojosa’s proposal, his office says.

-John Moritz

Politico by M. Wuerker

Coal, Hard Ash


A massive spill of over a billion gallons of toxic coal sludge in Tennessee last month has prompted Texas environmentalists and some lawmakers to question whether Texas is doing enough to regulate coal combustion waste, the stuff left over after coal is burned for energy. You’ll be surprised to learn that oversight is scant.

The problem starts at the top, with the Bush administration’s EPA. In refusing to classify coal combustion waste as hazardous-despite the presence of dangerous heavy metals including arsenic, selenium and mercury-the EPA has given wide latitude to individual states. The Texas Commission on Environmental Quality, which has a notoriously light hand when it comes to regulating polluting industries, imposes less strict standards on coal waste disposal than on city landfills.

With 17 coal-fired power plants in operation at any given time, Texas produces huge amounts of coal combustion waste-almost 13 million tons each year, according to the Environmental Integrity Project. About a third is recycled into products such as road base material and cement. (In the early 1990s some entrepreneurial minds even dumped a giant pyramid of solid coal ash into the Gulf of Mexico near Freeport to provide habitat for fish.)

The rest ends up in landfills, sludge ponds or old surface mines.

An Observer review of state regulations found that coal-fired power plant operators are allowed to dump coal waste in landfills and ponds without a permit. Groundwater monitoring and liners are suggested by TCEQ, but not required. State law does require utilities operating landfills to register with the agency.

But Environmental Integrity Project analyst Jeff Stant, who calls Texas the “wild West” of coal waste, says, “They’re under no obligation to tell TCEQ that they generated [coal waste], much less where they dumped, even if they’re next to a public well-field.”

More than 90 percent of the state’s coal waste may go unregistered with TCEQ, according to a February 2008 study that Stant helped write. The study quotes a TCEQ solid waste specialist saying that most coal waste is “flying under the radar.”

But Mike Nasi, an attorney and lobbyist for the Clean Coal Combustion Products Alliance, claims that Texas has been a “success story” in finding innovative ways to reuse coal waste. The disaster in Tennessee was an “isolated incident” that’s unlikely to be repeated here, he contends, pointing to a federal finding that virtually all new disposal sites are lined.

Citizen groups say they worry less about a Tennessee-style breach disaster than the slow leaching of toxic metals into groundwater. Even disposal sites with protective liners can fail over the course of decades.

“I think it is just a matter of time before we have massive problems with groundwater contamination,” says Neil Carman, clean air program director of the Lone Star Chapter of the Sierra Club. “This coal combustion waste is really nasty stuff. It’s just a witches’ brew of toxic substances.”

Coal waste has already caused environmental problems in Texas. A 2007 EPA report documented three cases in which selenium, a toxic metal found in coal, leaked into reservoirs next to power plants, resulting in extensive fish kills and consumption advisories.

State Rep. Eddie Rodriguez, D-Austin, is drafting legislation that would require TCEQ to check up on all coal waste sites in the state and regulate waste from new coal-fired power plants as hazardous. Meanwhile, on Capitol Hill, key lawmakers have pledged to bring coal ash waste under stricter standards.

-Forrest Wilder

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Published at 12:00 am CST