Lab delays spur boost in Nueces Co. personal bond use
In Corpus Christi, prosecutors have enacted a standardized policy of offering personal bonds to defendants charged in synthetic marijuana cases, mainly because of crime lab delays. The most likely reason for the shift: "The time it takes to get test results on the substances has been longer than the maximum allowed sentences. Possessing synthetic marijuana is a class B misdemeanor punishable by up to six months in jail. Test results from the Department of Public Safety labs have been taking about nine months to a year to get back." They should keep close track of outcomes with these defendants, it will create a natural experiment to compare them with defendants convicted before they changed the policy.
With the chairmen of the House Criminal Jurisprudence and Calendars Committees both residing in Nueces, perhaps this news will place more pressure on the Lege to either adequately fund crime labs or adjust sentences to reduce pressure on them. Honestly, the whole crime lab system - at DPS and otherwise - is at the breaking point. Numerous disciplines have come under attack as fundamentally non-scientific, and even disciplines like toxicology with a more sound scientific basis are overwhelmed by volume and undercut by attempts to perform them on the cheap, as evidenced by the following item.
News flash: Bad field tests cause false drug convictions (and not just in Houston)
ProPublica has a great piece on the use of scientifically flawed "field tests" for drugs used in Las Vegas, NV, following up on important NY Times coverage earlier this year of the use of the same type of $2 tests in Houston. Both are must-read pieces of journalism for anyone interested in the topic. In Houston, this topic plays directly into debates in the DA's race over racial disparities in drug enforcement, as 59 percent of defendants falsely accused and convicted based on false positive from cheap field tests were black. They also pump up the state's "exoneration" numbers, ensuring that Texas will lead the nation in disproven false convictions for years to come just based on what's come out of Houston alone. The thing is, we know that EVERYONE who uses these field tests likely accuse innocent people, not just those in Houston or Vegas. These stories show us the tip of a much larger iceberg.
Requests for police pension bailouts pit cops vs. anti-tax conservatives
Increasingly it's clear that police pensions are a latent but fully primed flash point between anti-taxation Republicans in the Legislature, more liberal city councils, and local police unions. In Dallas, the pension us oversubscribed with too-generous benefits, has engaged in a series of flawed, risky real estate deals, and is losing money hand over fist. The fund in Houston isn't much better. In those and ten other Texas cities, local control of police and fire pensions has been wrested away by the Legislature and vested into independent bodies on which cities have a voice but unions (and the Lege) have ultimate control. Lately, the Laura and John Arnold Foundation's Josh McGee has been pounding away at the fundamental fiscal insolvency of these funds, mos recently in this excellent short report written with Paulina Diaz on the Dallas police and firefighters' pension. Their bottom line assessment of the crisis in Dallas: "The city’s public pension debt has doubled in less than two years due to inadequate funding, irresponsible benefit enhancements, and poor investment decisions. The total unfunded liability is now at least $4 billion—and the plans do not have enough money to pay for nearly half of the retirement benefits workers have already earned."
All these pension funds want bailouts either from local or state taxpayers, putting the police and firefighters unions directly in conflict with low-or-no-tax conservatives around the state, not just in the Tea Party wing of the GOP but also among establishment Chamber of Commerce types who abhor large tax hikes. Police and firefighters are among the last employees who receive defined benefit pensions instead of defined contributions (typically in 401ks) like most everybody else. They'll claim the sky will fall if that's changed, but the truth is, as the Arnold Foundation report ably demonstrates, the sky will fall if nothing changes. MORE: The Texas Public Policy Foundation is holding an event on public employee pensions in Austin next week.
Dreaming of Oklahoma, and other unlikely scenarios
Grits never thought the day would come when I could write this, but part of me is a little envious of Oklahoma, or I should say Oklahoma reformers. They've put drug sentencing reductions on the ballot and therefore can have a conversation about the idea's merits directly with the voters instead of filtering reform through the legislative process, with the resulting compromises, delays and special-interest interventions that inevitably entails. OTOH, Grits was doing this work in the '90s, so I can remember an era when I was quite grateful Texas didn't have initiative and referendum. The tough-on-crime crowd could and would have proposed, and voters would likely have passed, much worse stuff, even, than actually got through, except in a venue where opponents have had no way to oppose, modify, counter or coopt the details of the proposals.
So while the prospect of ballot initiatives is tempting - and while part of me wishes we could similarly test Texas voters' views on criminal justice reform more directly than just polling, which generally shows support for the main reforms presently on the table, but whose results haven't been tested by the gauntlet of special-interest attacks which face a ballot initiative of this sort - I'm still glad Texas doesn't have initiative and referendum and would oppose it here if it were seriously suggested. If I were in Oklahoma, though, right about now I'd be busting my hump to help Questions 780 and 781 pass. Good luck to them.
In response to federal prison contracts being rescinded and surprisingly successful divestment campaigns aimed at reducing their capital, Corrections Corporation of America, the private prison operator, has rebranded and renamed itself as CoreCivic. According to this source, "Last month, CCA fired 12 percent of its corporate workforce to deal with sharply dropping investment—largely thanks to growing pressure campaigns to divest from private prisons." Here's the company's press release. Not to pile on, but I should mention several of the private prison facilities Grits has argued should be prioritized for closure by the Texas Legislature in 2017 are