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Saturday, August 18, 2018

Another police charity scamming money raised for officers' widows

Earlier this year, Grits had written about a scam charity raising money supposedly to give to families of two Dallas police officers killed in the line of duty, but which in reality gave only a small fraction of funds raised to officers' families.

Now, Naomi Martin at the Dallas News has the story of another scam charity doing the same thing, this time operated by a Dallas police sergeant. Go read the whole thing, she did a great job.

This blog has criticized these phony law enforcement scams for years, but the Attorney General's office seems incapable of reining them in and, otherwise, only the toothless Better Business Bureau even tries.

Many of our statewide politicians spend a great deal of time telling us how much they respect and admire law enforcement. So how is it that in 2018, 15 years after Republicans took control of Texas state government, these bogus charities are still allowed to raise money in the name of police widows but pocket most of the cash themselves or share it with their friends via lucrative fundraising contracts? There has to be a way to limit this sort of cash-grubbing chicanery.

Friday, August 17, 2018

State policy worsens driver license waits, how to expand drug treatment, police-union demagoguery redux, and other stories

As Grits catches up on all the Texas criminal-justice news that happened while the blog was on hiatus, let's clear some browser tabs with a roundup posts, on the off chance that some readers missed these stories, too:

Massive 8-hour waits at DPS license shops worsened by state policy
While there are many causes for continued, massive waits at Texas DPS drivers license centers, they're undoubtedly worsened by the nearly two million people who've had their licenses revoked thanks to nonpayment of traffic tickets and driver responsibility surcharges. Using license revocations as punishment for nonpayment instead of simply to certify driving acumen has clogged facilities with people trying to get their licenses renewed outside of the regular seven-year cycle, and many of them face complicated bureaucratic scenarios that take more time than average customers. Trying to squeeze poor people for every last dollar that way is penny wise and pound foolish. Better to eliminate those surcharges and stop revoking licenses for debt altogether, leaving unpaid fines and surcharges to traditional collections services to sort out.

TCJC: Tailor probation for young defendants
The Texas Criminal Justice Coalition put out a new report by our pal Doug Smith calling for expanded probation services and revamped requirements for probationers aged 17-25. By their count, 42 percent of 17-year olds who receive probation are revoked after two years, and statewide more than half of all revocations are for technical violations, not commission of a new crime. Moreover, 31 percent of those who go on probation aged 18-21 are revoked within two years, with revocation numbers declining substantially as probationers age. The reforms suggested would require new investments for specialized probation caseloads, but would pay for themselves in the medium run.

Bail-reform boost
Bail reform efforts received a boost from Gov. Greg Abbott's endorsement, as he suggested naming the legislation after a state trooper was killed by a defendant who would have been deemed high-risk but was released on a money-bond. Abbott focused more on keeping high-risk defendants locked up, but the legislation cannot pass - much less with the 2/3 majorities needed to amend the state constitution to authorize preventive detention - without addressing low-and-medium risk defendants locked up solely because they cannot afford to pay. With litigation in Harris County already dictating new rules for misdemeanants and the Dallas litigation over bail threatening to extend those requirements to felony defendants held pretrial, there's a lot more pressure for the Legislature to pass bail reform in 2019 than there was for the bill that failed last year. Whether or not Abbott's endorsement pushes this legislation over the top - and the bail-bond industry will fight it bitterly to the very end - Texas counties are poised to change how they make pretrial detention decisions in the short-to-medium term. It's impossible right now to predict when change is coming to any given county, but rest assured, it's coming.

Redundant red-light camera debate finally convincing pols
Gov. Abbott also came out in favor of abolishing red-light cameras in Texas after a new study found that the cameras increase injury accidents overall. The study concluded that, "the cameras changed the (angle) of accidents, but (there is) no evidence of a reduction in total accidents or injuries,” according to a recent report by researchers at Case Western Reserve University in Ohio who reviewed Texas traffic data." Of course, studies have been finding the same thing for years, but I'm glad this one finally caught the governor's attention and/or finally convinced him. Better late than never.

Unearthing the dark and bitter legacy of convict leasing in Texas
Large numbers of unmarked graves of black prisoners used in the convict leasing program at the old Imperial Sugar Company in Sugar Land sparked some excellent journalistic conversations the topic, including editorials from the Houston Chronicle and the New York Times. For more background, see this website created about the Sugar Land site and an academic offering on "Penology for Profit" documenting the Texas convict leasing system from the end of the Civil War to just before WWI.

Two options for increased drug treatment
Legislators investigating how to respond to increased drug overdose deaths were told that the state faces a chronic shortage of drug-treatment services. There are two ways they can solve that problem without raising taxes: A) Expand Medicaid under the Affordable Care Act, or B) reduce penalties for low-level drug possession and use the savings from reduced incarceration to pay for more treatment services. There is no option C.

Cowtown pension pitch would take cash from cops pockets
A proposed plan to stabilize the police pension fund in Fort Worth would require officers to pay more, reducing their take home pay, and reduce benefits going forward so that there will now be two tiers of retirement benefits, with new retirees getting less. Not everybody is thrilled about it.

Police-union demagoguery redux
Demagogic union attacks on the San Antonio police chief are really a proxy for their feud with the mayor and city council members who were tough on them in contract negotiations, the SA Express News reported. The SA police union is utilizing the most aggressive, Saul-Alinskyite tactics long advocated by Texas police union mugwumps for undermining politicians who oppose union ends. In Austin, those tactics backfired and caused the city council to reject a negotiated police contract last December. Now, the Austin Justice Coalition is pressing the city council to spend the money they previously paid for police bonuses and perks on non-law-enforcement measures that benefit public safety. See an interview by Grits with police-union consultant Ron DeLord discussing why those hardball union tactics may be outdated and ineffective in the current political environment.

Mata matters
Grits first met civil rights activist Johnny Mata around 1997, and he'd already been fighting the good fight on police accountability for two decades. At 82, he's all but a local icon in Houston. I was glad to see the Houston Chronicle give him his due in this feature story. The article reported he's been diagnosed with leukemia. Good luck, Johnny, I'm rooting for you.

Prison abolition vs. reform
Politico published a feature on prison abolition, but to me the differences between abolitionists and other #cjreformers are vastly overstated, certainly in the short-to-medium term. (And as John Maynard Keynes opined, "In the long run we are all dead.") Whether your goal is to cut the prison population by 20 percent, by half (e.g., #cut50), or to abolish prisons altogether, the first steps toward decarceration remain the same. The first fight is over the next big chunk of prisoners we can decarcerate, no matter what is one's ultimate goal. And if abolitionists oppose short-term reforms because they're holding out for the Big Kahuna of total abolition, they're allowing the perfect to become the enemy of the good and IMO are hurting the people they purport to help.

***

Finally, here are a few stories from outside of Texas that merit Grits readers' attention:

Thursday, August 16, 2018

TDCJ can't stem staff turnover crisis at remote, rural units; #txlege must align policy with reality and reduce low-level drug sentences

While your correspondent was on a much-needed vacation, the Houston Chronicle's indefatigable Keri Blakinger published a story updating the Texas prison system's efforts to staff rural units, which have up to 49 percent vacancy rates. Her article opened:
The Texas prison system handed out more than $9 million this fiscal year on bonuses to aid recruitment as they grappled with extensive officer vacancies, but department data shows the cash outlay has hardly moved the needle. 
Seven months after the state launched a concerted effort to bring down the 14 percent officer vacancy rate, the Texas Department of Criminal Justice still has 3,675 unfilled positions - roughly 30 more than in January when the leadership started tackling the problem.
Despite record hiring bonuses given out to new hires at understaffed facilites, Blakinger reported:
more units are severely understaffed now than last fall. The latest unit-by-unit figures - from May 31 - show that fourteen units were under 75 percent staffed. Dalhart was down to 51 percent staffed. At the Daniel Unit, between Lubbock and Abilene, staffing dropped from from 77 percent in October to only 62 percent of jobs filled in May. 
And the notorious Ferguson Unit - where a teacher was allegedly raped by an inmate last year in an incident her lawyers blamed on understaffing - was down to 69 percent staffed. 
Of the 29 units with hiring bonuses, 19 - including Daniel, Ferguson and Dalhart - had higher vacancy rates in May than they did in October.
Employees punished alongside prisoners
Blakinger raised the seldom-discussed but potent employment barrier of requiring people to work in un-air-conditioned prison units. Litigation framed the issue in terms of prisoners' health and well being, but the more pressing state interest may be the inability to hire people to work in harsh, unpleasant conditions:
“If they would air condition every unit across the state they would keep more people,” said one officer, who asked not to be named because he wasn’t authorized to speak on the record. “If you as a corrections officer tell your lieutenant, ‘Look I’m hot, I need to go cool down,’ they’re gonna laugh you off the unit.”
Ask yourself: Would you take a job in a small rural town for a low-thirties salary surrounded by convicted felons in an un-air-conditioned metal building? I'm guessing most people reading this would say "No." (And if you would say "Yes," go apply to your nearest prison. They're hiring.)

These various issues compound. Understaffing contributes to a more dangerous and occasionally deadly environment for guards, and the summer heat amps up everybody's tensions, making prisons a more perilous place to work, less inviting to new applicants, and more likely to drive away existing employees.

That's the piece the hiring bonuses can't and won't solve. Former union boss Lance Lowry made that point in the story. “A bonus just gets people in the door,” he said. “We’ve never had a problem getting people in the door - the problem is getting those employees to stay.” That's exactly right. A "turnover" problem is about dissatisfaction of employees who are already on the payroll, not how many people arrive on the front end.

Piddling guard salaries and the limits of prison parsimony
The biggest problems remain low pay and oppressive workplace conditions. IMO the rural settings wouldn't matter and TDCJ could easily fill its positions if prison guards here made as much as in California, for example, where the union is politically powerful and starting salaries are around double what they are here.

Texas spends $3.5 billion per year on TDCJ, which sounds like a lot, but given our highest-in-the-country prison population numbers, we're pretty chintzy when it comes to spending on state prisons, a point I made in the story:
“We already pay less to incarcerate people than just about every other state,” Henson said. A 2015 Vera Institute of Justice analysis showed that Texas has 11.6 percent of the country’s state prisoners, but only accounts for 7.6 percent of prison spending. 
“We’re underspending at pretty radical levels,” he added. “If you don’t want to spend more, your options are: incarcerate fewer people. That’s it.” 
Marc Levin, vice president of criminal justice policy at non-profit Texas Public Policy in Austin, agreed. 
“I think it’s the ideal solution,” he said. “We would obviously want to look at the units with the biggest staffing issues and biggest capital costs.”
Based on the Vera Institute figures cited above, if Texas' proportion of state prison spending matched its proportion of state prisoners - i.e., if we spent the nationwide average amount per-prisoner - we'd spend $5.3 billion per year instead of $3.5 billion.

The pretense of parsimony is a picayune point of pride for many Texas legislators, but it's also the source of most of the prison systems problems. Texas' under-spending comes from several sources, but mainly low guard pay, lack of air conditioning, and dramatic under-spending on inmate health care

A prescription to match the diagnosis
Grits was further quoted in the story, pointing out that there's only one, real solution to the problem: "to reduce the incarceration levels enough to close more units and this time target units with high vacancy rates for closure." Let's explore that a bit further.

The shortest distance to lowering incarceration levels in Texas is to reduce sentences for non-violent drug offenders. Texas has already adjusted property-theft thresholds for inflation, diverting thousands of low-level theft offenders from prison. And the 2007 probation and parole reforms have likely reached the limits of what can be expected from probation reform: after a decade, local judges and probation departments remain slow to reduce revocations for technical violations or use early-release provisions for successful probationers. Probation departments have economic incentives to keep successful, fee-paying offenders on the rolls and to revoke those who cause headaches, whether or not those folks engage in criminal misbehavior.

Best case: Probation reform may offer medium to long-term savings, but in the short-term would actually require more investment.

That leaves two large categories: drug offenders and people convicted of violent crimes.

While we do over-incarcerate violent offenders, locking thousands of people up long after they've aged out of crime and pose little threat to society, any statute change aimed at reducing incarceration for that group would result in long-term benefits that won't address the immediate crisis. The person incarcerated for ten years instead of 15 saves the state a lot of money, to be sure, but we wouldn't see any of the savings for a full decade after they were sentenced. 

By contrast. reducing penalties for low-level drug offenders - say, making possession of up to four grams a Class A misdemeanor instead of a felony - would save lots of money in the immediate, biennial state budget, and even more in the long term. Legislators only view the budget in terms of a two-year time horizon (since many of them won't even be legislators ten years from now). So politically, out-year savings are mostly irrelevant at the capitol. Altering drug sentences would have the biggest short-term impact on both decarceration and budget savings, allowing the state to move toward immediate closure of several units and solving numerous, nagging problems at once.

That's the only real alternative for reducing incarceration enough in the near term to help Texas with its rural-prison understaffing problem. New-hire bonuses are a band-aid, at best, and won't stop staff from wanting to leave these hot, dangerous, underpaid jobs.

Wednesday, August 01, 2018

Conservatives 💗 'progressive' prosecutors, risk-assessment deep dive, on the limits of a punitive approach on fines, and other stories

As Grits prepares for a brief hiatus, let's clear some browser tabs and perform a quick roundup of items that merit readers' attention (or which I'd like to look at more closely once I get back):

TDCJ heat deaths magically stopped when litigation started
TDCJ says that only ten people in the prison system were diagnosed with heat stroke or heat exhaustion, or given intravenous fluids for a heat-related illness, during the recent high-temperature spate, and that no one has died of heat-related illnesses since 2012. Both those numbers seem unlikely to me. Rather, it's more probable that TDCJ just stopped labeling deaths as heat-related after litigation began in 2012. Plus, given what they're counting, when heat-related illnesses arise, TDCJ can keep inmates from being counted simply by NOT treating them with IV fluids. These low numbers don't seem credible; another reason we need independent oversight so that causes of death aren't being spun to avoid accountability.

TPPF's lingering hunger for grand-jury reform
The Texas Public Policy Foundation is ramping up to support grand-jury reform in the 86th Legislature, and published this item arguing for allowing grand-jury witnesses to be represented by counsel.

Poll: Public warming to justice reform
A new national poll demonstrates widespread support for the FIRST-STEP prison reform act, which Grits endorsed here, as well as criminal-justice reform, generally. See coverage from The Hill.

Conservatives 💗 'progressive' prosecutors
We've discussed on this blog the memo from Philadelphia DA Larry Krasner detailing what prosecutors can do to scale back mass incarceration. IMO it's one of the most important justice-reform documents in the last decade - as important for operationalizing the critique of mass incarceration as Michelle Alexander's New Jim Crow book was to popularizing it. But we haven't yet discussed the bipartisan appeal of Krasner's message. The American Conservative published an article arguing that Krasner's "objectives dovetail closely with those of conservative and libertarian justice reformers. All share a broader vision of radically reshaping a criminal justice system that is deeply unjust and out of line with American constitutional and moral values."

Deep dive into risk assessment debate in PA
Grits has expressed disagreement with liberal reformers over sweeping criticisms of risk assessment instruments based on alleged racial disparities in some models promoted by private vendors. Based on analyses I've seen, Grits argued that "the maximal harm hypothesized from risk assessments simply doesn't outweigh harms from the status quo of requiring money bail for everyone." So I was interested to see that many of those same national critics got a new risk-assessment regimen in Pennsylvania put off for six months for evaluation based on allegations of racial bias. In particular, links to all the written testimony submitted to their sentencing commission were published online, and I wanted to post the link so I can go through them later.

It's not that I couldn't be convinced that liberal opposition to risk-assessment-based bail reform isn't throwing the baby out with the bathwater. I'm just unconvinced by the arguments I've heard thus far. Too often, such critics fail to acknowledge that the alternative isn't some un-biased utopia but the even-more-biased status quo where judges sentence less harshly after lunch and harbor myriad biases that may just as harmfully infect the system, but with far less transparency than risk assessments. At least risk assessments can (and should) be adjusted and re-validated over time. Perhaps the extensive testimony out of Pennsylvania will cast more light on this emerging debate.

On the limits of a punitive approach on fines
Some of what's happening across many vectors in the justice system today is that we've reached the limits of the tools traditionally used to fight crime that now result in diminishing returns. When penalties were low, raising them perhaps created more deterrent. But once they're high, raising them more can be counter-productive. That's what you're seeing in Chicago, where a move to raise ticket amounts for vehicle-sticker violations backfired. Rather than raise millions in revenue, as projected by the city, it drove thousands of predominantly black Chicagoans into "substantial debt," and caused many "to lose their licenses, lose their cars and even declare bankruptcy," according to an investigation by ProPublica. One can't squeeze blood from a stone.

Tuesday, July 31, 2018

'Egregious' and common prosecutor misconduct not enough to overturn drug conviction

The U.S. Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals last week found that prosecutors engaged in "egregious" misconduct in a federal drug case out of Harlingen, but did not provide relief. "Two of [the defendant's] claims — the prosecution’s use of drug profiling evidence and bolstering of witnesses’ credibility — are errors that we have repeatedly warned the government about." The ruling concluded thusly:
Today’s outcome is the same as many of our prior decisions addressing drug profiling testimony and bolstering of witnesses: we find that the government engaged in misconduct but nonetheless conclude the defendant cannot meet the heavy burden of obtaining reversal for error he did not object to during trial. If the ultimate end of prosecution is securing convictions, it may not be surprising that this trend has not deterred these improper trial tactics. Of course, winning is not supposed to be a prosecutor’s lodestar. Striking “hard blows” but not “foul ones” in pursuit of justice is. Berger v. United States, 295 U.S. 78, 88 (1935). Fidelity to that higher calling would prevent us from seeing these errors yet again.
That's wishful thinking. As long as prosecutors have absolute immunity and the courts refuse to penalize their cases, even for repeated misconduct, you can bet your bottom dollar that fidelity to a higher calling will NOT "prevent us from seeing these errors yet again."

Monday, July 30, 2018

Growth in TX meth/cocaine overdoses far outpacing opiods

Grits has written how Texas' drug-overdose problem related to meth and other stimulants is a bigger challenge here than the opioid crisis that's gripping many eastern states. So I was interested to see an op ed from the Austin Statesman by Erich Schneider finally address Texas' specific situation. Concerning opioids, here's where we stand:
Centers for Disease Control (CDC) data shows that opioid-related deaths in Texas have indeed risen slightly – from 4.37 to 4.55 deaths per year per 100,000 residents – between 2006 and 2016. But in 2006, the Texas rate stood at 85 percent of the national average; in 2016, we were at just 35 percent of a tragically higher nationwide death rate.
The bigger growth occurred among overdoses by cocaine, meth, and stimulant users:
Over the same interval, Texas deaths related to cocaine, methamphetamine and other psychoactive stimulants have risen from 3.86 to 4.82 per 100,000. While some deaths were due to combinations of drugs and contribute to both statistics, it seems these classes of drugs are comparably lethal. Yet, they claim fewer lives than alcohol: CDC estimated that 27.9 deaths per 100,000 Texas residents were attributable to alcohol in 2014.
So that's a four percent increase in the rate of opioid deaths over the last decade, and a 25 percent increase in cocaine/meth-related deaths. And alcohol-related deaths are a FAR greater problem than illegal drugs.

By contrast, "Ohio, for example, is facing an opioid-related death rate of 31.9 per 100,000 residents – a staggering figure that rises above even our own state’s alcohol-attributable death rate." So clearly, they're facing a radically different situation than we are.

As Grits has iterated repeatedly, the main reason we haven't seen the same spike in opioid deaths is the predominance of black-tar heroin in this market that does not mix easily with fentanyl:
One factor that has driven the explosion of opioid deaths in the past few years is a spike in the availability of fentanyl, a synthetic opioid as powerful as it is deadly. To use fentanyl is to play with fire, and addicts often do so unwittingly, since fentanyl might have been added to their heroin. Those who survive develop a fierce attachment to its potency, so fentanyl appears to be here to stay. And many pill-users move to heroin once their habit becomes too difficult to support by other means. 
There’s one catch: Fentanyl is usually distributed as a powder. For that reason, it doesn’t mix well with the Mexican black tar heroin that predominates in the Western U.S., including Texas. It mixes easily, though, with the South American powder heroin used on the East Coast. 
It is no coincidence that so many of the lives lost over the past few years have been in the East. Dividing the states into those lying east and west of the Mississippi River provides a vivid illustration. In 2006, there was no large-scale geographic pattern to the nascent opioid epidemic. Deaths averaged 5.21 per year per 100,000 people in the Western states and 5.14 in the East. By 2016, the death rate in the Western states had ticked upward to 6.97, while in the East it had soared to 17.4. The deadly presence of fentanyl on the east side of the heroin divide is evident.
The author makes a welcome pitch for making policy based on data instead of media hype:
instead of clamoring for funding solely to fight the opioid wars here — when the numbers show that other places are in more dire need of it — let’s take another look at which drugs are actually killing people in Texas, including alcohol, and create a broad-based strategy that will save more lives.
Grits agrees, but would add that most of the policies needed to reduce overdose deaths aren't specific to a particular drug type. For the most part, solutions on overdose deaths are the same no matter which drugs we're talking about.

Taking cops off point on mental-health cases, commissary questions, a $7 million-plus AC bill, and more

Let's clear some browser tabs with a roundup of items which merit Grits readers' attention even if I don't have time to construct a full blog post around each of them:

Blood will tell you more
Following Pam Colloff's masterful two-part story on faulty blood-spatter evidence, ProPublica has launched a special newsletter in which she's following up on the articles and providing more context. You can sign up hereTeaser: In the upcoming, August episode of the Reasonably Suspicious podcast, we'll air an interview with Colloff about her story and the state of forensic science in Texas and beyond. Look for that in about three weeks. (You can subscribe to the podcast on iTunes, GooglePlay or SoundCloud so you don't miss it, and until then check out the July episode.)

Cornyn praises promising pilot on mental-health diversion
Grits is excited about the pilot program at Dallas PD praised by US Sen. John Cornyn in this Dallas News article. They're sending out interdisciplinary teams led by mental health workers to respond to 911 calls related to mental health crises, with cops participating as backup and support as opposed to shot callers. Not only are there better outcomes for mentally ill folks, it saved money and resources: Under the program, "of the 709 mental health emergency calls fielded since January, just 3 percent ended in arrest." In fact, "In the first three months of the program, the clinician's diversion of calls saved the police force about two weeks of salaried work."

Police are asked to handle too many social problems and mental health is one of the biggest. For the most part, the issue needs to be taken out of the hands of law enforcement and jailers and re-center the response around healthcare needs and social services, instead.

Commissary Questions
Earlier this year, the Prison Policy Institute (shoutout to their new employee, Texan Jorge Renaud) published a report titled, "The Company Store" about prison commissary economics. Now, they have some specific, commissary-related questions for the Texas prison system, including why Citibank would receive more than $6 million in commissary funds in a year and pertaining to the wisdom of collaborating with certain vendors using dubious financing methods that arguably short-change inmates. Legislators on committees overseeing the prison system may want to dig into this.

A $7 million AC bill and climbing
After spending $7 million on legal fees fighting against providing air conditioning to at-risk prison inmates during the summer, TDCJ is now beginning to do so, reported the Texas Tribune. This raises the questions: How much will TDCJ ask the Lege for air conditioning? How much will the Legislature give them? And will that be enough, or will more litigation ensue? Tune into the 86th Texas Legislature in 2019 to find out!

Marijuana not only issue where TX political parties agree
We've seen media coverage of the fact that both Texas political parties included some form of marijuana reform in their state party platforms last month, with pundits opining that the development makes passage of reform legislation more likely. But nobody in the MSM has discussed other points of agreement in the platforms on either criminal justice or other issues facing the state. On all those issues, the same analysis applies: Bills where both party platforms agree arguably begin the process with a leg up. It doesn't guarantee they'll pass, but it's a potent expression of an issue's potential.

Framing of inmates spurs renewed calls for TDCJ overight
Recent indictments of TDCJ staff who set up inmates in a fake discipline scam have renewed calls for independent oversight at Texas' prison agency, reported the Texas Tribune. Whatever form oversight takes, it's inarguable that having all your watchdogs report to the same board - as TDCJ does - gives an appearance of conflict and almost certainly creates actual ones. The system isn't adequately policing itself.

Four years waiting on trial from no-knock raid shooting
A Killeen man, who thought he was responding to a burglary, shot and killed a police officer when they executed a no-knock raid on his home four years ago and is still awaiting trial, with no denouement in sight. His attorneys have been ready for trial for some time, but the state has yet to press forward, leaving him sitting in jail while he waits. RawStory has a report.

DWI drylabbing allegations
A DPS lab analyst in El Paso, who in the past was caught allegedly falsifying drug weights, cutting and pasting data from other samples, has again been accused of dry labbing, this time failing to conduct tests on 22 DWI samples and cutting and pasting results from other cases. DPS said the error was unintentional, but its quality control reviewer saw the problem and didn't catch it. When samples were retested, the analyst combined good data with bad. She and the technical reviewer who approved her work are no longer with the agency.

Documenting the 'trial penalty'
The National Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers has a new report out on the extent of the "trial penalty" in federal court when defendants refuse to accept a plea deal. In related news, the Washington Post has an item on a juror speaking out against harsh, mandatory federal sentences, and conservative columnist George Will authored a piece on the topic.

'Misdemeanorland'
A new book addresses "Criminal Courts and Social Control in the Age of Broken Windows Policing." Check out a review.

Sunday, July 29, 2018

What the judges want: Judicial Council recommendations to the #txlege

The Texas Judicial Council last month issued its recommendations to the Legislature on criminal-justice reform heading into the 86th session in 2019. Let's take a look at what judges are asking of the Texas Lege.

'Data! Data! Data! I cannot make bricks without clay'
Although listed under the heading for opioids, a recommendation to improve statewide collection of case-level court data deserved to be highlighted more prominently. The Council wants Texas to  begin collecting:
relevant case level data from all court levels including magistrates, to generate more timely and detailed information to support policy, planning, management, and budget decisions for the justice system. The collection of the relevant case level data should be fully funded by the Legislature.
This recommendation would have policy making implications well beyond the opioid crisis, and would benefit legislators themselves as much as anyone. As Grits mentioned earlier this week, you can't manage what you can't measure. And there are large swaths of the justice system that cannot be managed because it's impossible to talk with precision about exactly what's happening on the ground. Case-level data could help change that. (MORE: A helpful commenter pointed out the Council put out a separate set of recommendations specifically addressing data issues; see here.)

Establish an Opioid Task force
Yawn. Outside of Houston, meth is the bigger problem in Texas. And solutions on overdose deaths are the same no matter which drugs we're talking about.

'Pretrial Decision Making Processes'
The Judicial Council recommended eight different items on bail reform, providing a comprehensive roadmap for the Legislature to shift from money bail to risk assessments when determining pretrial detention. The list includes both statutes and constitutional amendments necessary to implement the plan, with rulemaking at the Office of Court Administration to flesh out the details within a "sufficient transition period."

In the Judicial Council's vision, all defendants would be assessed for potential risk with a validated instrument developed by the Office of Court Administration. The state constitution would be amended to a) create a presumption that defendants will be released on personal bond and b) allow judges to detain defendants they deem to be a public safety risk regardless of their ability to pay.

They want the Legislature to help fund pretrial supervision as well as training for magistrates and others making bail decisions. They also want the Lege to require data collection on pretrial-release decisions as part of the reforms.

Getting the Governor Out of Specialty Court Oversight
This one is interesting. Under Gov. Rick Perry, specialty courts in Texas blossomed. Today, "Over 190 specialty court dockets operate across Texas, including DWI court, drug court, family drug court, veterans court, mental health court, and commercially sexually exploited persons court," with the Governor's Criminal Justice Division the largest funder. But this was the prior Governor's priority, not this one. So it's little surprise that the Judicial Council might suggest that "certification and oversight" of specialty court programs be shifted from the Governor's CJD to the Office of Court Administration, which answers more directly to the judiciary.

The Council noted that current practice in Texas is out of step with national norms; only one other state places oversight authority for specialty courts with the Governor.

Firearms
This was clearly their most tentative proposal. Of all the things judges might request to stop mass shootings, asking the Legislature to fund better data entry into the national background check system is one of the least controversial, least bold, and least-likely-to-make-a-big-difference reforms you might name. But it's the only thing they could come up with.

No IAC Fix Suggested
One item Grits noticed was conspicuous by its absence. On the Court of Criminal Appeals, Judge Elsa Alcala has been calling for a legislative fix on ineffective assistance of counsel, which for the most part can only be challenged via habeas-corpus writs where defendants do not have access to an attorney. After four US Supreme Court justices raised the same issue in a recent dissent, Grits thought the subject might secure the Judicial Council's attention. I don't know whether they considered it or not, but clearly it didn't make the final cut.

Saturday, July 28, 2018

Why we should care about new TX racial profiling data

The other day, Grits reported on the new elements Texas law enforcement agencies must begin including as part of their racial profiling data, starting with reports that will be released March 1, 2019. Now, let's discuss some of the implications for publishing this new data.

Contraband, consent searches, and proving discrimination
There's a fundamental problem with trying to use racial profiling data to allege discrimination at traffic stops from a statistical perspective, because it's impossible to tell with certainty what denominator to use. Not everyone ticketed by a given agency is from that jurisdiction. So, for example, data from Austin PD's traffic tickets on the day of a UT Longhorn football game might capture drivers from all over the state. Or, a rural jurisdiction with an interstate running through it may ticket out-of-towners more often than locals.

As it turns out, this is an insurmountable data problem - there will always be something to nitpick, no matter which denominator one chooses, because of limitations in the data.

Searches, however, are a different story. We know the denominator there - people who are searched are a subset of the people stopped. Moreover, since we can isolate "consent" searches, where an officer must ask permission to search because they don't have probable cause, it's possible to drill down to measure outcomes (i.e., whether police found contraband) within the narrow category of searches where officers are exercising discretion.

Still, a key piece of data was heretofore missing: The results of the search! As of next year, all agencies will be required to report how often those searches find contraband, and what was found (in broad categories). 

Starting next year, we'll find out how often these consent searches are productive and whether the results are racially disproportional. Where that data has been available, frequently the result is that black folks were more likely to be searched but officers found contraband more often searching white drivers.

Austin PD, for example, implemented a requirement to obtain written or recorded consent to search after gathering data on contraband and discovering, in 2003, that police were seeking consent searches from black drivers more than five times as often as whites but were finding contraband on white drivers twice as often as black drivers who were searched.

A similar pattern was found in 2015 when DPS' racial profiling data was analyzed by a national expert, as reported in this excellent Austin Statesman feature.

Texas agencies performing traffic stops are already required to record when they search vehicles based on "consent" rather than probable cause. Some agencies use consent searches infrequently; others use them all the time. Knowing the outcomes will complete the loop, letting agencies truly measure discriminatory practices.

But these data are useful for more than just proving racial discrimination: They provide one of the only data-based windows we have into Texas traffic stops, and combined with the statewide dashcam rollout that was part of the original 2001 bill, give us a window in the 21st century into the day-to-day workings of police practices that was simply unavailable to prior generations. It's rather amazing to Grits that we know as much as we do about traffic stops compared to what was available when I began this work a quarter century ago.

These additional data basically complete the dataset we were trying to achieve when the bill first passed in 2001. Dallas state Sen. Royce West carried the bill; at the time your correspondent was Police Accountability Project Director for the ACLU of Texas, and worked hand-in-glove with then-E.D. Will Harrell on the legislation.

Politics being the art of compromise, we couldn't convince the Legislature back then to include data which would allow such precise measurements of discriminatory practices. The police unions couldn't stop the entire bill, but they could and did stop that. Sixteen years later, though, the Sandra Bland Act picked up that spare, in bowling parlance, and henceforth we'll be able to measure over-aggressive and discriminatory search practices at traffic stops much more easily.

Documenting arrests for Class C misdemeanors
After Sandra Bland's untimely death, a bipartisan push emerged to stop law enforcement from arresting people for Class C misdemeanors where the maximum punishment is a fine, not jail time. Last month, a call to eliminate such arrests was included in both the Republican and Democratic Texas state party platforms.

So it's notable that, on March 1st of next year, in the middle of session, for the first time agencies will publish data on how often they arrest people solely for Class C violations. The new form includes four categories of arrests:
11.1 Violation of Penal Code
11.2 Violation of Traffic Law
11.3 Violation of City Ordinance
11.4 Outstanding Warrant
Two of those - traffic laws and city ordinances - are Class C misdemeanors, so that means, during session, we'll get first-of-its-kind new information for agencies statewide that's directly relevant to what by then will surely be pending legislation.

When the Texas Criminal Justice Coalition last year analyzed four months of data from Harris County, it turned out 11 percent of all arrests were for Class C misdemeanor violations. There is reason to believe that that's a higher number than we may find elsewhere, because of Harris County DA policies where prosecutors must pre-approve Class B arrests but not Class Cs. But until we see the data, there's no way to know whether 11 percent is really an outlier, and by how much. 

Grits is genuinely curious; I can't wait to find out!

Some jurisdictions conduct fewer consent searches but use arrest on a Class C as a way to complete searches without consent. In Austin, for example, APD policy specifically allows search incident to arrest as an allowable reason for a Class C arrest. So this new data will also allow researchers to analyze whether Class C arrests are also disproportionately aimed at black drivers in order to conduct searches that were not consent based.

Use of force data
Finally, the new requirement to record how often traffic stops include police use of force that results in bodily injury provides data on an obscure, darkened corner of policing that no one thought about much before the advent of police dash-and-body cams and, more recently, the public's own cell-phone videos.

Now we'll get department level data on how often that happens, and agencies themselves will be able to drill down to analyze trends at the level of the individual officer.

You cannot manage what you can't measure, so Grits welcomes these first steps at understanding the scope of police violence at traffic stops in Texas. Unlike the data on searches, discussed above, new force data in the report arrives in an essentially embryonic stage. I think we're going to learn a lot, and predict the new force data will raise more questions when it comes out.

Thursday, July 26, 2018

Two persistent myths that hinder #cjreform

After talking to hundreds of GOP delegates at Just Liberty's table at their state convention in San Antonio last month, Grits noticed two incredibly common misconceptions demonstrating the public is unaware of some very basic facts about the justice system.
  1. People think crime rates are high and increasing when in fact they're low and getting lower.
  2. People do not know and in some cases refuse to believe that most inmates in county jails are pretrial defendants who've not yet been convicted, as the Texas Oberver recently reported. Rather, most people imagine jails are used to punish people after they're convicted.
The Observer headline said 3 out of 4 county-jail inmates is being held pretrial. As of July 1, the percentage of pretrial defendants out of local jail populations was actually 71.4 percent, according to the Commission on Jail Standards, so that's in the ballpark.

The same data show that, contrary to popular belief, county jails aren't really used much at all for formal punishment: Only about six percent of county jail inmates on July 1st were serving out punishments for crimes in the jail (i.e., people convicted of misdemeanors and/or felonies and sentenced to county jail time). Another 10 percent or so were convicted felons waiting for transfer to the state prison system.

Grits has theories about why the public has failed to understand the amazing crime decline witnessed over the last quarter century. I believe the media barrage about violent crimes from all over the country in the modern social-media era gives an impression that terrible murders and rapes are becoming more common, when in fact, for any given person, they're less likely than ever to be victimized by crime. They're just more likely to read about crimes from somewhere else. (MORE: A commenter pointed to this story about problems with and limits of MSM crime reporting.)

I'm not sure what explains the misunderstanding about what jails are used for - maybe it's a function of how the justice system is taught in school, or of law-enforcement rhetoric (and/or lazy reporting) that conflates arrest with punishment and accusations with guilt. Or maybe it's just that facts on the ground changed. A quarter century ago, pretrial defendants made up just a third of county jail populations.

Regardless, what we found tabling at the GOP convention was that, when people understood who is actually in county jails - people accused but not convicted who are still "presumed innocent" in the eyes of the law - they were more likely to support bail reform and a host of other decarceration measures. But these persistent myths are serious obstacles to reform; people who believe them are a lot less sympathetic.

Wednesday, July 25, 2018

Top 10 junk forensic sciences challenged in Texas

In the wake of the Forensic Science Commission declaring blood-spatter evidence in a 30-year old murder case "not accurate or scientifically supported," Texas has lately again been getting deserved credit as a national leader on forensic reform. Our forensic commission is the best in the country, according to Innocence Project cofounder Peter Neufeld, and our first-of-its-kind junk science writ has made Texas one of only two states (California followed suit) with the means in place to challenge junk science in old convictions through habeas corpus writs.

The most commonly used forensics that were questioned by the National Academy of Sciences 2009 report, "Strengthening Forensic Science: A Path Forward" - like fingerprints or ballistics matching - have yet to face concerted challenges. But quite a few second-tier forensic methods have begun to wilt under scrutiny.

Here's Grits list of the top 10 forensics challenged in Texas to date.
  1. Dog-scent lineups
  2. Outdated arson standards
  3. Hair comparisons
  4. Bite marks
  5. Blood spatter
  6. DNA mixtures
  7. Field tests for narcotics
  8. Future dangerousness testimony
  9. Shaken baby syndrome
  10. Forensic hypnosis
Honorable mentionEstimating suspects' height based on forensic video analysis.
Of these, only dog-scent lineups and flawed arson testimony have been eliminated, with hair comparisons mostly displaced by mitochondrial DNA testing in 21st century cases. A prosecutor in Collin County recently stipulated that bite-mark testimony is junk, so the Court of Criminal Appeals will soon get a chance to declare it non-viable. The rest are under dispute but still in use. Moreover, Texas has yet to figure out how to respond when forensic errors impact large numbers of already-decided cases.

That's why I've said before, Texas may be ahead of other states on forensic reform, but don't gloat. Most other states are behind because they never left the starting gate, and despite some notable progress, most of our needed forensic reforms remain in front of us.

Tuesday, July 24, 2018

First glimpse at improved racial profiling data

Racial profiling reports submitted by local law enforcement agencies got an upgrade in the most recent legislative session as part of the Sandra Bland Act, and the changes are pretty significant. The Texas Commission on Law Enforcement issued guidance for complying with the new requirements, and here's the model reporting format they suggested.

For comparison, here's the Austin PD report from earlier this spring covering FY 2017.

The new reporting requirements take effect with the racial profiling reports filed with the state on March 1, 2019. Big changes include requiring police to tell if they found contraband when conducting searches and what it was:
8. Was Contraband discovered? CCP 2.133(b)(4)  
9. Description of contraband CCP 2.133(b)(4)
9.1 Drugs:
9.2 Currency:
9.3 Weapons:
9.4 Alcohol:
9.5 Stolen property:
9.6 Other:
We're also going to start getting more data on the results of traffic stops by agency:
10. Result of the stop
10.1 Verbal warning: CCP 2.133(b)(8)
10.2 Written warning: CCP 2.133(b)(8)
10.3 Citation: CCP 2.133(b)(8)
10.4 Written warning and arrest:
10.5 Citation and arrest: 
And when drivers are arrested for Class C misdemeanors, we'll get data parsing that, too:
11 Arrest: CCP 2.133(b)(6)
11.1 Violation of Penal Code:
11.2 Violation of Traffic Law:
11.3 Violation of City Ordinance:
11.4 Outstanding Warrant: 
Finally, we'll find out how often officers use force at traffic stops:
12. Was physical force resulting in bodily injury used during stop? CCP 2.132(b)(6)(D), 2.133(b)(9)
12.1 Yes:
12.2 No:
These are important changes, many of them on the leftover wishlist of items we couldn't get into Texas' original racial profiling bill back in 2001, or when a central repository was created for the reports in 2009. In a lot of ways, adding the requirement to gather the additional data finishes off that 2001 project. Texas' racial profiling data has already significantly contributed to discussions about law enforcement practices in Texas, including on matters that have nothing to do with allegations of racism. This will make this data even more useful in the future.

Monday, July 23, 2018

Bail a 'tool of oppression,' SA police discipline full of holes, a decided lack of lessons from the McKinney pool party, and other stories

Here are a few odds and ends for Grits readers to consider while you're stuck inside (one hopes) waiting out these 105 110 degree days!

Austin police falsely accused man of pointing gun at officer
A man in Austin sat in jail for 15 months on charges that he pointed a weapon at officers, but authorities have known for much of that time that, in fact, he did not. Once the defense found out about the contrary evidence, they were allowed to plead to a lesser offense and the defendant was released with a sentence of "time served." The man's attorney told the paper the case “exposes how broken our bail system is and is used as a tool of oppression.”

SAPD lieutenant, fired repeatedly, may return to force
A San Antonio police lieutenant who has been fired repeatedly - most recently for making a homophobic remark on social media about the chief - may get his job back again, the SA Express News reported. That's a broken discipline system; management has almost no ability to weed out bad apples if four indefinite suspensions were overturned. Reported Emilie Eaton, "four police chiefs have suspended [this officer] without pay or fired him, for a total of 17 disciplinary actions. Four times, he fought and got his job back. Through appeals, he sometimes won shorter suspensions. Still, he was suspended for about 300 days, records show. He’s an example of how officers are able to reduce their penalties or save their jobs by exercising their rights under union contracts to seek outside arbitration and get chiefs’ decisions overturned."

Nobody learned much from McKinney pool party fiasco
A reporter from The Atlantic revisited the McKinney-pool-party police-brutality episode on its third anniversary. She depicts a divided community in denial where attitudes following the episode hardened into accusatory/defensive postures and the conversation never moved much beyond that.

TX not sufficiently treating, nor preventing, Hep C
The SA Express News wrote about the lack of access to Heptatitis C drugs for many Medicaid recipients, but they could have also mentioned state prisoners. Up to 50,000 prisoners have Hep C, TDCJ officials have estimated, which means they make up around nine percent of the total 580,000 estimated cases statewide. Nearly all of those people will eventually get out, so treating them would prevent spreading the disease. The other thing that would prevent the disease would be to allow charities to operate needle exchange programs. A big part of the spike in Hep C, according to the report, is needle sharing among heroin addicts.

Lawsuit could invalidate thousands of red-light camera tickets
Sometimes you piss off the wrong lawyer. In this case, an attorney fought a $75 red light ticket in court for years, arguing that it's invalid because the ticketing agency had never done an engineering study before installing the machines. The law definitely says they can't install cameras without such a study, I remember when state Rep. Gary Elkins got that added to the statute. Apparently, most cities ignored that provision! Can't wait to see if the Supreme Court agrees to hear the case!

'Rubber stamping' charges in capital cases overstated
Grits was quoted in this story about a study of Harris County death penalty cases which found that more than nine out of ten "findings of fact and conclusions of law" prepared by a trial court in habeas corpus proceedings are taken verbatim from prosecution briefs. Like Judge Elsa Alcala, also quoted in the story, Grits was unimpressed with the claim that the arguments were reproduced verbatim. In the Washington Post, Radley Balko went even further, accusing judges who adopted prosecutors' findings of "plagiarism." That's pure foolishness. In reality, it's common as dirt for the judge to hear both sides, make her rulings, then tell the winning side to write a draft of the final order. That's how most of the DNA exonerations, which were all habeas corpus writs, typically ended. Indeed, what happened in the Harris County bail case - where Judge Lee Rosenthal herself wrote a 100+ page order herself in the civil suit - is quite rare, even on the civil side, much less in criminal cases and particularly in habeas corpus writs. Judges having one of the parties draft their order, preserving the right to edit or alter it, is much more common. So that part of the critique is overstated.

So is, to a degree, the critique of the 90%+ number. One would expect the state to win a disproportionate number of these appeals. They're mandated after all, in death-penalty cases, while most similarly situated non-capital cases would never reach an appellate judge's desk. The real question is: Are defendants getting a fair shake? In some cases, like that of Juan Castillo, who was executed this spring, trial court judges have rubber stamped findings without giving the defense an opportunity to hold a hearing or even file a brief! That, to this non-lawyer, seems improper. But saying a judge simply should never adopt proposed findings from a prosecutor isn't a particularly compelling critique.

UPDATE (7/24): A capital attorney whom I respect called and chewed my ass for an hour about this item, but mostly kept repeating things I'd already agreed with in the prose above. Finally getting down to brass tacks on her precise disagreement, her complaints would have been satisfied by adding a five-word subclause that emphasized that Harris County judges aren't holding hearings in most state capital habeas writs, and in that way the cases in this study are not comparable to habeas writs in DNA exonerations, where hearings are more typically held. So noted, though I doubt that clarification will make anyone any more happy. Capital attorneys are a grumpy bunch.

Concussion protocols for criminal defense attorneys?
In the July episode of the Reasonably Suspicious podcast, Texas Defender Service executive director Mandy Marzullo and I discussed a case (~18:20 mark) that's the subject of this recent SA Express-News column: The lead attorney in a capital case suffered a concussion and visiting Judge Susan Reed, the former tuff-on-crime DA who voters forcibly retired in 2014, tried to make the defense team move forward without qualified attorneys until she grudgingly called a mistrial. Josh Brodesky provides an account that corroborates Mandy's recollections.

New competency restoration beds too little, too late
With months-long backlogs for competency restoration beds at state mental hospitals, any new beds are welcome. But the 40 added in San Antonio for $11 million barely scratched the surface of the problem. Like announcing you're going to bail out all the water in Lake Palestine, then pulling out a teaspoon to perform the task.

Indictments: Evidence tampering related to farm equipment implicated TDCJ managers in Huntsville
At the Texas Department of Criminal Justice's Eastham Unit, "Three Texas prison officials were arrested this month in an alleged scheme to set tractor parts on fire in a burn pit behind a Houston County lock-up as part of an apparent attempt to dispose of evidence in an investigation," Keri Blakinger reported at the Houston Chronicle. This wasn't routine guard misbehavior: It involved the farm-shop property manager and "two higher-ranking officials based in Huntsville, Terry Price and Rick Ellis, [who] were charged with tampering with evidence, according to court records."

First big summer heat blast hits after TDCJ lost temperature litigation
After settling the lawsuit over heat-related deaths at the Pack Unit, acquiescing in most of the plaintiff's demands after the Fifth Circuit refused to grant summary judgment, TDCJ officials must be sweating (pun intended) over the possibility that more inmates could die in un-air-conditioned units thanks to the record setting heat this summer. Maybe that will mean they'll do a better job of providing ice and water, but for people kept essentially in metal boxes in 105+ degree weather - both inmates and staff - that's hardly much comfort. This Houston Chronicle story considered the issue. "Overall, just 29 Texas prisons provide air-conditioned living units, while another 75 facilities do not have it." MORE: From the Marshall Project.

Bondsmen getting head start opposing bail reform
More on this later, but the bail bondsmen have formed their own front group with a fairly elaborate website to oppose bail reform in Texas in the 2019 legislative session. Problem is, thanks to Judge Rosenthal's decision and the 5th Circuit's ruling, something has to change. And if the Legislature doesn't take charge, it will change via county-by-county litigation, which has already spread to Galveston and Dallas counties and will go wider, guaranteed, if the Lege doesn't step in. Doing nothing, which is what the bail bondsmen want, just isn't an option. But they'll only settle for maintenance of the status quo. So, ironically, thanks to the federal courts, even if they win, in the long run, they lose.

Sunday, July 22, 2018

Want to get rid of ads in daily Grits email?

So, it has come to my attention that the number of ads on the free service I've used for Grits subscribers for more than a decade has become intolerable, or at least annoying, to some long-time subscribers. For the number of people on the list, the service would charge $320 per year to get rid of them all.

If you're a Grits subscriber and want those ads to go away, use the donation link in the sidebar to contribute toward that goal. If we hit $320 in some reasonable period of time following this request, I'll switch it over. (Any excess, as always, will go toward this blog's ongoing newspaper subscription expenses.)

And if you're somebody who dropped off the list because you didn't like the ads, maybe we can rectify that in the near future. Even faster if you donate! As always, the form to sign up for Grits' daily email of the prior days' headlines is in the right-hand column, just below the link to writer bios.

Thanks folks! And now, back to your regularly scheduled programming ...

Saturday, July 21, 2018

Austin police oversight ineffective, says audit; local media silent on narrative-busting analysis

The Austin Civilian Review Panel, as it worked under the now-expired police contract, was a failed oversight mechanism, the city auditor found. A  report issued in June concluded that, "Citizen oversight did not create substantive change within the Austin Police Department, largely due to the effects of City procedures and police department practices."

Your correspondent has been saying the same thing about Austin's oversight system on this blog since at least 2005 (and on its now-defunct, antecedent website, earlier than that). Even at its best, it never made any impact on the problems that spurred its creation.

Austin's citizen panel had access to more information about Internal Affairs cases than the public, but less than they needed to do their  job, according to the report.

Moreover, city legal staff edited recommendations from the citizen's panel before the chief saw them, if he ever did, and the panel never knew how they were altered. (The department never responded to most recommendations from the panel.)

Indeed, because the recommendation letters were altered by city legal, the Police Monitor didn't have copies of the final versions, and neither city legal nor APD kept them, at least not systematically. Auditors recreated the recommendations from multiple sources to get a clear view of the system and generate metrics.

Once they made their recommendations, panelists told auditors they went into a "black hole" and the panel never knew what happened to them - neither how the legal department may have changed the recommendations nor whether or how APD responded to them.

It's not that citizen panelists weren't doing a decent job: The appendix at the end of the report lists panel recommendations which, had the department quickly responded and made real changes to policy and procedure, might have saved lives. The panel recommended policy changes related to mental-health first response, firearm discharge, care for injured suspects, ride-along rules and much more. With no public debate and no discussion with the panel itself, these recommendations simply faded to nothing.

That's why your correspondent joined the Austin Justice Coalition in December to ask the city council not to renew the police contract. The oversight system, as I told the city council that night, was a "piece of junk." It was always a piece of junk. And we knew it long before this audit parsed the details. But it's nice to see it in an official city document. It's one thing for Grits or local police critics to say the system isn't working, and quite another for the city auditor to say so. Makes the conclusion harder to argue.

BTW, providing further evidence that local media has been completely in the can for the police union when it comes to debates over the contract and police oversight, this audit has received almost no media attention. The Austin Monitor covered it when it came out, and did a short followup, but neither the Statesman nor any local TV station - where activists' complaints last year about a crappy oversight system were routinely poo-pooed and dismissed - has seen fit to relate the auditors' findings to their readers/viewers.

Funny, that. IMO, if the audit had parroted their police-driven narrative from last year that the oversight system is wonderful and it would be a tremendous loss if it were eliminated, this story would have been front page news and led nightly coverage on multiple local stations.

UPDATE: Three days after I published this, the Statesman finally put out a story about this audit, more than a month after its release (and after the Austin Monitor scooped them). However, covering it AFTER being criticized hardly merits praise. And they quoted the police union spinning the story, but not any of the advocates whose research and analysis was finally confirmed by the audit. I don't know why my local paper has been so hostile to the local police-reform movement, to the point of failing to report news like this audit that supports reformers' positions while touting fact-free spin from the police union and APD management with no basis in reality. But that's what their coverage on these topics has been like these last couple of years. They only seem to honestly address police reform issues when shamed into doing so, and even then they're loathe to provide a voice to anyone actually pushing to reform the police department.