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September 4th, 2022:

Weekend link dump for September 4

So what would a dragon smell like, anyway?

“An Afghan family slowly adapts to life in Austin a year after the Taliban takeover”.

“The Case for the 16-Year-Old Vote”.

“Voters in Florida’s panhandle will choose this November between two of the most polarizing political figures in the state.”

“Alvin Bragg is widely viewed as struggling in his job as Manhattan DA. But is that assessment fair — should it be reevaluated with the benefit of hindsight and the developments over the past week in his office’s Trump investigation?”

“Can you inoculate people against misinformation before they even see it? This study says yes.”

RIP, Gwen Barclay, trailblazing Houston chef and pioneer in farm-to-table cooking.

“We still don’t know how many. We still don’t know why. We just know that doing what [Trump] did was not simply an act of ignoring the law, it directly put at risk US intelligence assets and US national security. This is not a story about documents.”

“The 4 major criminal probes into Donald Trump, explained”.

Schenectady, Schenectady, God shed His grace on thee…”

“The Federal Trade Commission sued an Idaho-based data company Monday, accusing it of selling location data from hundreds of millions of mobile devices that could be used to track people at abortion clinics and other sensitive locations.”

Republicans in disarray.

RIP, Mikhail Gorbachev, last leader of the Soviet Union.

“In some instances, even the FBI counterintelligence personnel and DOJ attorneys conducting the review required additional clearances before they were permitted to review certain documents.”

It’s nice to know that some people get the lawyers they deserve.

“If you’re younger than 21, you should still be able to buy a can of whipped cream in New York. You just can’t buy a whippet, or whip-it, a small nitrous oxide-filled charger used to aerosolize the dessert topping.”

RIP, Barbara Ehrenreich, author and activist whose best-known work was the book “Nickel and Dimed”.

A different poll about abortion in Texas

Interesting and encouraging, but I’m not sure I buy it.

One year after Texas implemented what was then the most restrictive abortion law in the country, a majority of Texas voters are expressing strong support for abortion rights.

In a new survey, six in 10 voters said they support abortion being “available in all or most cases,” and many say abortion will be a motivating issue at the ballot box in November. Meanwhile, 11% say they favor a total ban on abortion.

“We’ve known that politicians in Texas and across the country have been enacting harmful abortion bans. We’ve known that they’ve been out of step with what Texans want, and now we have the data to prove that,” said Carisa Lopez, senior political director for the Texas Freedom Network, one of several reproductive rights groups that commissioned the poll.

[…]

Polling firm PerryUndem surveyed 2,000 Texas voters in late June, just before the Dobbs decision was issued. The poll had a margin of error of plus or minus 3 percentage points.

The data release comes one year after the implementation of S.B. 8, which relies on civil lawsuits to enforce a prohibition on most abortions after about six weeks.

Pollster Tresa Undem said she believes the issue is likely to motivate turnout among supporters of abortion rights in states including Texas in November.

“I think that’s probably why in Texas we’re seeing a shift in the Texas electorate becoming more pro-choice — because there’s been that year of S.B. 8, and people experiencing that,” Undem said.

Because of S.B. 8, Texas had provided an early example of the impact of restrictive abortions laws, months before the U.S. Supreme Court released its Dobbs v. Jackson Women’s Health Organization decision overturning Roe v. Wade and other abortion-rights precedent.

In response to that ruling in late June, the state’s trigger ban — also passed in 2021 in anticipation of Supreme Court action — also took effect, making abortion completely illegal in Texas except to save a patient’s life during a medical emergency. Doctors say that exception is narrow and subject to interpretation, and some say they fear terminating pregnancies for patients facing medical crises.

Undem says she’s seeing growing support for abortion rights among several key voting blocs including women, Latinos, and younger voters.

The poll memo, which includes some data, is here. I have two issues with it. One is that we don’t get the exact wording of each question, which is significant because as we know the wording can make a big difference in the responses. Two, these results are a lot more pro-abortion rights than we have seen in other polls. The post I did on the UT/Texas Politics Project data, which also was from June, illustrates this. In that poll, they broke down the situations into much more specific subgroups, with certain circumstances under which the person got an abortion, and the number of weeks they were pregnant. In cases of rape or incest or a threat to the mother’s health, support was in line with this poll – in particular, the “never available” number was down in the 10-15% range, as it is for the “never available” number in the PerryUndem poll. But for discretionary abortions, the level of support in the UT/TPP poll was much lower, and the “never available” number was up in the 30s. That’s a huge difference, and it’s in two polls taken at about the same time.

The most likely reason for those differences is the way the questions were asked. From what I can see, the PerryUndem poll didn’t get into any specific situations, which likely meant people were more lenient in what they would acquiesce to. You could argue that some of the specifics of the UT/TPP poll skewed responses in the other direction – I strongly suspect that most people in that poll didn’t know that Roe generally allowed abortions through 24 weeks, and that the law in the Dobbs case, which restricted abortion access to 15 weeks, was still looser than the 12 week choice that the poll gave. Texas’ law was allowing abortion up to 20 weeks before SB8 was passed, and that itself was technically illegal under Roe but went unchallenged in court on the very reasonable concern that SCOTUS (well before Amy Coney Barrett was there) would have upheld it and maybe done more than that. Point being, I think general ignorance of the law and of pregnancy probably contributed to some of the more restrictive answers.

The thesis of this poll was that attitudes in abortion had already begun to shift in Texas even before the Dobbs decision was handed down, because of the effect of SB8. I buy that to a point, but because this poll had no “before” data to compare with, that’s just a guess. If you want to extrapolate from there and decide that attitudes have loosed further since June, you can do that, but I’d want to see an updated version of this poll – or the UT/TPP poll, as one example – before I reached that conclusion.

One more thing about this poll, which neither NPR nor the Texas Signal noted, is that it also included an Abbott/Beto question. This poll, taken in June before the Dobbs decision and the surge in generic Democratic numbers since then, had Abbott leading Beto 47-43, the closest gap we’ve seen in any public poll so far. The crosstabs are a bit wonky – how you get to this result when Beto leads among Latinos 49-39 and leads among Black voters 70-14 is a mystery to me – but there it is. We’ve only seen one post-Dobbs poll so far, and it didn’t show any real movement. But as we always say, it’s one poll. I’m sure we’ll be seeing more soon.

More evidence of misdemeanor bail reform’s success

Lower costs, fewer wrongful incarcerations and guilty pleas, less recidivism. What more do you want?

Fewer misdemeanor defendants went on to commit crimes in Harris County after federal litigation in 2017 aimed at curtailing the jailing of low-income people charged with low-level offenses, according to a recent study.

A 13 percent rise in pre-trial releases within 24 hours of a defendant’s arrest also followed the judicial injunction, the court order that researchers found led to positive reforms in Houston’s criminal justice system. Judicial jurisdictions elsewhere have watched the progress of Harris County’s reforms to create their own, researchers with the Quattrone Center for the Fair Administration of Justice at the University of Pennsylvania said.

“I think that it shows that misdemeanor bail reform, when implemented properly, can work,” said Paul Heaton, academic director for the Quattrone Center — a research and policy institute with the University of Pennsylvania. “It led to less costly punishment for the defendants and tax payers — it didn’t increase crime.”

The findings come amid years of tense debate over the bail reform’s implications and whether it has any connection to the local rise in homicides and other violent crimes, which increased nationwide during the pandemic. Prosecutors, law enforcement, bail bondsmen and victims’ rights advocates are among the opponents of the changes.

Houston police on Wednesday said that non-violent crime had decreased by five percent since this time in 2021 — and violent crime had dropped 10 percent during the same time frame.

Researchers went through about 517,000 misdemeanor and felony cases in Harris County filed from 2015 until last May, but focused on the months surrounding the start of the injunction — prior to the havoc that Hurricane Harvey and the pandemic caused in the courts. Unresolved cases increased later in 2017 — likely because of court closures in the storm’s wake, according to the study.

Conviction rates dropped by 15 percent, and the length of jail sentences for those low-level offenses also declined by 15 percent after the injunction, the study found. The injunction stemmed from several defendants lodging a federal lawsuit arguing that the bail practices in Harris County were unconstitutional. The county settled the lawsuit in 2019 with the arrival of Democratic judges and a federal jurist issued a landmark opinion, prompting the O’Donnell consent decree and independent monitoring group to issue reports on the effects.

Misdemeanor Judge Darrell Jordan, who helped shaped the consent decree, said the Quattrone study, mirrors the progress noted in the mandated monitor reports. He commended the decision for having allowed some defendants in his courts and others to get out of jail within 24 hours of their arrest. The alternative was worse, he said.

“They lose their house, car, families, jobs and they come out of jail in a state of chaos,” said Jordan, who oversees the Criminal Court of Law No. 16. “They have to find a way to get back on their feet and make a living.”

If the reforms are working in Harris County — one of the most populous counties in the U.S. — they can be implemented elsewhere, the judge said.

[…]

A report issued in March by Brandon Garrett, a professor for Duke University’s School of Law tasked with overseeing the decree oversight, found that repeat offenders, those arrested for misdemeanor offenses, “remained largely stable in recent years.” The same study also found that, from 2015 to 2019, convictions declined and the number of dismissals and acquittals doubled.

The fifth report from Garrett’s team is slated to be released Saturday.

You can see the UPenn report here. Brandon Garrett has been issuing reports as the overseer for the past two years. We’ve had two years of data on this now, and the findings are clear. I suppose it could change tomorrow, but unless that happens there’s just no reason take the critics of misdemeanor bail reform seriously. Bloomberg News has more.

We keep on building homes in the floodplains

It’s how we roll.

When Hurricane Harvey devastated the Houston region with a deluge of rain, one of the places where the water escaped its bounds was near a Spring Branch floodway known as Brickhouse Gully, satellite data shows. There, it filled a golf course, which federal maps indicated had a high risk of flooding.

Today, that golf course has been turned into a 115-acre master-planned community built on newly created hills above its neighbors. A series of man-made lakes double as detention ponds, meant to prevent heavy rains that previously had pooled onto the golf course from impacting neighbors or those living downstream.

The story of how it was built encapsulates the tensions between those seeking to build more safely in the floodplains and those who believe such practices will not protect against the heavier rains predicted in the future — and who would prefer such land to remain undeveloped to allow stormwaters room to flow.

Four months before Harvey made landfall, the Arizona-based homebuilder Meritage Homes announced it planned to build roughly 800 single-family homes on what had been the Pine Crest golf course. The master-planned community would be named Spring Brook Village.

One out of every seven residential building permits issued in Houston since Harvey were located in the Federal Emergency Management Agency’s 2009 Flood Insurance Rate Maps. While some were for pre-existing, flood-damaged homes that homeowners had decided to rebuild, many were for new homes that have put an increasing number of people in areas predisposed to flood. One of the highest concentrations of such permits was in Spring Brook Village.

After both Tropical Storm Allison and Hurricane Harvey, standards for building in floodplains were tightened. Homes are now required to be built higher and with more detention. Meritage Homes, which said no one was available for comment, was building to the updated standards. But it also had done something else — started the process of having the floodmap changed.

Since Harvey, a sweeping federal floodmap update called Atlas-14 has been underway. Anticipated to be released this fall, it will look at rainfall data up to and including Hurricane Harvey. An early analysis indicated that the size of Harris County’s floodplains would grow because the expected rainfall in a flood event had been revised upward.

But a number of small, manual changes to floodplain maps have been taking place. Developers can submit applications to the Harris County Flood Control District and FEMA arguing that the flood designation for their communities should be changed, often because of flood mitigation steps taken. Until floodmaps are updated to reflect new rainfall averages, these one-off revisions have had the opposite effect: On paper, the county’s floodplains have been shrinking.

The changes often mean that homeowners in the area will not be required by their lenders to purchase flood insurance — which makes buying a home in the new community more affordable but puts homeowners who opt out of the expense at risk if the area does flood.

What could possibly go wrong? It’s a long story, part of the Chron’s ongoing coverage of Hurricane Harvey’s five-year mark, so go read the rest. And maybe double-check the flood map your home is in.

Let’s protect Galveston’s red wolves

They’re one of the cooler things about Galveston.

Photo from the linked article

The coyotes that roam Galveston Island are quickly becoming famous.

The animals are the subject of dedicated social media pages and their silhouettes have been emblazoned on T-shirts. Earlier this year, they were the subject of a profile in the New York Times.

The coyotes in 2018 were found to be carrying genes matching American red wolves, a critically endangered species that today lives in one place in the wild, in a protected area of North Carolina. Galveston’s coyotes carry DNA from long-ago crossbreeding of red wolves and coyotes when the animals were both common in the American southeast. The genetic discovery could lead to ways to genetically preserve the red wolf from extinction, because Galveston’s coyotes could add to the genetic diversity needed to restore a small population.

But for now at least, there’s no laws protecting Galveston’s “ghost wolves” from humans or other threats. That’s why scientists hope they can keep attitudes towards the coyotes positive, in the name of preservation.

“They’ve heard that their coyotes are fancy and unique, and I don’t want there to be a divide in the community that lives with this and the people doing research,” said Bridgett vonHoldt, an associate professor of evolution and evolutionary biology at Princeton University, and one of the founders of the Gulf Coast Canine Project. “To put a face to science and scientists is so important.”

[…]

The coyotes are regularly seen hunting for rats in the dunes on Galveston beaches and also stay stay well fed by preying on the hundreds of feral cat colonies across the island, said animal service unit supervisor Josh Henderson. Since the beginning of 2021, there’s been no reports of the coyotes attacking humans, Henderson said. There have been reports of the coyotes attacking unattended pets, though those are rare compared to the number of sightings that ended without incident.

See here for some background. The story mentions a recent presentation on the red wolves at Moody Gardens, which I wish I could have attended. For now all is well with these beasts, but there ought to be some legal protections for them, just to ensure that they can continue to thrive. It took us a long time to figure out who they even were. Let’s not lose them now.