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Amarillo

Prevention > treatment

I mean, more treatments for COVID is a good thing, but you know what’s better? Not getting COVID in the first place. Maybe we can try doing better on that?

Gov. Greg Abbott traveled to Lubbock on Thursday to tout a newly approved coronavirus treatment, without saying how many doses are available or announcing any new restrictions to slow the virus’s spread as infections continue to surge.

Speaking at his first news conference on the pandemic in over two months, the governor said the treatment, made by Eli Lilly and similar to the one that President Donald Trump received last month, has already been distributed to Lubbock and other areas with overcrowded hospital systems, including Midland, Amarillo and El Paso.

“They have enough right now where they can begin the process and treat patients at least for the next several days,” Abbott said. He said he expects additional treatments to arrive in the coming weeks, as well as the first few shipments of a coronavirus vaccine, which could arrive by late December and would go to first responders.

“The cavalry is coming,” he said.

The governor added firmly that the state will not be locking down again, a measure used this spring to slow the initial wave of infections, and insisted that local officials have all tools they need to slow local outbreaks, including a mask mandate in place since the summer and mandatory occupancy reductions for regions where the number of COVID-19 patients exceed 15 percent of total hospital capacity for seven straight days.

In a companion article, Abbott gives three pieces of “good news”, which are this new treatment, that new treatment, and the forthcoming vaccines. All of which is great, and I can’t wait till the vaccines are widely available, but none of that really deals with the current crisis. Effective treatments assumes a fully functional health care system, and right now we have overcrowded hospitals and doctors and nurses who are getting thoroughly burned out. I also assume these treatments aren’t free, and in case you’d forgotten the state of Texas is one of the plaintiffs in a lawsuit that if successful would take away health insurance from millions of people – that’s on top of the millions who already don’t have it here in our state. Plus, and I can’t say this often enough, the economy is not going to get back to full steam until people feel safe from the virus. It’s not enough to say “if you get sick we’ll help you get better”, especially if you’re a person who is immunocompromised or has various co-morbidities or doesn’t have sick leave or child care or health insurance. How many more people need to get sick and die before Greg Abbott can be bothered to care?

Threat level orange

Not great.

A large, ongoing outbreak of COVID-19 places the Houston area on the second-highest of four public threat levels unveiled by Harris County Judge Lina Hidalgo on Thursday.

If troubling trends continue, including an increase in coronavirus cases and hospitalizations, the county health department again would recommend residents stay at home except for essential errands, such as buying groceries and medicine, she said.

Without criticizing Gov. Greg Abbott directly, she said the reopening of businesses he permitted to begin May 1 happened too quickly, leaving the Houston area at risk of an outbreak hospitals are unable to handle.

“I want the reopening to be successful. I want the economy to be resilient,” Hidalgo said. “But I am growing increasingly concerned that we may be at the precipice of a disaster.”

The county judge said she wanted to create an easy-to-understand chart for the public to replace a series of lengthy advisories and orders her administration has issued to date.

The county currently is at Level 2 of the color-coded chart produced by the county health department, with Level 1 being the most severe.

Level 2 is defined by ongoing transmission of the virus, with testing and contact tracing likely to meet demand. It states that residents should avoid unnecessary contact with others, avoid crowds and visit only businesses that are following public health guidelines.

Coronavirus cases in the Houston area have increased steadily since Memorial Day weekend, and COVID-19 hospitalizations reached an all-time high last week. Harris County had 9,296 active cases and 267 deaths as of Thursday.

[…]

Hospitals in the 25-county Houston region were using 88 percent of their ICU capacity as of Wednesday, and the system has never exceeded 100 percent. City of Houston health authority Dr. David Persse, however, said the situation at individual facilities is more dire. He expressed particular concern about the two public hospitals in the Harris Health System, Lyndon B. Johnson and Ben Taub.

During the county’s stay-at-home period, local ICU bed usage often was below 80 percent.

See here and here for some background. You can find the threat level system here. To put that latter statistic into some context:

But don’t worry, Greg Abbott is concerned but not alarmed.

Two weeks ago, Gov. Greg Abbott visited Amarillo to declare victory over a coronavirus outbreak that had wreaked havoc on the Panhandle.

Showcasing dwindling caseloads and a stable supply of hospital beds, he said the region’s success was indicative of a state moving forward amid a containable pandemic.

“Amarillo has turned a corner on its pathway toward a positive, effective resolution of this particular hotspot,” Abbott remarked, applauding local officials and the “surge” teams of medical and military staffers that have become a hallmark of his reopening playbook.

But as one problem subsided, others newly emerged. Cases in Texas have since ballooned to record highs, and hospitals in Houston, San Antonio and other major cities are filling once more with COVID-19 patients. On Friday, as Abbott allowed restaurants to open at near-full capacity, the public health nightmare seemed to only be growing.

The governor, though — one of the first to relax his state’s stay-at-home order — is pushing ahead. “Concerned but not alarmed” was how he and his surrogates put it this week, even as fellow governors in Oregon and Utah pumped the brakes on their reopenings amid rising caseloads.

“This was to be expected,” said Abbott, a Republican, in a television interview on Wednesday. “Many of these cases we’re seeing have been in the aftermath of the Memorial Day weekend, and some are the early part of when these protests began.”

[…]

John Wittman, a spokesman for Abbott, said responsibility ultimately lies with the public.

“Texans have done a good job so far, but the reality is people need to stay vigilant,” he said. “Summer is here and everyone wants to go to the pool, but COVID has not left the state. People need to social distance, they need to wear masks.”

Seems like a lot to ask of the public when the consistent message from its leaders is “we’re reopening, it’s safe to go to bars and waterparks and gyms and whatever else again”. Greg Abbott listed four key metrics. We only ever met one, and that’s hospital capacity. We’re still short on contact tracers, which may not matter anyway since a significant portion of the population won’t cooperate with them anyway. As of a month ago, we were near the bottom of state testing per capita; I can’t find any more recent numbers than that. If Abbott ever does get alarmed, we’re well and truly screwed. The Trib has more.

More reopening

Onward we go, whether wise or not.

Gov. Greg Abbott on Monday announced his next wave of reopenings designed to restart the Texas economy during the coronavirus pandemic, saying child care facilities can reopen immediately, bars can open Friday with limited capacity and sporting events can return without fans at the end of the month.

Abbott also said he would permit restaurants to operate at 50% capacity starting Friday, up from 25% that’s allowed now.

At the same time, Abbott exempted two hotspot regions — Amarillo and El Paso — from his latest decisions, saying they would need to wait a week — until May 29 — while the state’s surge response teams work to contain outbreaks in each area.

Abbott’s news conference came 18 days after he began a phased reopening of the state, starting with letting restaurants, stores, movie theaters and malls open up at 25% capacity. He then allowed barbershops and salons to reopen May 8 under certain restrictions. Monday was the first day gyms were allowed to open up, also under restrictions.

Previously, child care was only available to workers deemed essential by the state. Abbott’s announcement Monday allows child care centers to reopen to help all workers returning to their jobs.

In addition to bars, Abbott is letting a host of other establishments reopen Friday, including bowling alleys, bingo halls, skating rinks, rodeos, zoos and aquariums. In the lead-up to Monday, however, the fate of bars had drawn the most attention, especially after Abbott began allowing restaurants to reopen May 1. All the businesses opening Friday will only be allowed to operate at 25% capacity.

For bars that reopen Friday, the state is recommending that customers remain seated at tables of no more than six people, among other restrictions. Dancing is discouraged.

Insert Baptist joke here. On the one hand, the daily case numbers keep rising, with no clear indication that we were approaching a peak even before we started loosening things up, and without achieving the Abbott-stated benchmark of 30,000 tests per day. It’s not that we’re reopening per se, it’s that Abbott himself laid out conditions and requirements and penalties for people who failed to comply, then dropped it all like a hot rock the minute some grifter hairstylist in Dallas threw a hissy fit. It just doesn’t inspire confidence that Abbott has any idea what he’s doing or any plan to retreat if things start to get worse. That said, the rate of growth in the state is fairly slow, hospital capacity is in good shape – both of these are no doubt helped by the solid results in Harris County, for which Abbott owes Lina Hidalgo a big thank you – and to his credit Abbott paid attention to the places that needed and asked to be excluded from this round of reopenings.

The next round of reopenings will come May 31, when Abbott allow permit summer youth camps to reopen — as well as let certain professional sports to resume without spectators. The sports include basketball, baseball, car racing, football, golf, softball and tennis. Leagues will first have to apply to — and receive approval from — the Texas Department of State Health Services.

[…]

Notably, Monday marked the first time that Abbott singled out specific regions as not ready to take part in the latest reopenings.

Amarillo has been a hotspot due to outbreaks at its meatpacking plants, and earlier this month, the state dispatched one of its Surge Response Teams to the city to try to get things under control. Of the 1,801 new cases that Texas reported Saturday, over 700 were linked to the Amarillo meatpacking plants, according to Abbott’s office.

In El Paso, the situation has deteriorated enough that the county judge, Ricardo Samaniego, and other local officials asked Abbott last week to exempt the county from the next reopenings until the county sees a two-week downward trend in the number of positive cases or positive test rate. Abbott said Monday that El Paso’s hospital capacity is “too close for comfort at this particular time.”

The one-week delay “will give those communities and our surge team response the time needed to slow the spread and maintain hospital capacity,” Abbott said. “It will ensure those communities safely move into phase 2.”

The counties subject to the delay are El Paso, Randall, Potter, Moore and Deaf Smith. The latter four are all in the Amarillo region.

I have my doubts that the Abbott Strike Force will make any difference in these places, unless they find the will to shut down the meatpacking plants that have been such hotspots, but at least he’s not ignoring reality, unlike some other state officials I could name. He’s still wishy-washy, and in the end if this works out reasonably well I’ll believe it’s because he was more lucky than smart, but it could be worse. In this state, that’s often the best you can hope for. The Chron, the Press, the Current, the Rivard Report, and the Dallas Observer have more.

More reopening

It’s going great so far, right?

“Grandpa, what did you do during the COVID crisis?” “I got a haircut – for FREEDOM.”

Gov. Greg Abbott will allow hair salons in Texas to reopen Friday and gyms on May 18, moving more quickly than expected to further restart the Texas economy during the coronavirus pandemic.

The businesses will be required to follow certain rules, however, as the state continues to grapple with the novel coronavirus. For example, hair stylists will only be able to work with one customer at a time, while gyms can only reopen at 25% capacity, and their showers and locker rooms should remain closed for now.

Abbott announced the upcoming reopenings during a news conference Tuesday at the state Capitol in Austin, four days after he let stores, restaurants, movie theaters and malls reopen at 25% capacity. He had initially eyed May 18 as the next date to announce further reopenings, but in recent days he has faced growing pressure from some in his own party to move quicker.

Even as Abbott rolled out the additional reopenings, he braced Texans for “flare-ups in certain regions” and said the state has assembled “surge response teams” to dispatch to such problem areas.

After discussing barbershops and gyms, Abbott said state officials also want to reopen another type of business — bars — but are still figuring out how to do so safely. He said he wants feedback from bar owners, given that “not all bars are the same,” particularly when it comes to size.

The Friday reopenings, Abbott said, apply to “cosmetology salons, barbershops, hair salons, nail salons and tanning salons.” In addition to limiting stylists to one customer at a time, Abbott recommended salons use an appointment system only, and if they accept walk-ins, those customers should only wait inside if they can practice social distancing. Stylist stations should also be 6 feet apart, and Abbott said he “strongly” recommends stylists and customers wear masks.

When it comes to gyms, in addition to limiting capacity and keeping locker rooms closed, Abbott said all equipment must be disinfected after each use. Customers should wear gloves that cover their entire hands, including the fingers. Customers should maintain social distancing. And if customers bring their own equipment into the gym, such as a yoga mat, it must be disinfected before and after each use.

[…]

After the news conference, Democrats said Abbott was moving too quickly to further open up the economy, especially so soon after the initial reopenings.

“I thought we were waiting to see if the first round of re-opening caused COVID-19 spikes before making decisions on additional openings?” tweeted state Rep. Chris Turner of Grand Prairie, chairman of the House Democratic Caucus. “It’s been four days.”

Look, Steve Toth and Briscoe Cain’s hairs weren’t going to cut themselves. Desperate times call for desperate measures, you know.

Look, I need a haircut, too. I’m sure my beloved stylist (the girls and I go to Venus Hair in the Heights; Miss Venus has cut their hair since they were little) has been hurting and will be delighted to see me, and I feel reasonably sure she’ll do what she can to sanitize the place. I’m still not sure I’m quite ready for it, though. As for gyms, I don’t go to those but I have done a twice-weekly pilates class at a small home-based studio in the neighborhood, and I’m sure they will be eager to get up and running again, too. We already wiped down the equipment after use, now we’ll do it before as well and will be even more thorough about it. We’ll also be in a small space (a converted garage), and I don’t know how I feel about that. I hate that this is hurting small business owners like these folks. I also had pneumonia in 2007 and have no desire to put myself at risk for a nasty respiratory virus.

If we had a functional federal government that had used the lead time we had to get a scaled-up test and trace regimen in place, we wouldn’t be in this position now. If we didn’t have public officials and society page dilettantes and various armed lunatics out there denying reality and putting everyone’s health and safety at risk, maybe we could have a more honest conversation about balancing risk with people’s ability to earn a living. If we weren’t coming off the worst week for infections and deaths in the state, maybe we could feel a bit more secure. I mean, seriously:

The number of new reported COVID-19 cases and deaths last week was the largest since the pandemic began, suggesting that infections remain pervasive and much is still unknown about the size and scale of the Texas outbreak.

The state reported more than 7,000 new cases and 221 deaths, an increase of 24 percent and 33 percent over the previous week, respectively, a Hearst Newspapers analysis shows.

At the same time, as testing expands, the percentage of Texans who test positive for the disease has fallen to its lowest levels in over a month — a point that Republican Gov. Greg Abbott has turned to recently as a sign of progress.

The data tracks closely with national trends, and has some health experts worried as states including Texas move to reopen their economies.

“We’re opening against a backdrop of a lot of spread,” Scott Gottlieb, a former commissioner of the Food and Drug Administration under President Donald Trump, tweeted Monday. “Unless there’s a strong seasonal effect and summer slows transmission more than expected, we should expect cases to grow.”

You know who else expects cases to grow? Greg Abbott, that’s who. Please tell me again why we couldn’t have waited at least until we actually got the number of daily tests being administered up to the goal level he set before we did this? You can send a strike force to Amarillo if you want – you should also be prepared to send one to Palestine, too – but what exactly are they going to do to make this better?

I don’t know. I just don’t know.

Federal response to coronavirus spike in Panhandle

Variations on the theme.

A federal strike force is headed to Amarillo in response to a surge of coronavirus cases tied to meatpacking plants in the area.

Amarillo Mayor Ginger Nelson announced on Saturday that a team of federal officials would arrive in the Texas Panhandle as soon as Sunday to help “attack” outbreaks in the plants and take over testing and investigations of people contracting the new coronavirus.

“They will bring resources and most importantly they will bring strategies that they’ve been using in other beef packing plants to slow the spread, to get control of it,” Nelson said in a video posted to her Facebook page.

The latest figures reported by the state put the number of people who have been infected in Potter County at 684, giving it an infection rate of 5.66 per 1,000 residents. That’s roughly four times higher than the infection rates in Harris and Dallas counties.

[…]

In her video update, Nelson said that community spread of the virus in the area had “started from” meatpacking plants in the area. There is also a Tyson Foods meatpacking plant in Amarillo.

Nelson shared details of a phone call with Gov. Greg Abbott during which the governor told her it was best for Amarillo residents to stay indoors. Abbott last week allowed his statewide stay-at-home order to expire and allowed for the reopening of some businesses that limit their capacity.

So, would Abbott allow Amarillo to impose (or reimpose) its own stay-at-home order if Mayor Nelson thought it was the best way to bring this outbreak under control, or nah? Asking for a friend.

We’ve talked about meat processing plants and their role in spreading coronavirus before. The story doesn’t say whether that Tyson plant in Amarillo is one of the places where the community spread of COVID-19 started, but it doesn’t really matter. It’s that once there is a hot spot in your area, whether it’s a meant processing plant or a nursing home or, you know, a prison, it’s going to affect people outside that hot spot, too. Maybe if we put a little more focus and emphasis on minimizing the risks at these places, we’d be in a better position to back off the restrictions on other places.

Our all-important metro areas

Another look at the trouble Republicans face in Texas now.

The key to Texas’ political future is whether it finally follows the geographic realignment that has transformed the politics of many other states over the past quarter century.

Across the country, Republicans since the 1980s have demonstrated increasing strength among voters who live in exurbs at the edge of the nation’s metropolitan centers or beyond them entirely in small-town and rural communities. Democrats, in turn, have extended their historic dominance of the nation’s urban cores into improved performance in inner suburbs, many of them well educated and racially diverse.

Both sides of this dynamic have accelerated under Trump, whose open appeals to voters uneasy about racial, cultural and economic change have swelled GOP margins outside the metropolitan areas while alienating many traditionally center-right suburban voters.

In Texas, only half of this equation has played out. In presidential elections since 2000, Republicans have consistently won more than two-thirds of the vote for the two parties in 199 mostly white nonmetropolitan counties across the state, according to a study by [Richard] Murray and Renee Cross, senior director of the University of Houston’s Hobby School of Public Affairs. (Trump in 2016 swelled that number to three-fourths.) The GOP has attracted dominant majorities from those areas in other races, from the Senate and US House to the governorship and state legislative contests. Democrats consistently amassed big majorities in 28 mostly Latino South Texas counties, but they have composed only a very small share of the statewide vote.

The key to the GOP’s dominance of the state is that through most of this century it has also commanded majorities in the 27 counties that make up the state’s four biggest metropolitan areas: Dallas/Fort Worth, Houston, San Antonio and Austin. Demographically similar places in states along the coasts and in the upper Midwest have moved consistently toward the Democrats since Bill Clinton’s era. But in Texas, Republicans still carried 53% to 59% of the vote in those metropolitan counties in the four presidential races from 2000 through 2012, Murray and Cross found.

In the Trump era, though, that metro strength has wavered for the GOP. In 2016, Hillary Clinton narrowly beat Trump across the 27 counties in Texas’ four major metropolitan areas. Then in 2018, Democrat O’Rourke carried over 54% of the vote in them in his narrow loss to Sen. Ted Cruz, Murray and Cross found. O’Rourke won each of the largest metro areas, the first time any Democrat on the top of the ticket had carried all four since native son Lyndon B. Johnson routed Barry Goldwater in the 1964 presidential race, according to Murray and Cross.

Looking just at the state’s five largest urban counties — Harris (Houston), Travis (Austin), Bexar (San Antonio), Tarrant (Fort Worth) and Dallas — the change is even more stark. In 2012, Obama won them by a combined 131,000 votes. By 2016, Clinton expanded the Democratic margin across those five counties to 562,000 votes. In 2018, O’Rourke won those counties by a combined 790,000 votes, about six times more than Obama did in 2012. Along the way, Democrats ousted Republican US House incumbents in suburban Houston and Dallas seats and made substantial gains in municipal and state house elections across most of the major metro areas.

“We have now turned every major metropolitan area blue,” says Glenn Smith, a longtime Democratic strategist in the state.

Yet that, of course, still wasn’t enough for O’Rourke to overcome Cruz’s huge advantages in smaller nonmetro communities. That outcome underscores the equation facing Texas Democrats in 2020 and beyond: They must reduce the GOP’s towering margins outside of the major metropolitan areas and/or expand their own advantage inside the metro centers.

Few in either party give Democrats much chance to record many gains outside of metro Texas, especially given Trump’s national strength with such voters. O’Rourke campaigned heavily in Texas’ smaller counties and made very limited inroads there, even relative to Clinton’s abysmal performance in 2016. Exit polls conducted for a consortium of media organizations including CNN found that O’Rourke carried just 26% of white voters without a college education, only a minuscule improvement from the 21% Clinton won in Texas in 2016.

O’Rourke’s very limited rural gains have convinced many Texas Democrats that while they can’t entirely abandon smaller parts of the state, their new votes are most likely to come from the metropolitan centers.

“It’s a matter of emphasis,” says Smith, a senior adviser to the liberal group Progress Texas. “You’ve got to do urban/ suburban areas first. You’ve got to maximize your advantage there.”

The stakes in the struggle for Texas’ big metro areas are rising because they are growing so fast. While the four major metro areas cast about 60% of the statewide votes in the 1996 presidential election, that rose to about 69% in 2016 and 2018, Murray and Cross found. Murray expects the number to cross 70% in 2020.

And the concentration of Texas’ population into its biggest metropolitan areas shows no signs of slackening. The Texas Demographic Center, the official state demographer, projects that 70% of the state’s population growth through 2050 will settle in just 10 large metropolitan counties. Those include the big five urban centers that O’Rourke carried as well as five adjacent suburban counties; those adjacent counties still leaned toward the GOP in 2018 but by a much smaller cumulative margin than in the past. Overall, O’Rourke won the 10 counties expected to account for the preponderance of the state’s future growth by a combined nearly 700,000 votes.

We’ve been talking about this literally since the ink was still wet on the 2018 election results. I touched on it again more recently, referring to a “100 to 150-county strategy” for the eventual Democratic nominee for Senate. None of this is rocket science. Run up the score in the big urban areas – winning Harris County by at least 300K total votes should be the (very reachable) target – via emphasizing voter registration, canvassing apartments, and voters who turned out in 2008 and/or 2012 but not 2016. Keep doing what we’ve been doing in the adjacent suburbs, those that are trending blue (Fort Bend, Williamson, Hays), those that are still getting there (Collin, Denton, Brazoria), and those that need to have the curve bent (Montgomery, Comal, Guadalupe). Plan and implement a real grassroots outreach in the Latino border/Valley counties. We all know the drill, and we learned plenty from the 2018 experience, we just need to build on it.

The less-intuitive piece I’d add on is a push in the midsize cities, where there was also some evidence of Democratic growth. Waco, Lubbock, College Station, Abilene, Amarillo, Killeen, San Angelo, Midland, Odessa, etc etc etc. There are some low-key legislative pickup opportunities in some of these places to begin with. My theory is that these places feature increasingly diverse populations with a decent number of college graduates, and overall have more in common with the big urban and suburban counties than they do with the small rural ones. Some of these places will offer better opportunities than others, but they are all worth investing in. Again, this is not complicated. We’ve seen the data, we will definitely have the resources, we just need to do the thing.

Mayors to Abbott: Don’t mess with our cities

Good luck getting through.

Less than 24 hours after Gov. Greg Abbott blasted local government restrictions like tree ordinances as a threat to the “Texas brand,” city government leaders statewide are seeking a meeting with the Republican leader.

“We would like the opportunity to meet with you to discuss the role cities play in attracting jobs and investments to support the prosperity of the State of Texas,” a letter signed by 18 mayors, including Houston mayor Sylvester Turner to Abbott states.

[…]

The letter from the mayors makes clear that they fear the Texas Legislature is overreaching and doing too much harm to local governments.

“Harmful proposals such as revenue and spending caps, limiting annexation authority, and other measures preempting local development ordinances directly harm our ability to plan for future growth and continue to serve as the economic engines of Texas,” the letter states.

The mayors on the letter include those from Houston, Amarillo, Arlington, Austin, Corpus Christi, Dallas, Denton, El Paso, Fort Worth, Frisco, Galveston, Irving, Lubbock, McKinney, Plano, San Antonio, San Marcos, and Sugar Land.

You can see the letter here. You might note that some of the cities in question are Republican suburban kind of places. It’s not just us smug urbanites that would like to have our current level of autonomy left alone. I’m going to say the same thing to these Mayors that I’ve been saying to the business folk that have been working to defeat the bathroom bill, and that’s that they are going to have to follow up all these words with actions, because Greg Abbott and Dan Patrick don’t care what they have to say. If you’re not working to elect better leadership in 2018, which in this case means leadership that is not actively undermining and degrading Texas’ cities, then you’re part of the problem too, and your words have no meaning. The Current and the Press have more.

The bigger debtors’ prison problem

It’s not just Harris County.

go_to_jail

Last week, an Amarillo attorney released documents that he said showed the city jailed disabled people simply because they were unable to pay municipal fines. According to the Amarillo Globe-News, the victims of this apparent debtors’ prison system include “a disabled veteran on social security who owed $539; a woman living on $490 a month from social security disability who owed $520; and a woman living on $723 a month in disability benefits who paid $16 of a $225 fine.”

As we wrote last week, debtors’ prisons are supposed to be illegal, and it’s been that way for a long time. According to the Marshall Project: “Jailing the indigent for their failure to meet contractual obligations was considered primitive by ancient Greek and Roman politicians, and remains illegal and unheard of in most developed countries. Under the International Covenant of Civil and Political Rights, the practice is listed as a civil-rights violation.” America officially outlawed debtors’ prisons in 1833, and in 1983 the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that judges could not jail someone simply because they couldn’t afford their fine unless they were found to have “willfully refused” to pay. The ambiguity of the phrase “willfully refused,” however, has left poor people in Texas jails from Austin to El Paso.

In May, an Austin American-Statesman investigation revealed that Texas’s capital city frequently jails people who can’t afford to pay traffic tickets. One was a single mother of seven. Unable to get herself out of debt, she was jailed, while pregnant, for owing traffic fines. She lost her job while in jail, was released, and was jailed a second time because she was unemployed and still couldn’t pay. Another was a 31-year-old mother of five who didn’t have a driver’s license, which she couldn’t afford until she paid off her traffic fines, thus ensnaring her in an endless loop.

[…]

In May, a committee organized by Mayor Sylvester Turner released a damning report that found that the city uses its municipal court “as a profit center.” Of the court’s 169,000 convictions in 2014, only 2,800 were given the option to pay their fines through community service, and only six cases saw their fines waived. As the report notes, nearly 25 percent of Houston’s population is below the poverty line, and they estimated that “at least 30,000 people” should have been given the option of community service. “Attempting to finance the city budget on the backs of the poor criminalizes poverty and destabilizes lives, ultimately doing more harm than good,” the report found.

Later in May, the Houston Press highlighted the impact of the city’s broken system through the story of a woman who is the primary caretaker of her multiple grandchildren, can’t find consistent work because she is disabled following a series of surgeries, survives off of a base income of $390 a month in Social Security payments, yet has still served multiple jail terms due to unpaid traffic tickets.

West Texas appears to be rife with debtors’ prisons too. El Paso, a city of 680,000, issued 87,000 arrest warrants in 2014 for people who either missed their court appearances for traffic fines or other low-level cases, fell behind on payment plans, or didn’t finish community service, according to an October investigation by BuzzFeed News. El Paso made nearly $11 million each year from 2011 to 2014 solely off of fines for traffic violations and similarly minor infractions, accounting for four percent of the city’s general fund revenue.

During one of these municipal court hearings last fall, an El Paso judge told the crowd of inmates that they were there because “you don’t have money,” according to BuzzFeed. Another judge toldBuzzFeed that it would be “unfair to a rich person” to let poor people go because they couldn’t afford to pay fines. The same investigation also found that the city of Lubbock had jailed at least eight defendants who were clearly homeless for fine-only offenses like public intoxication or making too much noise. Under Texas law, it’s up to the judge to determine whether a defendant is indigent, and thus eligible for community service in lieu of jail time.

I’ve talked about this a lot lately, almost all in the context of Harris County. It’s not just Texas, it’s a national problem. There are a lot of problems that are hard to solve, but this is one that shouldn’t be. It’s a matter of choosing to do things differently.

How many crimes does your police department solve?

Fewer than you think, unfortunately.

go_to_jail

Violent crime in America has been falling for two decades. That’s the good news. The bad news is, when crimes occur, they mostly go unpunished.

In fact, for most major crimes, police don’t even make an arrest or identify a suspect. That’s what police call “clearing” a crime; the “clearance rate” is the percentage of offenses cleared.

In 2013, the national clearance rate for homicide was 64 percent, and it’s far lower for other violent offenses and property crimes.

University of Maryland criminologist Charles Wellford says police have shifted priorities over the decades.

“In the ’60s and ’70s, no one thought that the police should be held responsible for how much crime there was,” Wellford says. Back then, he adds, police focused on calls for service and solving crimes.

In more recent years, he says, police have been pushed to focus more on prevention, which has taken precedence over solving crimes — especially non-violent offenses.

In short, the falling crime rate we’ve enjoyed may come at a cost: police indifference when you report your stereo was stolen.

I admit, that wouldn’t have occurred to me. I would have thought that with less crime, police departments would be more able to solve the crimes that were committed, since there would be less of a workload. I’m not a criminologist and I haven’t read any research on this, but my initial reaction here is to be a little skeptical. In what ways are police departments focused on crime prevention, and what evidence is there that those methods are working? My gut says that police departments these days – really, for the past thirty or so years – have concentrated on drug-related crimes. While I would agree that there’s some ancillary prevention benefit in that, we all know that this comes with a variety of costs. Maybe the national effort to decriminalize some drug offenses will have the benefit of allowing police departments to once again focus on solving the crimes that really do victimize the public.

The article comes with a utility to look up the crime clearance rates in your own community. Here’s what it showed for some of Texas’ biggest cities:

All violent crime Homicide Property crime City 2011 2012 2013 2011 2012 2013 2011 2012 2013 ====================================================================== Houston 46% 39% 37% 90% 70% 76% 13% 12% 11% Abilene 47% 49% 64% 80% 100% 100% 25% 22% 20% Amarillo 40% 45% 48% 60% 100% 44% 18% 19% 22% Austin 49% 49% 57% 93% 87% 100% 12% 12% 13% Beaumont 70% 70% 69% 100% 100% 75% 23% 28% 27% Corpus Christi 54% 53% 45% 67% 63% 100% 20% 23% 19% Dallas 38% 40% 37% 65% 58% 60% 13% 11% 11% El Paso 48% 47% 49% 88% 96% 80% 18% 20% 22% Fort Worth 36% 38% 39% 61% 80% 86% 14% 16% 17% Laredo 80% 80% 79% 64% 88% 100% 20% 24% 28% Lubbock 30% 32% 34% 50% 73% 100% 15% 15% 19% McAllen 56% 66% 38% 50% 100% 0% 20% 22% 16% Midland 66% 68% 59% 100% 75% 40% 22% 25% 27% Plano 54% 51% 47% 80% 100% 100% 22% 22% 19% San Antonio 48% 36% 37% 80% 70% 75% 12% 11% 12% Waco 56% 56% 55% 91% 67% 50% 23% 23% 26%

Note that these are all for the above-named cities’ municipal police departments. I limited myself to cities that I could think of that had a population of at least 100,000. (Galveston, in case you were wondering, has about 48,000 people.) “Violent crime” includes “Murder and non-negligent manslaughter”, which I characterize above as “Homicide”, “Robbery”, and “Aggravated assault”. “Property Crime” includes “Burglary”, “Larceny-theft”, “Motor vehicle theft”, and “Arson”.

Don’t be too mesmerized by the Homicide solve rates for smaller cities. The total annual number for these crimes in cities of, say, 100,000 to 200,000, is often in the single digits. McAllen, for example, had 4 homicides in 2011, one in 2012, and two in 2013. In a few cases, such as Beaumont for 2011 and 2012, the number of murders solved was greater than the number of murders. My guess is that the solved crimes included cold cases, but there was no explanation on the site. I just listed those as 100% to avoid weirdness.

What stands out to me in all this is that generally speaking the smaller cities had much better solve rates for property crimes than the big cities. In Houston, Dallas, San Antonio, and Austin, the solve rates for property crimes never topped 13%, but in the smaller cities it ranged from 18% to 28%. Fort Worth and Lubbock were the outliers there, on the low end. I’m not sure what to make of that, but it sure is interesting.

What application does this have to the 2015 Mayor’s race? (You knew I was going to get around to that, I’m sure.) Well, in addition to my wish that the candidates will eventually start to talk about public safety in a more comprehensive way, I’d think that a candidate who promised to have his police force concentrate on solving property crimes might be able to sway a voter or two. Lord knows, the Nextdoor discussion list for the greater Heights area spends a lot of time on break-ins and thefts and the like. Given how many of these crimes do go unsolved today, it seems to me there’s some traction to be gained on this issue. Just a thought.