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Crime and Punishment

More on police oversight boards

Ours in Houston isn’t very good. Some other cities do it better. We can learn from them.

Houston’s police oversight board is the weakest among Texas’ five largest cities and suffers from “a complete lack of transparency and public reporting,” a recent study from Rice University’s Kinder Institute for Urban Research concludes.

The report, released last week, analyzed police oversight institutions in Houston, Dallas, San Antonio, Austin and Fort Worth, concluding that the agencies in each city need more resources, and fewer legislative hurdles, while its members need more experience and training.

The Independent Police Oversight Board in Houston “has very limited powers to conduct its own investigations, instead being handed completed internal affairs investigations without the ability to independently collect further evidence on the event,” reads the report, co-authored by Kinder Institute director Bill Fulton, a member of Mayor Sylvester Turner’s recent police reform task force.

The group detailed its recommendations in a 153-page report released in late September, about three months after Turner announced his 45 appointees to the board. The group recommended that city officials bolster the police oversight board with paid staffing and facilities outside the police department and by changing policy to allow the board to report some of its findings to the community, which it is currently barred from doing.

Turner has signaled he intends to adopt at least some of those recommendations, saying in early September he is “99.999 percent certain there will be some adjustments” to the police oversight board. The mayor later said he’s “overwhelmingly supportive of most of the ideas” in the task force’s report, though he said some could be difficult to fund or would require state legislative action.

The task force’s recommendations align with those presented in the Kinder report, which recommends the board be staffed with “people with legal knowledge, police expertise and research skills.” Austin has by far the most paid staff members on its oversight group among Texas’ five largest cities, the report found.

“(M)ost agencies in the state’s big cities have fewer than five employees to oversee forces of thousands of officers,” according to the report. “Houston’s IPOB has no staff or resources.”

See here for more on Mayor Turner and the task force recommendations. For more on the Kinder report, which you can find here, I’ll refer you to this Grits for Breakfast post, which goes into more detail. At this point, we have all the information we need to act. It’s time to act. I’m hopeful we’ll get some at the city level in the upcoming weeks, but as Mayor Turner says, some of this needs to happen at the state level. And there, I fear, we’re more likely to run into obstacles. For instance:

That bill is authored by Rep. Matt Krause, one of the vulnerable Republicans we were unfortunately not able to knock off this election. The problem goes a lot deeper than one State Rep, though. Cities are not going to be able to do what their voters want them to do if the Republican legislature and Greg Abbott have anything to say about it.

Paxton trial move back to Collin County on hold

Delay is the natural state of being in this saga. I don’t know why we’d ever expect anything else.

Best mugshot ever

A Houston appeals court has pressed pause on a ruling that would have allowed Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton to stand trial for felony securities fraud in his hometown of Collin County.

That Oct. 23 ruling came three years after the case was first sent to Harris County, with prosecutors arguing they could not get a fair trial prosecuting Paxton in a part of the state where he and his wife, state Sen. Angela Paxton, are deeply politically connected.

Paxton is accused of persuading investors to buy stock in a technology firm without disclosing he would be compensated for it. He has maintained his innocence and dismissed the charges as politically motivated.

The 1st Court of Appeals in Houston has, for now, blocked the case from resuming in Collin County — likely further delaying the five-year-old case — as it considers the issues.

See here for the previous update. The Chron adds a few details.

The case was moved to Harris County after a judge ruled in 2017 that Paxton’s Republican political connections in Collin County would give him an unfair advantage at trial. But that decision has been under judicial review now for three years as Paxton’s defense team and the special prosecutors appointed in the case battle over the venue.

The prosecutors applauded the latest decision by 1st Court of Appeals Judge Gordon Goodman, a Democrat elected in 2018 as his party swept judicial races.

“The ruling of the court was not unexpected as the law and facts are very straightforward,” said Kent Schaffer, one of the prosecutors. “We are optimistic that the Court of Appeals will do the right thing, and Ken Paxton will face justice in front of a Houston jury.”

[…]

Paxton’s lawyers had argued that the case should have never been moved in the first place, because the judge made the decision after his assignment to the case had expired.

In June, Harris County state District Judge Robert Johnson ruled in Paxton’s favor and moved the case to Collin County. But the 1st Court of Appeals struck that order about a month later, after Johnson recused himself from the case because Paxton’s office is representing him in a separate suit.

The case was then reassigned to Harris County Jason Luong, a Democrat and former prosecutor with the Harris County District Attorney’s office.

Luong agreed the case should be sent back to Collin County based on his interpretation Johnson’s ruling, and he did not discuss where he believed Paxton would receive a fair trial.

The prosecutors had argued in their appeal that Luong misinterpreted the law.

Just to recap, and I’m totally relying on this Chron story rather than spending an hour digging through my own archives, but the case was first moved from Collin County to Harris County because the judge at the time, a Tarrant County jurist who had been appointed as a visiting judge precisely because no Collin County judge could handle the initial hearings, agreed with the prosecutors’ argument that Paxton would get preferential treatment in his home county. All the arguments since then have been about technicalities. It’s surely a safe bet that this current dispute will wind up before the Court of Criminal Appeals, just as the previous ones did. It’s not at all far-fetched to think that Paxton’s more recent legal troubles will see the inside of courtroom before this case does.

Idle yet hilarious thought: How much do you think Paxton will want to move the case back to Collin County if it flips blue and votes for Joe Biden this year?

Anyway. Settle in, or stay settled in if you never bothered to settle out. This will take awhile.

Judge sends Paxton case back to Collin County

Pending appeal, of course.

Best mugshot ever

A Harris County judge on Friday moved Attorney General Ken Paxton’s criminal case to Collin County, handing Paxton a major win by placing the case in his hometown, where legal experts say he’s more likely to face a sympathetic judge or jury.

Judge Jason Luong ruled that he did not have the authority to move the case, deferring to an earlier order moving the case to Collin County.

Special prosecutors Brian Wice and Kent Schaffer said Friday that they plan to appeal. Paxton’s attorneys could not immediately be reached.

The decision adds yet another layer of complication — and likely more delays — to a case that has dragged on for more than five years over numerous issues unrelated to the substance of the accusations against Paxton.

I’m going to jump in here to remind everyone that Judge Robert Johnson had ordered the case back to Collin County in June, agreeing with Paxton’s defense team that the judge who had sent the case to Harris County in the first place did not have the authority to do so. Johnson then recused himself from the case, because the AG’s office is representing the criminal district court judges in the felony bail reform lawsuit, though it is not clear that he had to do so, since Paxton is not directly involved in that case and the judges who are defendants are being sued in their official capacity, not as plain old citizens. The First Court of Appeals set that order aside in July (the technical legal term is “abated”), on the grounds that the new judge, Jason Luong, needed to have an opportunity to review Judge Johnson’s order and either agree with it or vacate it. (Team Paxton later tried to get Judge Luong removed, but that motion was denied and subsequently mocked.)

In his ruling Friday, Luong added that even if a higher court rules that he does in fact have authority, he agrees with Paxton’s lawyers that the judge who allowed the case to move to Harris in the first place lacked authority as well, meaning the case would remain in Collin County.

As it was explained to me, the same mandamus that had been filed with the First Court of Appeals to challenge Judge Johnson’s ruling will now be taken up for Judge Luong’s ruling. I should note that the First Court’s abatement was supposed to be for 45 days, but as with everything related to this Paxton case, things took longer than that. Lord only knows when the next thing will happen. In the meantime, of course, there is now the Nate Paul shitshow, and if that does not have an effect on this case somehow at some point, I will be puzzled and very, very disappointed – like, Susan Collins clucking her tongue at Donald Trump-level disappointed. What the world needed now, when not much else is happening, is some more Ken Paxton news, am I right? The Trib has more.

Mayor will support the task force recommendations

Good start, now let’s get it going.

Mayor Sylvester Turner

Mayor Sylvester Turner on Wednesday endorsed “almost all” the 104 recommendations laid out last week by his Task Force on Policing Reform.

Speaking at a virtual city council meeting, Turner said a few recommendations, which he did not identify, raise questions about the need for state legislative action, and a few others prompt “some concern about where we come up with the money to implement some of the proposals.”

“But, by and large, I’ve read through the entire report and I am overwhelmingly supportive of most of the ideas,” Turner said.

[…]

The task force — which laid out an implementation timeline for all of its recommendations — would remain involved in developing the implementation strategy, Turner said.

While the mayor did not specify which items gave him pause, the task force report referred to the need for legislative action on at least one occasion. That involved allowing doctors and health care workers to issue notifications of detention, currently only allowed by law enforcement officers.

Other measures, such as amending disciplinary windows for officers, would require the union to sign off on the changes unless a state law is passed.

That prospect is unlikely. Houston Police Officers’ Union Vice President Douglas Griffith said some of the recommendations, including those regarding discipline, were ill-informed or impractical.

He challenged one proposal to allow supervisors to investigate officers 180 days after learning of alleged misconduct, rather than 180 after it occurred. The so-called “180-day rule” has been a key target for reform advocates.

Officers’ current contract and state law allows supervisors 180 days after discovering misconduct to issue temporary suspensions of up to 15 days. If department leaders want to fire officers, however, the contract requires chiefs to do it within 180 days after the alleged misconduct occurred or if the officer has been indicted.

In its report, the task force said budgetary considerations were beyond its scope, so it did not outline where to find the necessary funds to implement the measures.

“We acknowledge that some of our recommendations will require additional funding and recognize fundraising as a critical step toward implementation. That said, we implore the mayor, city council, and the HPD to explore partnerships, grant applications, and otherwise exhaust other reasonable options before declaring that something cannot be done due to a lack of funding.”

The task force included timelines on how long it believed recommendations should take to be enacted, suggesting HPD and the city implement many within 90 days. Those short-term objectives include creating a way for residents to file complaints online, or for the department to follow up with civilians who had filed complaints. A policy outlining the public release of body camera footage within 30 days of incidents and a new order on long-term patrol assignments were also included in the short-term objectives, among dozens of others.

Proponents of criminal justice reform said they were encouraged by the mayor’s comments but that Turner needed to provide more details on how he would carry out the task force’s recommendations.

“There’s never been a shortage of good ideas about police reform,” ACLU Policy Advocacy Strategist Nicholas Hudson said. “But we need a clear timeline for implementation, and aggressive action from the mayor and council, especially on items in the ‘Justice Can’t Wait’ report.”

See here for the background. My advice is to get the things that can be done quickly as soon as possible, and start building consensus or working with legislators on the rest. If the union is going to object to some things, well, that’s what they’re going to do, but don’t consider that an obstacle. This is a rare chance to make some real progress, and the success of Mayor Turner’s second term will be determined in large part by what he does with this from here.

Here comes the police reform task force report

Now let’s do something with it.

Mayor Sylvester Turner

Mayor Sylvester Turner on Wednesday rolled out his task force’s report on policing reform in Houston, but said he needed more time to digest the 153-page report before taking action on its recommendations.

The task force lists 104 reforms the city could enact to improve policing in Houston, which the Chronicle previously reported.

Among them: a fundamentally revamped oversight board with full-time investigative staff, a blanket ban on no-knock warrants for nonviolent offenses, the public release of body camera footage within 30 days of critical incidents, more stringent rules on police officer misconduct and an online process for complaints about police behavior.

Turner said his initial read indicated the report was comprehensive. He embraced revamping the oversight board — a conclusion he said he reached before the report was released — but declined to say when recommendations would be adopted.

“If you can just give me a few days to really digest it, and then to visit with Chairman (Laurence) Payne and the sub-chairs, and some of the members of city council, I’d be in a much better position,” Turner said when asked about implementation. “Literally, I just got it yesterday.”

The report is here, and I have not yet read it. But I strongly agree with the Chron editorial board that there needs to be real action here. We know the history of task forces, and of police reform more generally. The need for action is clear, and it’s urgent. Let’s not blow it. Grits, who has read the report, and the Press have more.

Turner signs cite-and-release order

Good.

Mayor Sylvester Turner

Mayor Sylvester Turner on Monday signed an executive order authorizing a new cite-and-release program for the Houston Police Department, aiming to let people accused of certain misdemeanors off with a ticket instead of a trip to jail.

Turner and Chief Art Acevedo also promised to release monthly public updates on its implementation, ensuring the public can review how the policy is applied. The order takes effect 6 a.m. Tuesday.

“The program gives them an opportunity to make changes in their lives and face responsibility for their actions without having the stain of an arrest, or serving jail time, on their record,” Turner said of accused offenders.

[…]

The policy has buy-in from HPD executives, the Houston Police Officers’ Union, and some advocates, who have called it an imperfect step in the right direction.

However, the city’s policy allows for exceptions that some argue are too expansive. The exceptions include if an alleged offender cannot provide a government ID, if there is reason to believe they will not appear in court, and if “an officer believes that offering Cite And Release to an otherwise qualified suspect is not the best course of action.”

In those cases, the officer must get supervisor approval and document the name of that supervisor in his or her offense report.

Those exceptions have given pause to criminal justice advocates who have pushed for a cite-and-release policy for years.

The Right2Justice Coalition, a group that includes many prominent local justice organizations and drafted a model cite-and-release ordinance this summer, wrote an open letter to the mayor last week asking him to strengthen the new policy.

It said the policy, as laid out by HPD, leaves officers with too much discretion and carves out too many exceptions. It is not legally binding and does not include all citation-eligible offenses under state law, the letter said.

Houston’s policy has 16 exceptions, whereas San Marcos has six and Austin has seven, according to the letter.

“We project that their program, as presented, will fail to significantly improve community safety, wellbeing and equity in the city,” the letter said.

See here, here, and here for the background. The detailed reporting is good, as that will let everyone know how this is working. Even better would be a commitment to make changes when the data shows there are opportunities for improvement. I can understand why the activists are still critical, but we’ll see how this goes. We are expecting the task force report in the next couple of days, so we will be continuing this discussion further, and maybe make some more progress as well.

HPD adopts cite-and-release

Took them long enough.

The Houston Police Department plans to join Harris County’s cite-and-release program, fulfilling advocates’ long-running request to implement the policy they say keeps low-level offenders out of jail and saves law enforcement resources for more serious threats.

In a presentation to the city council’s Public Safety Committee, two assistant chiefs on Thursday laid out the program they would use for a set of six misdemeanors offenses. The strategy mirrors that already used by the Harris County Sheriff’s Office and other local departments in the county, using a program set up by Harris County court-at-law judges.

In those cases, officers now would be required to give people a citation with the time and date they must appear in court, instead of hauling them to jail, unless they meet certain exceptions. Like the sheriff’s office, HPD officers who use their discretion to disqualify an eligible offender from the program would have to get supervisor approval and list the reason in their report, according to the presentation.

“I believe cite-and-release programs are critical, not just as it relates to police reform, but addressing the prison pipeline and, quite frankly, racism in our criminal justice system,” said City Councilmember Abbie Kamin, who chairs the committee. “I reiterate that this is just one aspect of improving and making sure our city is safe for all Houstonians. We can’t be finished after cite and release.”

Assistant Chief Wendy Baimbridge said the department plans to adopt the program internally, as it is allowed to do under state law. It was not clear when that will be done.

[…]

Darrell Jordan, a Harris County court-at-law judge who helped design the cite-and-release program, which launched in February, said the city should not win plaudits for dragging its feet and finally succumbing to pressure.

He said the roll-out and presentation of the program was “all for show” and wasted time. The city could have opted into the program without an ordinance days, weeks, or months ago, if it wanted. The county’s cite-and-release court has processed 113 cases since the program’s launch in February. About half of those, 60, came from the Harris County Sheriff’s Office, that agency reported.

“I don’t believe in applauding people for waiting six months to fix a problem,” he said. “That’s six months Houstonians had less officers on the streets. How many victims have suffered waiting for police officers to respond? How many alleged criminals have gotten away?”

See here and here for the background. I largely agree with Judge Jordan here, with two caveats. One, late is still better than never, so I do credit the city for eventually coming around. It shouldn’t have taken this long, but at least in the end they did make the right decision. And two, I do want City Council to vote on making this an ordinance, to make it harder for future police chiefs to tinker around the edges of this system if for whatever the reason they don’t like some part of it. It would also ensure that HPD doesn’t take too much time getting around to implementing this. This can, and ideally should, be part of a larger ordinance that includes other reforms. It’s a first step, not the end of the journey.

Smoots-Thomas takes a plea

A sad but hardly unexpected end to this story.

The ex-judge in an orange jail uniform stood before a judge in black robes, swore to tell the truth and tried to make sense of her predicament.

“My world truly turned upside down,” Alexandra Smoots-Thomas, a former Harris County civil judge, told federal Judge Lynn N. Hughes on Thursday, enumerating the heartbreaks amid tears. Her husband’s unemployment. A house in foreclosure. Her cancer treatments. Her father’s cancer diagnosis. Two divorces. A child’s suicide attempt.

“I regret wholeheartedly leaving such a terrible stain at what is the end of a wonderful and rewarding 18-year legal career,” she said. “I truly apologize for my actions. I apologize for the stain that this has placed on my family and even my former colleagues on the bench.”

The 44-year-old pleaded guilty to using campaign funds to pay personal expenses, capping off a turbulent year that included chemotherapy, remission, a failed bid to reclaim her former bench and criminal charges last month alleging she fired a shotgun at her husband’s girlfriend. The government dropped six remaining counts of wire fraud.

Her plea agreement details how she siphoned off campaign money to purchase a Zales engagement ring and two Prada handbags, and to make two mortgage payments and cover private school tuition for her two sons. As a convicted felon, she will no longer be permitted to practice law, the only career she’s ever known, according to her lawyer in the assault case.

Hughes took into consideration her admission of guilt, her hardships and her likelihood of re-offending, and sentenced her to the 36 days she’d just spent in jail for a bond violation connected to the shooting charges, as well as three years of supervised release.

He ordered her released from federal lockup in Conroe, and made off-handed remark to a deputy U.S. marshal to make sure she got a ride back into Houston.

Prosecutor Ted Imperato, of the U.S. Attorney’s public corruption unit, challenged the “unreasonableness” of the sentence. The judge responded, in his trademark snarky bluster, that the sentence was “pure wisdom.”

The prosecutor had requested a sentence within the guideline range of 18 to 24 months in prison, saying the defendant abused her power and authority as a sitting judge.

Imperato noted that rather than agree to a deal where she would leave the bench, “She thumbed her nose at us, and, with these charges pending, ran for re-election.”

See here and here for the background. As I’ve said before, I know Smoots-Thomas and I feel terrible for the things she has gone through. I truly hope she is able to get the help she needs to get her life back on track. I hope her children are doing all right – the story goes into more detail about the effect this has had on their lives, and it was not good. I’m also glad she lost her primary election – I voted against her in both rounds. And I hope the next time we see her name in the news it’s for something positive.

On a side note, we can certainly have a debate about the prosecutor’s complaint that the sentence she received was too light. One could argue that the guideline range is too harsh, or too limited, or that we should just let judges have the discretion to sentence defendants as they see fit. Perhaps the problem is not that she got off too easy, but that other, less prominent, defendants in her position get sentences that are overly severe. It’s a good debate to be having in many contexts.

Cite and release for Houston

Good.

Houston is preparing a cite-and-release policy that could let people accused of certain misdemeanors off with a ticket instead of an arrest, perhaps the city’s most significant bid at criminal justice reform since the killing of George Floyd ignited a renewed national reckoning over policing.

Mayor Sylvester Turner previously has alluded to the effort, and the proposal is scheduled for discussion at the Public Safety Committee on Thursday. City Councilmember Abbie Kamin, who chairs that committee, said she has helped work on the policy.

“I’m thankful to community groups for advocating for this, and to HPD and Mayor Turner for bringing this forward so quickly,” Kamin said.

The details of the measure, which remain in the works, were not immediately available Monday, including which offenses would be included and whether tickets would be required — or merely preferred — instead of arrests. It also is unclear whether the measure would be an ordinance passed by the city council or an administration policy.

Since 2007, state law has allowed citations for all Class C misdemeanors and some others. Among them: possession of up to 4 ounces of marijuana; criminal mischief (damage up to $750); graffiti; theft of up to $750; providing contraband in a correctional facility; and driving with an invalid license. In those cases, officers can give offenders a written citation with a date and time to appear in court, allowing them to await the hearing without going to jail.

Advocates and elected officials in Houston have been calling for a cite-and-release policy for years. The “Justice Can’t Wait” report, released in July by a broad coalition of Houston-area criminal justice advocacy groups, renewed calls for the policy, and five city council members echoed that in a letter released late last month.

The mayor’s own transition team recommended such a policy in a 2016 report after Turner first was elected.

See here for some background. I know some people can’t sleep at night unless everyone who has ever encountered a police officer is in a jail cell, but would you rather have those officers spend their time hauling graffiti artists and people with expired licenses off to jail, or patrolling the streets after writing them a ticket? The Harris County Sheriff’s Office has had a similar policy since February, and as far as I can tell the region has not fallen into anarchy and chaos. Keep people out of jail and keep cops on the streets. And maybe that Task Force report (due by the end of the month) will have more.

UPDATE: Here’s a later version of the story, with some back-and-forth about whether the city should implement this now as a matter of policy, or draft an ordinance to mandate cite-and-release and implement it that way.

Yes, bail reform is good

Here’s the first pieces of evidence, from Harris County, to support that.

A new report examining the impact of recent changes to bail practices in Harris County found that releasing more misdemeanor defendants from jail without requiring cash bail did not lead to an increase in arrests for reoffending.

The findings are being cited as a win by criminal justice reform advocates who have long argued that cash-bail requirements unfairly penalize poor defendants who can’t afford release from jail before trial.

Wednesday’s report was the first by independent monitors appointed by a federal judge as part of a settlement order in a lengthy lawsuit that led to changes in the bail system in Texas’ most populous county. The case has been noted by civil rights groups as the first to put America’s cash bail system on trial in federal court.

“This misdemeanor bail reform is working as intended and there are real results,” said Brandon Garrett, a law professor at Duke University and independent monitor of the reforms. “Many more people are released promptly, cash bond amounts are vastly reduced except in cases where there will be public safety concerns… [and] there has been no change in reoffending.”

[…]

The report found the rate of new criminal complaints filed against misdemeanor defendants in Harris County within a year of their initial arrest had not changed since the reforms were implemented in early 2019.

The report also found the gap between white and Black defendants being released before trial narrowed under the county’s new system. Before the lawsuit, white people were more likely to bond out of jail before trial than Black people. Data on Hispanic defendants is unavailable.

Not included in the report is data on how often the defendants who were released without payment failed to show up at court hearings. Bail reform opponents across the country have used rises in missed court appearances as ammunition against releasing people on no-cash bonds. The report said appearance rates and reasons for missed hearings will be considered in future reports.

You can read the report for yourself. It’s not the be-all and end-all, as there are still questions about defendants released on PR bonds who would have had to pay bail before versus those who did pay bail, and about rates of showing up in court, but those will be answered in time. The point is, every apocalyptic prediction about murder and mayhem in the streets resulting from jaywalkers and pot smokers not being kept in jail has proven to be spectacularly wrong. Not that this should have been a surprise, since that has been the experience everywhere else this kind of bail reform has been tried, but that didn’t stop the doomsayers. In the meantime, many fewer people were exposed to the risks of being in jail for no good reason. That right there is a whole lot of good. The Chron has more.

Another example of why bail reform is needed

This is troubling in a lot of ways, but fortunately there is a path forward.

Since November, eight defendants fresh out of jail on bond have walked into state District Judge Ramona Franklin’s court and been sent right back to jail.

Instead of standing for a routine court hearing in a first step in their criminal court cases, they ended up back in sheriff’s custody after Franklin revoked their bail and ordered them back behind bars, sometimes with no lawyer present for the defendant.

The process has put Franklin at odds with defense attorneys across Harris County who argue she is engaging in behavior that unfairly penalizes defendants who are presumed innocent — and can cause them to lose thousands of dollars they have scraped together to pay their bail.

Defense attorneys say Franklin revoked their bonds without notice or cause, some of them without legal representation. They argue the process is illegal, in a judicial complaint filed earlier this week with the State Commission on Judicial Conduct.

“Many times these people are effectively ambushed,” said Grant Scheiner, with the Texas Criminal Defense Lawyers Association. “They can’t defend themselves and have no access to counsel.”

[…]

When arrested, suspects usually appear before a magistrate who determines probable cause and a bail amount. After posting bail and being released from custody, they have about a day to appear before a district court judge, where they’re expected to be appointed counsel.

But Thiessen and Scheiner said the defendants complied with the rules of their appearance while Franklin violated procedure, going against the mandate recently issued in an appeals court.

“When the court of appeals hands down the decision telling you not to do something and you proceed contrary to that decision, it just shows a lack of respect for the court of appeals and the Constitution,” Thiessen said.

Franklin has said that she asks attorneys to stand in during those proceedings, the defense lawyers said, but no formal appointment or recording of those stand-in attorneys exists.

Most recently in these initial appearances, Franklin has called some of the defendants to her stand without an attorney present, Thiessen said. A prosecutor reads probable cause findings — the same document and evidence read to a magistrate — and Franklin revokes bond, raises bail amounts and remands the defendant into sheriff’s custody.

“The practice she is engaging in is very unusual,” said Amanda Peters, a law professor at the South Texas College of Law Houston who teaches criminal procedure. “I’ve never seen a judge revoke a bond and then set a higher one if a defendant didn’t violate a condition of bond.”

In some cases, she has ordered defendants who’d posted bond be held without bail, a move defense attorneys say is a clear violation of their clients’ constitutional rights.

State law mandates that judges need to give the defendant “reasonable notice” that they intend to deny bail and allow “meaningful opportunity to be heard.”

Most of the defendants were denied the opportunity for representation before Franklin acted in their cases, using probable cause materials that are often considered inadmissible evidence in trials, Thiessen said.

“Each of these defendants appeared in court and had no notice of what was about to take place,” the defense lawyers said in the complaint. “No notice that Judge Franklin intended to revoke their bonds. No notice that Judge Franklin intended to deny them bail.”

What’s happening here is that the defendants had paid the bond required of them, had shown up in court for their next hearing as they were required to do, had no violations of their bail or other offenses that could cause their bail to be revoked, and yet their bail was either revoked or raised, for no apparent reason. One thing I didn’t realize that this story pointed out is that if you have paid the bond for (say) a $25K bail, and then your bail is subsequently raised to $50K, you don’t get back the amount you paid to the $25K bail so that it can apply to the higher bail. What you paid to the bail bondsman is now gone, and you are starting from scratch to pay the higher bail. Needless to say, lots of people can’t afford this.

I don’t know why Judge Franklin is doing this – she declined to comment for the story – and it’s not clear what can be done about it. What is being alleged here is illegal, but I don’t have a sense for what the State Commission on Judicial Conduct can or will do about it. We have certainly learned over the past few years that just having a law in place for something is not sufficient if there is not an enforcement mechanism in place that brings actual consequences for violating those laws. I hope members of the Legislature, and of Congress, who have criminal justice reform on their priority lists keep this in mind.

I also hope that the ongoing litigation over bail reform for felony defendants brings all of the current abuses of the system to light:

Those probable cause documents were the same materials magistrates used to set the initial bond amounts, meaning no new evidence existed, the complaint alleges. Harris County Public Defender Alex Bunin said Texas law requires new evidence is required under a Texas statute that requires “good and sufficient cause” to raise bond. Franklin is just one of several judges who use these practices, he said.

“I think the issue is going to be taken a lot more seriously now,” he said. “Some judges have followed the rules of due process better than others, and I think that’s also coming to light.”

Let’s name names and get it all on the record. It was clear prior to the 2018 election that the Republicans judges (with one honorable exception) were the main impediment to bail reform in the misdemeanor courts. All of the felony court judges are Democrats, and so far only two of them (Chuck Silverman and Brian Warren) have petitioned to join the plaintiffs in this lawsuit. That means that all of the others are at least potentially part of the problem. It’s not too late for any of them to get on the right side of things, but that time will soon come, and it’s going to be on us Democratic primary voters to clean up whatever mess is left. I very much hope that our Democratic judges decide that they want to be part of the solution and not part of the problem, but we need to be prepared to deal with the ones that make a bad choice. Judge Franklin was unopposed in March, and has no Republican opponent. She can’t get a pass like that again.

Finally, for those who show up in the comments here with links to Facebook posts about people who get released on PR bond and then do something horrible: This is a coward’s argument. If you honestly believe that everyone who gets arrested for anything should be kept in jail until they get acquitted by a jury, have the guts to say so. Or if you believe that only people that you personally don’t find to be scary can get released, or if you believe that everyone should have to pay bail of some large minimum amount, say so. Because what you are arguing for, whether you are able to admit it or not, is for lots of people to be kept in jail before they are ever found guilty of anything. If you can’t admit what you’re actually arguing for, then maybe you should keep that argument to yourself.

No new judge for Paxton

Sorry, Kenny.

Best mugshot ever

Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton, who is still fighting five-year-old felony securities fraud charges, has failed in his bid to kick a Democratic Harris County judge off his ongoing criminal case.

An administrative judge in Houston, Susan Brown, denied Paxton’s motion to recuse Judge Jason Luong from the case, the Dallas Morning News first reported Friday.

It’s a loss for Paxton’s team in the long-running prosecution, which has yet to go to trial amid side fights over venue and prosecutor pay that have spanned years and bounced between numerous courts across the state. Paxton, a Republican, has maintained his innocence in the case, in which he is accused of persuading investors to buy stock in a technology firm without disclosing that he would be compensated for it.

[…]

“We’re gratified that Judge Brown found that Paxton’s motion to recuse Judge Luong was baseless,” said Brian Wice, one of the prosecutors taking Paxton to trial. “We’re confident that Judge Luong will find that Paxton’s motion to keep from being tried in Harris County is cut from the same cloth.”

See here and here for the previous updates. Here’s that DMN story.

Luong, a Democrat, is the fourth judge to preside over Paxton’s case since the attorney general was charged in July 2015. The first judge to preside over the case recused himself early on. Paxton successfully argued for the recusal of the second judge, Tarrant County Republican George Gallagher, over his objections. The third judge to preside over the case, Harris County District Court Judge Robert Johnson, recused himself last month because the attorney general is representing him and several other judges in a lawsuit challenging the region’s cash bail system.

Paxton’s lawyers argued that Luong should be removed from the case for this same reason. The prosecutors, however, said Paxton wanted to recuse Luong because he could reverse Johnson’s decision, made just before his recusal, to move the case out of Harris County. The case was moved from Collin to Harris County in 2017 after the prosecutors argued that they would be unable to ensure a fair trial in Paxton’s backyard.

All righty then. What is unclear to me from these stories is whether or not Team Paxton can appeal this ruling. I’m sure if they can they will, all previous nattering about wanting to get their guy his day in court aside, but that is not addressed and they did not comment. I’m sure we’ll find out soon enough. I also assume any ruling Judge Luong may make on where the trial should be will wait until that happens, if it does. So we don’t yet know how much more time is on the clock before something substantial happens.

Where are we again with the IPOB?

Are we moving forward, or are we standing still?

A longtime member of Houston’s Independent Police Oversight Board has resigned, saying the organization’s structure prevents it from providing meaningful oversight of the Houston Police Department and should be disbanded.

In a pointed letter to Mayor Sylvester Turner dated Aug. 13, board member Kristin Anderson wrote that the civilian police watchdog “does not serve its stated purposes and it provides cover by making it appear that independent oversight is taking place.”

“In this time of radical rethinking of the purpose and function of law enforcement, someone with the courage and moral imagination beyond tinkering with the edges of reform should rethink citizen oversight in Houston,” she wrote. “If we do not act now, what a profound opportunity we will have missed.”

The resignation marks the latest criticism of the volunteer board and comes amid widespread scrutiny of law enforcement departments following the death of longtime Houston resident George Floyd at the hands of a Minneapolis police officer in May.

[…]

In an emailed statement, Turner said that when he appointed his policing taskforce earlier this summer, he ordered its members to review potential changes regarding the IPOB.

“Their work is ongoing, and I look forward to receiving the final report,” he wrote. “In fact, I already have sent Kristin Anderson’s letter to the chair. Ms. Anderson has served on the Independent Police Oversight Board since 2011. I appreciate her work and contributions to the City of Houston and wish her well.”

[…]

Anderson called on Turner to include members with a broader range of perspectives on the board.

“Formerly incarcerated citizens and others who have had both positive and negative experiences with law enforcement would represent the Houston community in a way that IPOB does not,” she said.

She also noted that she had never seen the IPOB fulfill one of its other charges: “to review and make recommendations on recruitment, training and evaluation of police officers; and to consider community concerns regarding the department.”

The letter is embedded in the story if you want to read the whole thing. We’ve had this discussion before, and it’s cleat there are many reforms that can be accomplished, some by Congress, some by the Legislature, some by Mayor Turner and City Council, and some by the collective bargaining process, which kicks in again this December. The Houston Justice Coalition has made three simple demands: enforcing body camera usage, more transparency with the IPOB, and giving the IPOB subpoena power. It should be noted that the Austin Police Department’s IPOB has better transparency than Houston’s and can initiate its own investigations, but the APD is kind of a mess, so these things have their limits. But all of them together would represent significant progress. We have to wait on the Lege till January, and Congress isn’t going to be able to do anything without a different Senate and a different President, but the city stuff can get moving any time.

Which reminds me, that Mayoral Task Force was formed in early June, and their report was to be delivered in three months. That means we’re a couple of weeks out from the deadline, at which time there better be a mandate to act. I just wanted to note this so we’re all ready for when it happens.

Paxton (again) wants another judge on his case

Round and round they go.

Best mugshot ever

Defense attorneys for Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton — whose indictment for felony securities fraud is now more than five years old — are again asking for a different judge to oversee the case. It’s the latest turn in a long-delayed prosecution that has bounced all the way from a trial court in North Texas to the state Supreme Court in Austin, and now sits in legal purgatory in Houston.

Paxton’s attorneys wrote Thursday that Judge Jason Luong should recuse himself from the case because the attorney general’s office is representing him — among a group of about 20 Harris County district court judges — in an unrelated lawsuit over bail practices. Robert Johnson, who oversaw the case until recently, voluntarily recused himself from the case for that reason earlier this summer. A Houston appeals court reassigned the case to Luong late last month.

“Judge Luong’s impartiality might be reasonably questioned” because Paxton is defending him, Paxton’s attorneys argued in a filing this week.

[…]

The prosecutors appointed to take Paxton to trial shot back Friday, arguing that Luong should remain on the case.

“Because Paxton’s palpable fear that Judge Luong will follow the law and keep these felony cases in Harris County does not come within a time zone of meeting the Draconian burden required for recusal, his motion is without merit and should be denied,” prosecutors Brian Wice and Kent Schaffer wrote.

And they noted that last month, Paxton’s attorney Philip Hilder told the Houston Chronicle that Johnson “did not need to recuse himself on the matter since … the allegations against Mr. Paxton do not involve his official capacity but rather his individual capacity.”

See here for the previous update. I don’t think the Paxton argument about a potential conflict of interest due to the bail lawsuit is completely without merit, but I do agree that it’s a thin reed. I mean, the AG’s office is basically defending the office of Criminal District Court Judge in this lawsuit, and Jason Luong just happens to be in that category. It’s Jason Luong in his official capacity, not Jason Luong, person of Texas. It’s true that Judge Robert Johnson agreed to recuse himself on those grounds, but that doesn’t mean other judges would agree with that position. It’s also true that the question could be made moot, either by Judge Luong making like Chuck Silverman and Brian Warren and filing a motion in agreement with the plaintiffs, or by the presiding judge in the bail case granting the motion to dismiss that was recently filed. Of course, a ruling on that motion could take months, and we needn’t wait that long. The point is, though, that there are other ways to resolve this conflict, if one agrees that there is a conflict.

And I too would point out that Team Paxton was just the other day talking about how their guy is ready for his day in court and that the prosecutors should quit fighting the effort to move the case back to Collin County so we can get this show on the road already. Funny how one’s perspective can change on that. It’s been pretty much entirely the work of Team Paxton and his political supporters that have caused this case to drag on for now more than five years. The DMN, in its reporting on this latest action, provides a handy timeline.

The prosecutors, Paxton’s lawyers added, are improperly trying for a do-over on this change-of-venue decision.

“It simply defies belief that the State can get two bites at the apple on the critical jurisdictional issue that Judge Johnson already properly ruled on by allowing a new judge who is similarly situated with Judge Johnson (i.e., both represented by the Texas Attorney General in the same case) to review Judge Johnson’s prior ruling. This is the ultimate appearance of impropriety.”

In their response, the prosecutors said Paxton’s own lawyers already undercut their argument when they told the Houston Chronicle last month that Johnson never needed to step off the case.

“He did not need to recuse himself on the matter since it had been ordered back to Collin County and the allegations against Mr. Paxton do not involve his official capacity but rather his individual capacity that predates his election to that office,” Paxton attorney Philip Hilder told the Chronicle.

A Collin County jury indicted Paxton in July 2015. Since then, his case has been repeatedly delayed by fights over where the trials should take place, how much the prosecutors should make and what judge should preside. Paxton’s defense team spent more than a year attempting to have the charges against their client thrown out. They failed.

Hurricane Harvey also delayed the case and many others in Houston. The COVID-19 pandemic could further push any possible trial back.

Paxton is charged with two first-degree felonies over allegations that he persuaded friends to invest in a McKinney technology company called Servergy Inc. without telling them he received 100,000 shares of stock. He also is charged with a third-degree felony, accused of funneling clients to a friend’s investment firm without being registered with the state. The Texas State Securities Board reprimanded and fined Paxton $1,000 for this failure to register in 2014.

If found guilty, Paxton could face two to 10 years in prison for the third-degree felony and five to 99 years for each of the first-degree felonies, as well as fines. He has pleaded not guilty to all of the charges.

When I started writing this post, I began with the post title, and I was pretty sure that it was Paxton who had demanded a new judge in the past, but I wasn’t sure and I knew it would take a lot of archive-diving find an answer. I’m thankful the DMN did that work for me. Who wants to bet this case will still be active when the voters go to choose an AG in 2022?

A whole lot of Paxton case news all of a sudden

Brace yourselves.

Best mugshot ever

A Houston appeals court on Monday abated a recent decision to move the criminal cases against Attorney General Ken Paxton from Harris to Collin County, giving a new judge on the case the chance to revisit that order.

The abatement is a win for special prosecutors Kent Schaffer and Brian Wice. It will also allow the judge, Jason Luong, to consider whether to reinstate pay to the prosecutors, who have not been paid since 2016. The prosecutors confirmed the appeals court decision to The News but declined to speak to the matter further.

Paxton’s lawyers said they were “disappointed” and “troubled” that the appeals court ruled without giving them a change to respond.

“Mr. Paxton’s response brief on the merits of returning the case to Collin County was due today and filed after the Court had already decided to abate the case,” Paxton defense attorney Bill Mateja told The News in a statement. “As such, we intend to ask the Court of Appeals to reconsider its ruling.”

I did not know that it was in play for the First Court of Appeals to “abate” the ruling that moved the Paxton case back to Collin County. (I also don’t exactly know what “abate” means here, and how it differs from “overturns or “reverses”. You lawyers out there, please chime in.) I did know that Robert Johnson, the judge in Harris County who ruled that the case should go back to Collin, then recused himself because the AG’s office will be representing criminal district court judges in Harris in the latest bail reform lawsuit. I had not known that a new judge – who, it should be noted, is in the same boat as Judge Johnson in re: the bail lawsuit, unless he decides to make like Chuck Silverman and side with the plaintiffs. I’m putting all that in here so as not to quote the whole damn story. Now back to the excerpt:

Paxton’s legal team applauded the decision [to move the case back to Collin County] at the time and said the attorney general is ready to have his day in court.

“We are gratified by the Court’s ruling and look forward to getting Mr. Paxton’s case back on track. This case has gone on far too long,” Paxton lawyer Dan Cogdell said in an emailed statement that day. Bill Mateja added: “The Prosecutors need to let Judge Johnson’s decision stand and allow Mr. Paxton to have his day in court.”

The special prosecutors appealed his decision.

In early July, the 1st Court of Appeals delayed moving the cases to Collin County until it could rule on the merits of the prosecutors’ arguments that they remain in Houston. Now, the prosecutors say the court has abated Johnson’s decision and allowed Luong, a Democrat, to revisit the move back to Collin County.

Luong, who is also being represented by Paxton’s office in the same separate case as Johnson, has not answered questions about whether he too will recuse himself from this case.

Did you know that the original Paxton indictments are now five years old? Let’s just say I don’t believe Attorneys Cogdell and Mateja in their assessment of how long this has taken and their client’s desire to see the inside of a courtroom, even one in front of a presumably friendly judge. It ain’t the not-paid-since-2016 special prosecutors who have dragged this out for so long. I have no idea what issue there may be for Judge Luong to decide in re: their pay, but 1) they deserve to be paid, and 2) any further action on that front will for sure drag this out until the heat death of the universe. In the meantime, the ball is literally in Judge Luong’s court, and we’ll see what the next action item is. The Chron has more.

UPDATE: I have been given the following explanation of what an “abatement” is:

A Texas appellate court “abates” a case when it decides that there is some action a trial judge must take before the case goes forward. The same word is used in other circumstances but it almost always means a court is pausing proceedings.

This is a mandamus in which the prosecutors are challenging Judge Johnson’s transfer order. A mandamus is technically a suit against the trial judge in their official capacity. The First Court’s order yesterday abated the case because it had learned Judge Johnson had recused himself and Judge Luong is the new judge. The case against Judge Johnson can’t proceed because there’s a new judge who must be given an opportunity to either agree or to vacate Judge Johnson’s order. If Judge Luong agrees with Judge Johnson, the mandamus will proceed against the new judge. If he vacates, it will be up to Paxton’s defense counsel to try the case here or appeal the new judge’s order.

This type of abatement is not unusual and is all but mandatory when there is a change in judges in the middle of a mandamus. It’s unfortunate that the appellate brief was filed after the abatement, but that happens sometimes. It would be unusual if the court of appeals had not abated the mandamus to allow Judge Luong time to rule.

That makes sense to me, and as you can see from the court order, the abatement is for 45 days. So, in the next six weeks or so we should know if the ruling to move the case back to Collin County is still in place or if it has been vacated. (This is assuming Judge Luong doesn’t recuse himself, in which case I presume the main effect would be to push the timeline further back, because sure, why not.) Once we have that, we’ll know who’s appealing what. Isn’t this fun?

Criticizing the HPD narcotics audit

It’s good that it was finally released, but that doesn’t mean that all questions have been answered by it.

Rep. Gene Wu

Standing outside the small house where Houston police officers conducted a raid that killed two and grievously wounded their department’s reputation, Gene Wu clasped the audit he’d been asking about for months and labeled it a scam.

Wu and other state lawmakers on Thursday criticized the internal audit of the Narcotics Division, calling it a “whitewash” and vowing to propose legislation to prevent government agencies from blocking the release of internal audits or similar documents in the future.

Also at the news conference were lawyers representing relatives of Dennis Tuttle and Rhogena Nicholas, the couple who lived at 7815 Harding St. and were killed in the raid. Gerald Goines, the officer who led the operation, was later accused of lying about the drug buy that led to the operation and is charged with felony murder and other crimes. His former partner, Steven Bryant, faces charges of tampering with a government record.

The raid could have happened only in an environment of “pervasive, longstanding custom and practice of illegal activity that was known and condoned at the highest level,” said Boyd Smith, one of the attorneys. “And this report doesn’t address that critical issue.”

[…]

The auditors — former Assistant Chief Pete Lopez, seven sergeants and one police officer — looked at the Narcotics Division’s street-level drug suppression squads. They found widespread sloppiness and lax supervision: unauthorized informant payments. Missing case review sheets. Incomplete offense reports. Hundreds of other administrative errors by undercover narcotics officers.

Most of the information authorities released previously centered on misconduct by Goines and Bryant, but auditors examined three years of casework of the two former Squad 15 officers, and probed casework of approximately 70 other undercover officers in squads 9, 10, 14 and 15. There are approximately 175 officers in the Narcotics Division.

Though they found policy violations and “numerous errors” related to confidential informant payments, they said they could not make conclusions about illegal activity without the ability to interview confidential informants or witnesses.

[…]

Patrick O’Burke, a former deputy commander at the Texas Department of Public Safety who oversaw drug law enforcement, said the audit is a “significant effort” but fails to identify the reasons for the sloppiness it uncovered.

“This report does not provide key findings that show how such problems will be limited or reduced in the future,” said O’Burke, tasked with overhauling Texas’ drug task forces after a racist drug arrest scandal in the 1990s in Tulia.

See here and here for the background. The point I would make is that the purpose of an audit like this is not just to document what happened, but also to provide a plan of action to remediate what went wrong. Where I work, if your department or project fails to get a sufficient grade on an audit – and we routinely perform audits on pretty much everything, not just on things that went wrong – you can’t go forward until you address the issues that the auditors cited. In this case, not only is the audit incomplete since key participants and stakeholders were not included, there’s no action plan. What is HPD going to do about this? How are they going to fix the problems that were identified, and put in processes and checks and safeguards and whatever else to ensure they never happen again? Note that “completely shutting down all activity related to this” is a viable path forward and should be considered as an option. What is HPD going to do? We need to know.

More and better police data, please

Like this.

The Texas Commission on Law Enforcement will ask nearly 2,000 Texas law enforcement agencies to resubmit information legislators intended be used to analyze whether police were treating minority motorists differently — but which turned out to be worthless because TCOLE neglected to ask departments to include the race of the drivers in some of the data.

The change comes days after Hearst Newspapers published a story detailing how the information, required by the 2017 Sandra Bland Act, was impossible to use.

“I’m trying to jump on it pretty fast,” said state Rep. Garnet Coleman, D-Houston, a sponsor of the bill, who said he spoke Monday morning with TCOLE and they had agreed to correct the problem.

Coleman said he also has asked the agency to work with academic experts to ensure the information it is asking of Texas law enforcement agencies can be used to actually conduct racial bias analyses. Alex del Carmen, a criminal justice professor at Tarleton State University who helps train police executives, said he worked Sunday to create a survey that would produce the necessary information.

Coleman said the new list of questions will be used to gather the information for 2020. But he added the agency said it would also contact police departments to ask them to redo their 2019 surveys, originally submitted in March.

I mean, I’m glad this is happening now, but it’s more than a little embarrassing that the initial data collection was this lacking. Whose job was it to do quality assurance? Kudos to the Chron for bringing this to light.

And let me just add, while it is quite fashionable now to dunk on the idea of “running government like a business”, as someone who has worked for a Large Corporation for many years, this kind of data collection is absolutely the sort of things successful businesses do. It’s critical, to know if what you’re doing is working, to identify and learn from errors, to spot trends and respond to them, and so on and so forth. And really, it’s not that hard to do. Shame on TCOLE for such a shoddy first effort.

And also like this.

Two state lawmakers who reviewed a copy of the Houston Police Department’s audit of its narcotics division are calling on Chief Art Acevedo to release the document to the public.

“The reality is, there’s nothing in this the public should not be aware of,” Texas Sen. Paul Bettancourt said. “The real question is, what are they going to do about it?”

The police department performed the audit after last year’s disastrous Harding Street raid. Two homeowners died in the raid, and investigators later accused former officer Gerald Goines of lying to obtain the warrant on which he based the raid. He is now charged with murder.

In the wake of the incident, the police department launched an internal criminal probe, along with an administrative audit of the Narcotics Division.

[…]

In February, after questions from the Chronicle, Rep. Gene Wu, D-Houston, and a coalition of other Houston-area state representatives called on Acevedo to make the document public. The chief balked, saying he did not want to endanger the county’s criminal case against Goines and said the document included the names of undercover officers and could reveal information about confidential informants.

Because of the nondisclosure agreement, Wu said he could not comment on the specifics of the document. But he said that reviewing it only confirmed his belief that it should be public.

“Even without the redactions, there is little that can be gleaned from it that is not already public knowledge or could in any sense jeopardize an ongoing investigation or prosecution,” he said.

Yes, release the audit. The public needs to know. The criminal case will be fine – Kim Ogg is filing a bunch more charges now, in part because everyone involved seems to have a problem with telling the truth – but even if that were a problem, this is HPD’s mess. They need to come clean. The Chron editorial board and Odus Evbagharu, Chief of Staff to State Rep. Jon Rosenthal, have more.

UPDATE: And just like that, a draft of the audit was released on Twitter. Here’s a Chron story about it. Now let’s see some followup on this, because audits are all about actions.

Kaylynn Williford

Goodbye, and good riddance.

The head prosecutor for Harris County District Attorney Kim Ogg’s trial division resigned Monday after posting a meme on Facebook last week that equated protesters who remove Confederate statutes with Nazis.

The meme posted by the veteran prosecutor last week shows a black-and-white photograph of hands holding an overflowing bin of rings.

It says, “Wedding bands that were removed from Holocaust victims prior to being executed, 1945. Each ring represents a destroyed family. Never forget, Nazis tore down statues. Banned free speech. Blamed economic hardships on one group of people. Instituted gun control. Sound Familiar?”

Assistant District Attorney Kaylynn Williford said in a statement that she took down the post after a friend’s daughter and later a Jewish lawyer told her they found it offensive to compare the two groups. Williford, a 28-year-veteran of the office who has tried major capital cases, said this was never her intent.

She posted it, she said, because she thought it was “thought provoking and promoted tolerance.”

You can see what she posted in that earlier story, which came out over the weekend. I held off on posting about this mostly because I wanted to see what the reaction from the DA’s office was going to be first. A group of Democratic State Reps had called for her resignation earlier in the day, and eventually got what they asked for. All I can say is that if Kaylynn Williford really truly had no idea that her stupid image was offensive and why it was offensive, then she should have been fired years ago and should never get on Facebook again. Even if you were to somehow grant her some kind of Sleeping Beauty-level exemption for deeply childlike innocent ignorance, the controlling principle of “don’t post political shit to Facebook if you don’t understand it” should apply. You know the old saying about how it’s better to keep silent and be thought a fool than open your mouth and remove all doubt? It was for situations like this that it was first uttered. Keri Blakinger has more.

Here comes the police task force

Now let’s see them do something.

Mayor Sylvester Turner

Mayor Sylvester Turner on Wednesday announced the appointment of 45 people to a task force that will review Houston Police Department policies for potential reforms.

Laurence “Larry” Payne, a former staffer of Mayor Kathy Whitmire and U.S. Rep. Mickey Leland, will chair the committee, which includes activists, academics, business leaders, law enforcement officials and clergy.

Among them: Judson Robinson III of the Houston Area Urban League; Hispanic Chamber of Commerce CEO Laura Murillo; former criminal district court judge Marc Carter; George Ryne of the Texas Anti-Gang Center; and rapper Trae the Truth. The full list can be found here.

The task force is expected to bring recommendations in the next 60 days and to complete a report by Sept. 1, Turner said. Its work will invite widespread scrutiny from activists in the community who have pushed for far-reaching reforms and redirecting city funds away from police.

The launch of the working group was met with skepticism by some activists, who argued the city has studied the issue thoroughly in the past and that it is time for action.

“We believe it when we see it. Because we’ve never seen it,” said Tarsha Jackson, an advocate who formerly was the criminal justice director for the Texas Organizing Project.

See here for the background. There was more where that came from on Thursday.

More than 100 people called into a Houston city council committee meeting Thursday to demand that city leaders strengthen oversight of the police or dismantle the department altogether, as council members sought more information from law enforcement officials about potential reforms.

Among the hightlights: the Houston Police Department is not required to tell neighboring agencies when one of its recruits fails a psychological screening; and the chair of the Independent Police Oversight Board — one of the primary targets for reform among advocates and some elected officials — struggled to answer simple questions about how the board’s work could be improved.

Speaking in two-minute intervals, scores of residents challenged City Hall — often in harsh terms — to trade task forces and promises for direct, immediate action in the wake of protests over the death of Houstonian George Floyd. Their comments came a day after Mayor Sylvester Turner revealed the 45 members who will serve on his police reform task force, which generated widespread skepticism that continued Thursday into the committee meeting.

Roughly half the residents who called into the eight-hour meeting advocated for dismantling the police department, with some endorsing a strategy to strip a quarter of its funds every year for four years. They urged that those resources be diverted to other services, such as housing and health care. Other frequent targets included the oversight board; the negotiations underway for a new contract with the Houston Police Officers’ Union; and the department’s refusal to release body camera video and an audit of its narcotics division.

Skepticism is an entirely fair and rational response, and I say that as a supporter of Mayor Turner. I don’t know what this task force might come up with that hasn’t already been proposed, but at least we’ll find out in relatively short order. If I were advising Mayor Turner, I’d go back and review some of those things, and see which of them I could get implemented now, via another executive order or Council action. Maybe the value this task force can provide is by blunting the usual opposition to any meaningful change. Let’s just say the clock is running, and the case for decisive action will never be greater. Transform Houston has more.

Back to Collin County for the Paxton trial

Where it all began.

Best mugshot ever

Years after it was sent to Harris County, the criminal case against Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton will move back to his native Collin County, a Harris County judge ruled Thursday.

Paxton, a Republican, was indicted in 2015 on felony securities fraud charges, but the case has yet to go to trial as side battles persist over the venue where he will be tried and the amount the special prosecutors will be paid.

A judge moved Paxton’s case to Harris County years ago, after prosecutors said they could not get a fair trial in Collin County, Paxton’s home and former district from his time in the state Legislature. His wife, state Sen. Angela Paxton, R-McKinney, now represents the region.

But Ken Paxton’s defense team argued last year that the judge who initially ordered the move to Harris County did not have the authority to do so, as his time overseeing the case had elapsed. The two attorneys prosecuting Paxton, Brian Wice and Kent Schaffer, disputed that at a December hearing and said the case belongs in Harris County. But Judge Robert Johnson, a Democrat, agreed with Paxton’s defense team in an order this week.

Wice pledged to appeal the decision.

“The only thing more wrong than the judge’s ruling is that it took him almost a year to make it,” he said. “We’re confident the court of appeals will set it aside and keep venue in Harris County where it belongs.”

See here for the previous update, and here for a full timeline of L’Affaire Paxton. Judge Johnson had said at that December hearing that he’d rule by the end of the month. I have no idea what happened with that, but here we are. As I said then, the only sure thing in all this is that it will eventually end up before the Court of Criminal Appeals. I don’t even have it in me to make a joke at this point. The Chron and the DMN have more.

Steps towards more transparency

Step One:

Mayor Sylvester Turner said Friday he is reviewing an internal audit of the Houston Police Department’s embattled narcotics division and will send the results of the probe to state lawmakers who have called for its public release.

Turner revealed the news days after state Rep. Gene Wu, D-Houston, authored a letter signed by seven other House members that called on Police Chief Art Acevedo to publicly release the audit’s findings.

Acevedo ordered the internal probe after the deadly 2019 raid at 7815 Harding St., which ended with the deaths of the home’s two residents and left four police officers shot. Investigators subsequently said that the officer who orchestrated the raid lied to get the warrant used in the operation. That officer, Gerald Goines, has been charged with murder and faces federal civil rights charges.

Twice in the last two weeks, Turner has declined to say whether the audit should be released, and he had not admitted to reviewing it himself until Friday. He said he is giving lawmakers access to the audit as long as they promise not to reveal it to the public.

“As I go through the audit — and I’m going through it now — you don’t want to disclose the identity of officers who have been acting undercover and expose them to risk,” Turner said after a roundtable on police reform at City Hall. “But I do understand the importance of making it available to our legislative colleagues, so that they can see it for themselves.”

[…]

Wu on Friday said it was not enough to release the audit only to lawmakers.

“This is an investigation of a public agency, of public servants’ wrongdoing,” he said. “It’s absolutely 100 percent in the public interest and right to know what public servants are doing. I cannot imagine we would tolerate this from any other city or state agency where we suspected rogue employees or individuals. The public not only has a right to know, it needs to know.”

Rosenthal echoed Wu in calling for the report to go directly to the public, not House members.

“Taxpayers paid for that report, they pay for that department, it belongs to the people,” Rosenthal said. “I’m disappointed they would ask us to not send it to the people. Our ask was that it be made public.”

State Rep. Garnet Coleman, D-Houston, said he “appreciates” Turner’s decision to allow lawmakers to review the audit.

“I think it’s important in this time that transparency is there. In a strong mayor form of government, that is a call the mayor can make,” he said. “I still think it should be public, that hasn’t changed.”

I say again, release the audit. If there are some people named in it who are not under any suspicion or who have no connection to the underlying problems, then go ahead and redact them out of it. Otherwise, I agree completely with what the representatives are saying. This is information for the public.

Step Two:

A group of 20 marched through drizzling rain on the downtown Houston streets Friday where thousands had just gathered for George Floyd, now demanding justice for a Hispanic man killed by police in April.

The rally ended in front of the Harris County Criminal Justice Center, where about a dozen more supporters joined and called for Houston police to release body camera footage of the incident in which 27-year-old Nicolas Chavez was fatally shot by lawmen while, according to a cell-phone video of the encounter, on his knees.

“I know that they’re going to make him look bad and they’re going to try to justify what they did,” said his mother, Leantha Chavez. “In the end, it doesn’t matter what he did. He was on his knees when they shot him and he was unarmed.”

Chavez’s family and friends emphasized that he seemed to be undergoing a mental crisis. His 5-year-old son stood nearby during the gathering outside of the courthouse, holding a sign that read, “Abolish the police!”

Houston Police Department spokesman Kese Smith said while the family viewed their footage, the agency needs to consult with the Harris County District Attorney’s Office before releasing video to the public.

“The family’s wishes are obviously a very important part of it, but we have to have conversations with the District Attorney’s Office as well,” Smith said.

“We are certainly available to police if they want to discuss concerns about body cam videos or any other evidence,” said Dane Schiller, spokesman for the Harris County District Attorney’s Office. “We independently review all officer-involved shootings and we present all the evidence in every instance to a grand jurors, regardless of whether it has previously been made public, so they can determine whether a criminal charge is warranted.”

Houston Police Chief Art Acevedo has asked the FBI to review the April 21 death of Chavez. He called the cell phone video “difficult” to watch but has yet to make public any of the police department’s roughly 70 videos that captured the shooting.

The whole point of body cameras, and the reason why there was such a demand for them in recent years, is precisely because they can shed light on contentious and disputed interactions between the police and the public. If the DA needs some time to review the footage to determine whether or not to bring charges, that’s fine, but let’s not draw this out any longer than necessary. This is, again, information for the public. Let’s act accordingly.

Release the audit

That’s my three-word response to this.

A growing chorus of elected officials is calling on Houston Police Chief Art Acevedo to release the findings of an internal audit on his department’s narcotics division, arguing that the chief’s refusal to do so contradicts his vows to be transparent and accountable.

Acevedo ordered the internal probe after the deadly 2019 raid at 7815 Harding St., which ended with the deaths of two homeowners and left four police officers shot. Investigators subsequently said that the officer who orchestrated the raid lied to get the warrant he used in the operation.

Now, with the death of George Floyd in Minnesota galvanizing worldwide protests and searing scrutiny of police departments across the country, state Reps. Anna Eastman, Christina Morales, Jon Rosenthal, Senfronia Thompson and Gene Wu are renewing their call from March for Acevedo to release the audit. And they are joined by three other members of the Texas House — Garnet Coleman, Gina Calanni and Mary Ann Perez — along with U.S. Rep. Sheila Jackson Lee and more than half of Houston City Council.

Wu, who wrote both letters, said that the chief’s reluctance to release the audit is at odds with his past pledges to be transparent and hold officers accountable.

“The violations of policies, procedures and laws by officers in the Narcotics Division must be made known to the public,” wrote Wu, D-Houston. “If there are other officers who have repeatedly broken the law, the continued concealment of their behavior does a gross disservice to reputations of officers who are doing their jobs well.”

You can read the rest, and you can see a copy of the letter here; page two is visible on Dos Centavos, which is where the signatures are. I mean, being transparent means doing stuff like this. If there really is some content in that audit that might affect prosecutions, a little redaction is acceptable, as long as the substance of the report is not changed. But come on, either you meant it when you said you wanted to be transparent or you didn’t. Show us what you meant.

On a related note:

The mayor shouldn’t pretend that the calls for police reform were suddenly sprung on him this week. His own transition team in 2016 made a litany of reform recommendations. Our organizations participated in the committee, as did senior members of the mayor’s administration. Then in 2017, city council spent $565,000 on a 10-year financial plan that included recommendations to cut some of the 75 percent of the budget spent on public safety over that time span.

Houston does not need another study. What we need is action on the existing recommendations for police reform. After participating in the transition committee, our organizations established the Right2Justice Coalition. We have met regularly to address ongoing issues of policing and criminal justice in Houston and Harris County. Today, we are publishing a progress report of existing recommendations from Turner’s 2016 Transition Committee on Criminal Justice and the 2017 10-year financial plan.

The progress report shows that the city has implemented only a few of the recommended reforms, the most significant being the consolidation of the city’s jails with Harris County in 2019. It has failed to adopt recommendations to develop, in partnership with grassroots organizations, a plan for community policing, to enact a cite-and-release policy to divert people accused of minor offenses from the criminal justice system, to combine 211 and 311 to better meet residents’ needs for non-police services, and to implement a body cam video release policy that “maximizes public access to footage in a prompt manner.”

And instead of civilianizing 443 positions as the 10-year plan recommends to save $5-10 million, the administration has increased the number of officers by 81 and shrunk the number of civilian positions by 258.

Delays in implementing these recommendations in the last three years have further eroded public trust. Turner and Houston Police Chief Art Acevedo’s actions speak louder than words — by that standard, their message is unchanged.

C’mon, guys. The time for action is now. You promised it, we want it. I know you can do it. Don’t let us down.

Meanwhile, the jail is filling up again

We really need to do something about this.

Sheriff Ed Gonzalez

The Harris County Jail population has been steadily rising since late April and is now approaching its pre-pandemic capacity despite early efforts to curb crowding, according to the sheriff’s office.

With an influx of inmates anticipated during the summer months, the jail is facing a “serious crisis,” according to a report Tuesday that a sheriff’s representative classified as “sobering.”

The update about the jail population came in a study the county commissioned from the Justice Management Institute, a Virginia-based nonprofit that works with government agencies to make their courts and jails more efficient.

“The justice system has been struggling since Hurricane Harvey,” Tom Eberly, the organization’s program director announced in video testimony before Harris County Commissioner’s Court. “Now with the COVID-19 pandemic, the justice system is on the verge of collapse in your county.”

If the anticipated pace of bookings follows previous patterns, the county could reach 10,000 inmates by Labor Day, according to the nonprofit group’s calculations. And the courts were already backed up before the virus, officials said.

[…]

The lawyers challenging the county’s bail system, who lost a bid for an injunction to order coronavirus releases, said thousands of felony defendants are stuck at the jail awaiting trial simply because they can’t pay cash bail. The vast majority of the population is made up of up pretrial felony detainees.

“Their constitutional rights are being violated, and their health and safety are being jeopardized by COVID-19, which is rampant at the jail,” said Neal Manne, of Susman Godfrey, who works pro bono on the bail cases. “Though Sheriff Gonzales wants to solve the problem, he can’t solve it by himself. No one else is doing anything other than talking about it, week after week, month after month, as COVID-19 surges.”

In the meantime, coronavirus infections have continued to increase, with 993 inmates testing positive since the start of the pandemic.

The pandemic has cramped the jail’s holding capacity, which changes day to day depending upon how many people are quarantined and how much the jail staff must space them out on the cell blocks to help prevent the spread of the virus. For example, 835 inmates who have had the virus and remain in custody have now recovered. But 778 are being kept in observational quarantine, meaning they are not showing symptoms, but they may have been exposed to COVID-19.

Another 600-plus people are housed in what the jail calls “buffer quarantine” because they are new to the jail, according to the sheriff’s office. And nearly 300 convicted inmates are ready to be transferred to state prison but Texas Department of Criminal Justice is not accepting them during the pandemic.

Meanwhile, the jail population is increasing by 115 inmates per week and as of May 1, the county had more than 36,000 pending felony cases, Eberly said. If no new felony arrests were made in the coming months, it would still take 13 months to dispose of the backlog, he said.

However, if the system keeps shuffling along as is, it will take 4½ years to catch up, the study found.

Statewide, jail populations also decreased in the first months of the pandemic and have begun rising going into the summer, a normal trend outside of the unusual circumstances this year, said Brandon Wood, executive director of the Texas Commission on Jail Standards.

Population spikes at county jails largely stem from backlogs in the courts, he said.

“It’s going to be incumbent on Harris County to manage its jail population properly,” Wood said.

You have to wonder how much worse this would be if there were a bunch of misdemeanor inmates awaiting trial because they couldn’t make bail as well. There’s basically three things we can do here. One is to release a bunch of the low-risk inmates who couldn’t come up with the cash for bail. That’s on the judges and the District Attorney, and while there’s been some movement on that, there could be a lot more. Two is to get the courts to the point where they can make a dent in that backlog, which is going to be a hell of a challenge given the fact that the court buildings are still suffering from Harvey, and oh yeah, that global pandemic. Maybe just consider dropping a bunch of low-level charges, divert as many drug charges as possible, and offer as many deferred adjudication deals as possible. There’s some risk to this approach, but what we’re doing right now is not sustainable. And three, maybe now is a good time to just stop arresting people on low-level drug possession charges. Turn down the incoming spigot, and stop adding to the problem. I don’t know where this ends, but the direction we’re going right now doesn’t lead anywhere good.

What are we going to do about that Independent Police Oversight Board?

The easy answer is “make it better”, it’s how you do that that’s harder.

As protests over George Floyd’s death swept the nation, activists in Houston cried out for police reform. Among their demands: Give us an independent police watchdog.

One already exists, city officials said: Houston’s Independent Police Oversight Board.

But the board lacks meaningful power, with one longtime civil rights activist calling it “window dressing.”

Houston’s Independent Police Oversight Board, which reviews investigations completed by the Houston Police Department’s internal affairs division, meets at police headquarters. It cannot launch its own inquiries or accept complaints directly from civilians. Members are forbidden from discussing any of the cases they review — even with the mayor or other public officials. Its sparse website includes instructions on how to file a complaint with police, but little information on the board’s own work. It lacks the power to subpoena documents or compel officer testimony. It’s a volunteer body appointed by the mayor and has no professional staff. And when members of the oversight board make policy recommendations, they often never find out what happens to their suggestions, current and former members told the Chronicle.

“It’s clear if we had additional clout, we could do more and better work,” said Gerald Birnberg, a Houston attorney who serves on the oversight board. “It feels like we’re working in the dark.”

As America reckons with racism and calls to address police violence, critics say Houston’s police oversight board is inadequate. Those who argue against change say the board has sufficient power and lacks training to investigate or issue subpoenas.

[…]

The board can make recommendations to the chief related to disciplinary action, policies and training, but the chief has the final say.

While members are forbidden from discussing the cases they review, some of their recommendations became public in a police brutality lawsuit filed after the 2012 police killing of Kenny Releford.

HPD was forced to turn over internal affairs files related to several shootings, with recommendations filed by the IPOB and its earlier incarnation. When the board reviewed the July 2012 shooting of Rufino Lara, two members of the panel wrote notes urging de-escalation training.

The officer should not have “fired her gun on someone who was not pointing or near to pointing a dangerous weapon toward her,” one member wrote. “Better training needs to be provided.”

The majority agreed with the department’s conclusions, but all checked off boxes indicating training had not been sufficient.

The police department also maintains discretion in deciding what records to release to the oversight board, though board member Kristin Anderson, a psychology professor at the University of Houston-Downtown, said members “see all documents associated with any case” that comes to the board.

She said the public deserves transparency, but said granting the board subpoena power is a “red herring” and would not give members “the ability to tell if a cop is lying.”

Birnberg said board members do not have unfettered, immediate access to all the records they request. He recalled seeing cases where board members were told obtaining an autopsy would take four months — far longer than the two-week period the board’s panels have to review individual cases.

“I don’t know if the chief is aware of the structural impediments to the panels getting meaningful information at the time they’re supposed to be ruling on the cases,” he added.

[…]

Houston attorney Joe Melugin, who spent three years suing the Houston Police Department over the shooting death of Kenny Releford, said he disagrees with those who say holding police legally accountable police should be left to the district attorney.

“Until the city fires police officers for abuses of power and unjustified violence, and until the DA prosecutes police the same as any of the rest of us, then the problems with police abuses of power will persist regardless of changes to the IPOB,” he said. “We must change how the police force exists and operates in our city.”

There’s a lot of back and forth in the story about what the IPOB can and cannot do, and I’m not in a position to assess the claims. I agree with Joe Melugin, the ultimate goal needs to be accountability, where bad cops are fired and cops who break the law are arrested and prosecuted like anyone else would be. Surely if that had always been the case, we wouldn’t be in the position we’re in right now. As for the “how do we get there” part of the discussion, I basically agree with the Houston Justice Coalition demands:

1. Uniform Body Camera Policy

The current body cam policy is a disjointed mess. Cameras are not on consistently. According to a KHOU investigative report completed in 2017, very few tapes were released to the public upon request. We demand that cameras run and that all tapes are released within 24 hours upon request.

2. Transparent Tracking of Complaints

When a complaint is made on an officer, there is no way to know the status of the complaint. The timelines for followup are egregious, and often aren’t even followed. Houstonians who want to hold police accountable must have a clear system with expedient, easily accessed methods of feedback between them and HPD to ensure that officers face consequences when they violate policy and civil rights.

3. Citizens Review Board with Subpoena Power

A citizens review board must have the power to bring officers in for questioning and possibly for charges and repercussions. Otherwise, a board is simply an artificial token, not an arbiter of true justice. We demand that a citizens review board chosen by The People, unchecked by the Houston Police Officers Union or City Hall, be formed immediately and granted with the power to subpoena law enforcement—full stop.

Maybe subpoena power isn’t all that, but let’s try it first and see where it gets us.

DA dismisses charges against most protesters

Good.

Kim Ogg

The Harris County District Attorney’s Office on Tuesday dismissed almost 800 cases filed against protesters arrested during the George Floyd demonstrations last week in Houston.

In total, prosecutors dropped 796 charges filed against 654 protesters, District Attorney Kim Ogg said. Many of those cases were cited in court filings as being dismissed “in the interest of justice.”

Charges still remain against 51 adults and one juvenile accused of 35 misdemeanors and 19 felonies, Ogg said. Those include weapons offenses and charges of aggravated assault of a peace officer.

Prosecutors made their decisions by looking at “people who sought to do harm (to) others and property vs. those arrested for simple civil disobedience,” according to a news release.

“The job of the prosecutor is to seek individualized justice in every case,” Ogg said. “While probable cause existed for the arrests of those people who refused to disperse after being ordered to do so by police, our young prosecutors worked hard to identify the few offenders who came to inflict harm on others and intentional damage to property.”

The dismissed cases were nonviolent misdemeanors, mostly obstructing a highway and trespassing.

[…]

Monique Sparks, of the Houston Protestors’ Defense Team, commended the DA’s office for dismissing some charges. She said her group, which is representing protesters for free, is now focused on expunging charges from their clients’ records.

“What it shows is that our DA’s office is on board with what the Constitution says,” Sparks said. “We think this is a good start.”

The protesters will be informed of avenues to take if they want to file civil lawsuits, Sparks said. The district attorney’s office will work to help expunge the cases from the protesters’ records, although they might need representation to do so, Ogg said.

They might also need cash to do that. As Sarah Wood, policy director at the Harris County Public Defender’s Office, noted in the story, an expunction can cost hundreds of dollars in fees, including attorney’s fees. It would have been much better all around if these folks had been not arrested in the first place. Which, again, is a big part of the point that the protesters have been trying to make – far too much police activity is geared towards behavior that doesn’t actually threaten public safety, but does put a lot of ordinary people into the criminal justice system, and all of the harm that brings with it. Consider how many of these protesters might be in jail right now and for who knows how much longer if the DA had been willing to press charges and if Harris County was still requiring cash bail for even the most low-level offenses. And then consider the risk they would be in from COVID-19 in that scenario. We made significant progress on bail, but most of the problem is upstream from there. We can, we should, we must change this.

Let’s talk “meaningful reform”

Chief Acevedo brought it up, so let’s go there.

Houston Police Chief Art Acevedo’s voice cracked several times and his eyes welled as he railed against the death of George Floyd beneath a policeman’s knee and implored protesters to demonstrate peacefully with him.

“I will not allow anyone to tear down this city, because this is our city,” Acevedo shouted on Sunday to the group of mostly black Houstonians surrounding him at one of many protests in the wake of video showing Floyd’s fatal encounter with police in Minneapolis. “Pay close attention! Because these little white guys with their skateboards are the ones starting all the s–t.”

Video of Acevedo’s profanity-laced remarks went viral and, along with his other blunt statements this week, won the chief acclaim from those outraged by the death of Floyd, a former Third Ward resident.

It has also drawn anger from those who say Acevedo has failed to address the very things he’s condemning at home. His calls for police to be more transparent and enact “meaningful reform” have refocused attention on a series of fatal shootings by his own officers, and his refusal to release body camera video of the incidents.

“We’re looking at him say one thing on camera, but locally, we know different,” said Dav Lewis, a local activist who was friends with Adrian Medearis, one of the men who died in the spate of shootings. “We know different locally. We have not seen police accountability.”

The chief has also resisted calls to release the results of an audit of his narcotics division, rocked last year by one of its worst scandals in decades, and he has downplayed calls to bolster the city’s Independent Police Oversight Board, long criticized as a “toothless watchdog” group.

“While these are great photo ops, and maybe the chief has political aspirations, and this is all warm and fuzzy kind of stuff he’s doing, it’s time for some action,” said Mark Thiessen, president of the Harris County Criminal Lawyers Association.

[…]

Protesters intensified their calls on Tuesday for Acevedo to make the videos public. Mayor Sylvester Turner’s remarks at City Hall were punctuated by several people chanting “release the tapes,” and hours later Acevedo was directly confronted by a group of critical protesters at the downtown park Discovery Green.

Some lawmakers questioned Acevedo’s rationale for not releasing the body camera video.

“It is not law enforcement’s job to worry about prosecution,” said state Rep. Gene Wu, D-Houston. “It’s their job to be law enforcement.”

Wu, a former prosecutor who has called on Acevedo previously to release his audit, said Acevedo’s attitude “does more of a disservice to taint the public’s perception than anything else.”

“Right now you have the general public believing the police hide things,” Wu said. “When other cities during this crisis have shown they can release body cams immediately — that they can fire and discipline officers immediately — the fact we can’t get videos released months, sometimes even years later, is very telling.”

There’s more, and you should read the rest. On balance, I think Art Acevedo has been a pretty good Chief of Police. It’s not at all hard to imagine someone worse in his position – the current Chief of Police in Austin, for example. I also think that some of these reform ideas should be taken out of his discretion and mandated by the appropriate governing body. For releasing body camera footage and just generally being more transparent about it, that could be the Legislature or it could be City Council. Point being, the less room he or any Chief has to stall on releasing said footage, the less time we have to have this debate about transparency.

There are plenty of other things that can be done, at all levels of government, with the local stuff having the greatest potential for swift adoption. Tarsha Jackson, formerly with the Texas Organizing Project and now on hold in the City Council District B runoff, recommended several changes to the police union contract. CM Letitia Plummer, thankfully recovering from COVID-19, has proposed a budget amendment that would:

-Require officers exhaust all reasonable means before shooting
-Ban chokeholds and strangle holds
-Require de-escalation
-Require officers give verbal warning before shooting
-Notify Independent Police Oversight Board when death occurs
-Give IPOB subpoena power

It would also redirect funds currently allocated for a police cadet class as follows:

$2M, fund separate IPOB investigations
$1M, build online portal for residents to report misconduct
$3M, police training
$2M, permanent revolving fund for the Office of Business Opportunity, no-interest loans to minority-owned biz
$2M, enhance Health Dept’s Community Re-Entry Network Program
$500k, enhance Health Dept’s My Brother’s Keeper program
$1M, equipment and implementation of a “CAHOOTS” program (Crisis Assistance Helping Out On The Streets)

The point of that last item is to redirect a class of 911 calls that now go to law enforcement to this Crisis Assistance program, so the police can handle higher priority calls. Look at the photos she embedded in this Facebook post (specifically, this and this) to get a better feel for this. The city of Eugene, Oregon has used a program like this successfully since 1989. I strongly suspect most police officers would be happy to not have to respond to these kinds of calls for the most part going forward.

Stace adds recommendations from 8CantWait, which largely overlap the items noted by CM Plummer and Tarsha Jackson. Again, these are things that could be done now, if we wanted to. If there’s something you want to do in this direction, call Mayor Turner’s office and your district Council member along with the At Large members in support of these proposals. There are many ways to make noise.

There’s still more. Looking at the federal level, Sherrilyn Ifill and a triumvirate at The Atlantic have a list of action items for Congress, including an end (or at least a serious cutback) to qualified immunity, national data collection and tracking of police conduct and use of force, stronger enforcement of Title VI of the Civil Rights Act, and more. Ifill notes that “Currently, officers fired for misconduct and brutality against innocent civilians can be hired by other departments”. This will sound depressingly familiar to anyone who remembers the story of Tulia.

I personally would add: Decriminalization of marijuana and a complete shift of focus on other drug offenses from arrest and incarceration to treatment; Expanding Medicaid, which as I have said a gazillion times before will do so much to provide mental health services to countless Texans; Really attacking the homelessness problem by funding housing for the homeless and raising the minimum wage so that more people can afford housing in the first place; and repealing SB4, the odious “show me your papers” law. I believe these things will drastically reduce the interactions that ordinary people – overwhelmingly people of color – have with the police and the criminal justice system.

None of these things are panaceas, and none of them directly address systemic racism – I will defer on that to those who can speak more directly from their own experience – but I do believe all of them will have the effect of reducing harm to the black and brown people who have always received the brunt of the violence that comes from encounters with the police. Again, much of this is doable right now. Clearly, some other items will require winning more elections, in Texas and around the country, but we can still get started on what can be done now. If Chief Acevedo wants to come out in support of any or all of these things, that would be nice, too. Whether he does or he doesn’t, we can make them happen anyway.

How about that other coronavirus hot spot?

You know, prisons?

For more than fifty years, Palestine, Texas, has been known as a prison town. Most of the time, that hasn’t been a problem.

True, it was a bit controversial in the 1960s when the Texas corrections department bought up 21,000 acres in this part of East Texas and built the biggest men’s prison in the state. According to Ben Campbell, a local historian and self-described “old geezer,” locals fretted at the time about the danger of escaping prisoners. The state provided steady jobs with decent benefits, however, and over the years one prison expanded into five, which can hold nearly 14,000 men. Now, the Texas Department of Criminal Justice is the largest employer in Anderson County.

“People love it and they hate it—it’s jobs, but it’s low-paying jobs,” Campbell said. “They get decent benefits, so it’s a positive for the county.”

But when coronavirus hit, the county’s biggest employer became its biggest threat. More than 2,000 workers go in and out of the prisons—and have unwittingly been carrying coronavirus with them. More than 30 of them had tested positive for COVID-19 by Friday evening, according to the prison system, in a county with only 30 reported cases total (not all of the guards live there). There’s just one hospital in the county, the 150-bed Palestine Regional Medical Center.

“People are trying to be supportive and understanding of the guards needing to do their jobs,” said Matt Kuhl, the son of a retired corrections officer, who runs the “Happening Now in Anderson County, TX!” Facebook group. “But the general consensus is that it’s a threat to have so many cases nearby.”

[…]

By April 2,  the county already had its first confirmed COVID-19 case, and its chief executive issued a shelter-in-place order. The county also imposed an order limiting how many family members could enter big-box stores at one time because so many people had been congregating at the Walmart.

None of these restrictions could stave off the coronavirus explosion inside Anderson County prisons. The following week, the state corrections agency announced six men at the George Beto Unit had tested positive, and the maximum-security prison quickly became the biggest hotspot among the state’s 104 prisons.

“When it started spinning up out there at Beto, within a few days it was up to 30 cases and then 70,” said Peyton Williams, who has lived in Palestine for two years and works in banking. “It seemed to sneak up pretty quickly.”

Ten days after those first positives, Beto had more than 100 cases and, suddenly, a lot of people started worrying. Mayor Steve Presley sparred with prison administrators he accused of misrepresenting basic facts, like whether men were being moved from prison to prison, and thus possibly spreading the disease.

“They told us at one point that they had stopped all transfers except medical—and they eventually did, but they kept transferring them for about a week, just back and forth between prisons,” Presley told me recently. “Did they think we couldn’t find out in a town this small? That people wouldn’t tell us?”

Usually, he said, the city and the state agency get along. Everyone in town has seen vans full of men in prison-white uniforms on their way to trim grass at the city cemetery.

Prisoners had already stopped work for the city in early April when Presley vented to the local newspaper, telling the Palestine Herald-Press that he was furious that the corrections agency was not prepared to handle an outbreak. A state worker then said prisoners would no longer work at the city’s cemetery and parks. The mayor initially suspected it was in retaliation, but the TDCJ later said it was a misunderstanding and the change was not permanent.

That was two weeks ago, but problems continue. Prisoners at two other nearby units have tested positive, and the outbreak at Beto is still growing. Last week it topped two hundred cases.

Meanwhile, more people in Palestine are getting sick. “Most of the cases are prison-related,” said Dr. Carolyn Salter, a local physician who was once the mayor. “I have a bad feeling about this.”

I know the mere mention of this subject will send some people fluttering to the fainting chairs, but discuss it we must. And hot tip, lots and lots of people go into and out of these prisons (and jails) every day. If those places are ginormous breeding grounds for coronavirus – and they are – what did you think was going to happen? And more to the point, what are we going to do about it?

The new coronavirus is fully entrenched in the Texas prison system, confirmed to have infected more than 1,600 inmates and employees at dozens of units. At least 25 infected prisoners and staff members have died. But, like in the rest of the state, the scope of the virus’ spread behind bars is still largely unknown because testing has been limited.

As of Saturday, TDCJ had tested about 1,700 symptomatic inmates for the virus — about 1% of the state’s prison population, according to TDCJ reports. More than 70% of them have tested positive for the coronavirus. That’s a staggeringly high rate compared with the state overall, where less than 10% of the relatively low number of Texans tested had positive results. (Prisoners are largely excluded from state case counts.)

Epidemiologists say more testing is needed in prisons because they are incubators for disease, which can endanger not only prisoners and staff, but surrounding communities as well.

“People tend to think of them as separated from the rest of society, but that is not the case,” said Dr. Chris Beyrer, an epidemiologist at Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health. “Most [prison outbreaks] have begun with introductions from staff.”

[…]

And infectious disease experts and prisoner rights advocates say much more needs to be done, starting with mass testing of inmates and reducing the overall prisoner population.

“Until they start doing mass testing, I don’t think they’re going to get a hold of the problem there,” said Michele Deitch, a senior lecturer and prison conditions expert at the University of Texas law school. “There are going to continue to be deaths, and it’s going to continue spreading to the communities both through staff and people who are released and people who are sent to community hospitals.”

But Texas has one of the lowest testing rates in the country. State Rep. James White, who leads the Texas House Corrections Committee, said the prison system is doing the best it can with the resources it has.

“Whatever we’re challenged with in the so-called free society, we have those same challenges, if not exacerbated, in the incarcerated population,” the Hillister Republican said. “We’re having challenges with testing like in the state.”

Releasing some prisoners early — which could include elderly inmates eligible for parole, people close to finishing their sentences or those who have already been granted parole but are still behind bars — is a decision that falls to Abbott and the Texas Board of Pardons and Paroles, but neither has indicated any plans to do so.

After some law enforcement officials and conservatives argued that freeing more inmates could lead to a spike in crime when police are already stretched thin, Abbott came out against more releases from lockups.

“We want to prevent the spread of #COVID19 among prison staff & inmates. But, releasing dangerous criminals in the streets is not the solution,” Abbott said in a March tweet.

But Seth Prins, an assistant professor of epidemiology and sociomedical sciences at Columbia University, said it’s too late to rely solely on mitigation in the prisons.

“Really the only effective strategy is to get as many people out as possible,” he said. “I wish there was a middle-of-the-road answer, but there’s not.”

We could have done more aggressive testing early on, to at least try to isolate the sick from the not-yet-sick, and we could have been more aggressive about releasing low-risk inmates and speeding up the release of those who were going to be getting out soon anyway, but that ship has sailed. What we now get to live with, thanks to Greg Abbott and Donald Trump and their complete failure to provide for universal testing is this constant source of infection, which will mostly but not entirely fall on the people who live near, work in, or are incarcerated in these places. As with pretty much everything else about this virus, it didn’t have to be this way, but here we are.

Judges have to do their part

Some could be doing better.

Harris County’s largest association of criminal defense attorneys on Monday called on local judges to halt in-person court appearances to help prevent the spread of coronavirus.

As the virus has swept across the nation, it has shut down wide swaths of everyday life. But in Harris County — where judges last month halted jury trials and many other court functions — some criminal judges have continued to require in-person court hearings and in-person reporting to pre-trial services.

Harris County Criminal Lawyers Association President Neal A. Davis wrote that such policies present a “threat to public safety and the impartial administration of justice.”

In the four-page letter — which was sent to the county’s 22 state district judges and 16 misdemeanor judges, Davis noted that video appearances are “easy and routine now,” and that local prosecutors are expressly forbidden from appearing in courtrooms, except in “the rarest of occasions.”

“For a Harris County Judge to require one party to physically appear and risk exposure to a deadly pathogen, and allow the other party to appear remotely, violates a judge’s appearance of impartiality, at a minimum,” Davis wrote.

[…]

Local defense attorney Patrick McCann said that while many misdemeanor judges were taking measures to mitigate the spread of the coronavirus, some district judges “have not thought through the implications of everything they’ve been asking the defense bar to do.”

“I’m glad the HCCLA is finally standing up for the average solo (attorney) that’s trying to keep safe, keep their family safe and still do a good job for their clients,” he said.

This is one of those things that should have gone without saying, but clearly we need to say it. It’s clearly unfair to have different rules for each side, and when those different rules put some people’s lives at risk, there’s really no excuse. The story does not indicate which judges are the offenders here, but I’m sure the names are known. All I can say is that the next time these judges come up for election, I would very much like to know who was doing the right thing and who was not. I hope that the various endorsing organizations will take that into account, and more to the point be as transparent as they can about it. I know that most people who vote in judicial elections don’t know a whole lot about the candidates in question. That doesn’t mean the information that is relevant to us shouldn’t be available. Please make sure that it is.

Coronavirus and crime

It’s down around the country. Turns out having everyone stay inside has a salutary effect, for the most part.

Crime rates plunged in cities and counties across the U.S. over the second half of March as the coronavirus pandemic drove millions of residents to stay inside their homes.

Police logged dramatically fewer calls for service, crime incidents and arrests in the last two weeks of March than each of the previous six weeks, a USA TODAY analysis of crime data published by 53 law enforcement agencies in two dozen states found. The analysis is among the largest studies measuring the impact of the coronavirus on crime and policing.

Massive drops in traffic and person stops – as much as 92% in some jurisdictions – helped drive sharp declines in drug offenses and DUIs. Thefts and residential burglaries decreased with fewer stores open and homes unoccupied, and some agencies logged fewer assaults and robberies. Bookings into each of nearly two dozen county jails monitored by the news organization fell by at least a quarter since February.

At the same time, calls for domestic disturbances and violence surged by 10% to 30% among many police agencies that contributed data. Several also saw increases in public nuisance complaints such as loud noise from parties. The Baltimore Police Department, for example, received 362 loud-music complaints in the last two weeks of March, nearly matching its total for all of February.

The trends reflect both a purposeful reduction in police activity and officer-initiated stops and the effect of stay-at-home orders that have closed huge swaths of Main Street and pushed people into their homes and out of traditional crime hot spots, such as bars, clubs and social events.

The Marshall Project did a similar look at a smaller number of cities in late March, and this AP report is fresh off the presses, and both saw the same basic thing. DUI arrests are down for the obvious reason that fewer people are driving, but that same decline in driving means a decline in traffic stops, which in turn means a big drop in drug possession busts. Some cities have stopped arresting people for low-level offenses anyway, as a coronavirus risk mitigation. Burglaries are a more interesting case – home burglaries are on the decline since most people are now mostly at home, but more businesses are closed, which does increase the target surface. HPD Chief Art Acevedo claims burglaries of businesses in Houston are up 18.9% – this KTRK story, which is based on the tweet in which Acevedo made that claim, just says “burglaries” are up, which is a misrepresentation of the Chief’s words – but he didn’t provide numbers or a time frame for that. And as the Marshall Project story says, crime can fluctuate quite a bit over a short time span for any number of reasons, so all this should be seen as very preliminary and not necessarily predictive. Let’s see what we’re seeing after another month of staying at home.

One crime that is definitely on the rise, in Houston and around the country, is domestic abuse, including child abuse. A spike in gun sales is unlikely to help with that. Being at home is safe for most of us, but not all of us. For people trapped at home with an abuser, there is no safety and now no escape. I don’t know what to do about that now, but as with so many other things, we need to give it a lot of thought, and more resources, so we are better prepared for the next time.

One more thing:

Many police departments say they are intentionally arresting fewer people to avoid the potential spread of the coronavirus in jails. Police in Delray Beach, Florida, are reducing proactive policing, such as drug busts. In nearby Gainesville, Florida, officers are increasingly issuing summons instead of making arrests for minor offenses, Police chief inspector Jorge Campos said.

“It’s not that we’re not enforcing (the law),” Campos said. “It’s that we’re finding alternative ways of dealing with the issue rather than make physical arrests.”

Huh. What if – stay with me here – we kept on doing that even after the coronavirus pandemic is over? It’s so crazy it just might work.

Stockman seeks a pardon

Oh, my God, this may be the most 2020 story ever.

Best newspaper graphic ever

Former U.S. Rep. Steve Stockman, who is serving a 10-year federal prison stint for a complex campaign corruption scheme, is seeking a presidential pardon amid the growing coronavirus pandemic.

The 63-year-old Clear Lake Republican firebrand is serving his sentence at a low-security facility in Beaumont where the Bureau of Prisons has yet to report any cases. His wife, Patti Stockman, however, states in a video made April 1 that her husband said the first case had been diagnosed at an adjoining federal prison in Beaumont.

His wife made a plea this week, along with several former cabinet members, ex-congressmembers and other evangelical and conservative officials, for compassionate release, saying he is among the nonviolent “sitting ducks” who are especially vulnerable and should be pardoned. They add that Stockman could die if exposed due to diabetes and lung scarring as a result of asthma. He is also overweight and has high blood pressure, his wife said.

A petition by 50 conservative leaders calls Stockman “a perfect example of a prisoner who fits criteria of who should be removed from prison.” The letter notes his “intense Christian faith,” and “the extreme length of the judge’s sentence,” and says he is not eligible for release under the First Step Act.

[…]

Jeffrey Crouch, an American University professor who wrote a book on presidential pardons, said the appeal is not falling on deaf ears.

“Former Rep. Stockman is a high-profile Republican and a convicted white-collar offender who enjoys support for presidential mercy from a list of leading conservatives,” Crouch said. “If President Trump decided to pardon him, the decision would fit in well with others Trump has made regarding who should receive clemency.”

Crouch noted, “What is unusual here is the presence of the COVID-19 pandemic: Trump might now have political cover to use clemency as an act of mercy to assist Stockman and perhaps others in a similar position.”

There’s an embed of a video made by Mrs. Stockman to Trump in the story that I didn’t have the stomach to click on. What one can’t achieve by legal means, try to get by appealing to the vanity of the nation’s leading grifter, from one of his loyal acolytes. Meanwhile, there are thousands of people around the country in jails who haven’t been convicted of anything and whose release as a way of mitigating the risk of further spread of COVID-19 is being zealously opposed by “conservative leaders” like these. Yep, this is 2020 boiled down to a concentrated essence. If it doesn’t work for Stockman it will only be because Trump was too distracted by other, shinier objects.

Another obstacle to releasing inmates

One step forward, one step back.

As fear and COVID-19 crept though the Harris County Jail, felony judges halted the release of low-risk inmates on Friday, blocking the county chief executive’s order to free them to await trial.

Sheriff Ed Gonzalez discontinued the releases Friday after District Judge Herb Ritchie voided the order to free inmates to mitigate the spread of COVID-19. People had begun to be released from the jail Thursday night and Friday morning under Judge Lina Hidalgo’s decision from earlier in the week, but only a handful walked free before Ritchie put the hammer down.

Public health experts have warned that the cramped conditions at the jail mean any significant outbreak could spread “like wildfire” among the jail population, spreading to staff and the wider community. Five people who work at the jail and three inmates have tested positive for the coronavirus, with 800 more inmates quarantined. The sheriff has been calling for releases for weeks to avert a contagion that could ravage the jail and overload the region’s health care system.

[…]

Hidalgo earlier this week ordered Gonzalez to prepare a list of inmates accused of certain nonviolent offenses and who did not have previous convictions for violent crimes. That list was being reviewed and pared down by other county departments.

On Friday afternoon Ritchie, who supervises the felony judges, issued an “Order to Disregard Directive by Harris County Judge.” He ordered the sheriff to “ignore and wholly disregard” Hidalgo’s directive to arrange for the release of inmates. Ritchie’s order said that each violation “may result in criminal contempt of court penalties, which may include up to six months’ confinement in jail, as well as a possible fine not to exceed $500.00.”

Hidalgo said, “We are reviewing the order and hoping for a swift resolution because the health of every Harris County resident is at stake.”

Michael Fleming, former Harris County Attorney, said Ritchie has a very strong argument on constitutional grounds. “It’s not a frivolous thing that he did,” Fleming said. “A district judge under the Texas Constitution has supervisory control.”

It’s a thorny legal issue, according to Brandon Rottinghaus, a political science professor at University of Houston. “The judiciary almost always has precedence in matters involving release from incarceration,” he said, but noted: “In times of crisis, discretionary powers to protect public safety have a way of finding priority, so a higher court may agree that the county judge has jurisdiction in an emergency.”

The effort to secure inmate releases has crawled along for weeks, impeded by squabbling among the county departments involved, disagreements about who should qualify for release, threats from the state Attorney General and social media potshots from Houston Police Chief Art Acevedo and others warning of dire consequences should people be freed from jail. For all the effort that went into Hidalgo’s order, it appeared Friday that only a handful would end up being released under its terms.

The sheriff sought to prioritize 125 people whose health would be especially compromised if they were exposed to the virus. The district attorney objected to all but 14 of those people, who had all been released as of late Friday morning. According to an estimate by the sheriff’s lawyer, only 150 to 200 on the list of 1,470 people would have gone free.

The Hidalgo order excluded anyone with three or more drunk-driving convictions, a conviction for burglary of a habitation or temporary restraining orders. The inmates released on Thursday night and Friday include people charged with drug possession, unauthorized use of a vehicle, evading arrest, interfering with the duties of a public servant, theft, fraud, and tampering with a government record. But the vast majority on the sheriff’s list were being stricken.

See here and here for the background. Boy, you really have to watch out for those document-tamperers. They will straight-up kill you if you look at them funny. Kidding aside, I sure don’t know if Judge Ritchie is correct that county judges don’t have the authority to order the release of inmates who have been held on bond. There’s likely little to no precedent, and there are good arguments to be made either way. (Former CCA Justice Elsa Alcala has some interesting discussion of this on her Twitter feed.) Individual judges can certainly change bond conditions as they see fit, and eventually we will get this sorted out either through the courts or subsequent legislation. The point, though, is that this is an emergency situation, and every day increases the risk and the infection rate, which is exactly what Judge Hidalgo was trying to mitigate. This is just another way in which we as a society were totally unprepared for this kind of problem. We damn well better learn from it for the next time.

The state of inmate releases

Harris County judges are going to follow the federal bail lawsuit settlement agreement and not Greg Abbott.

Texas Gov. Greg Abbott has moved to restrict the release of people in jail during the coronavirus pandemic — but Harris County’s misdemeanor judges aren’t abiding by his executive order. Instead, they’re following a federal court’s orders for their bail decisions.

And those tied to the court have again raised skepticism that Abbott’s order is even constitutional.

Instead of following Abbott’s recent executive order, a lawyer for the 16 criminal court judges that preside over low-level offenses in Texas’ largest county said in a Tuesday letter obtained by The Texas Tribune that the judges will continue to comply with practices solidified in a federal court agreement. That will allow for the automatic release of most misdemeanor defendants without collecting bail payment.

[…]

Abbott’s order, issued Sunday, suspended much of the state’s bail laws and prohibited the release of people in jail accused or previously convicted of violent crimes from being released on these personal bonds. But Abbott’s order only prohibits personal bonds, so those inmates could still walk free if they have access to cash.

In an interview with The Texas Tribune on Tuesday, Abbott said his order had nothing to do with bail reform efforts, which prompted Harris County’s lawsuit.

“Bail reform efforts, among other things, are focused on making sure that you’re not going to imprison someone just because they don’t have any money, and you’re not going to have a bifurcated system where the rich are gonna get to bail out and the poor are not,” he said. “So this doesn’t focus on how deep somebody’s pocketbook is. It has to do with how serious the crime they committed.”

A law professor overseeing the Harris County decree advised county officials this week that the federal court order supersedes the governor’s. And he also doubted the constitutionality of Abbott’s order.

“The Order is likely unconstitutional under state and federal law. But regardless of whether it is ultimately challenged and/or implemented, [it] does not affect any terms of the pre-existing … consent decree,” said Brandon Garrett of Duke University School of Law.

See here for the background. It’s still not clear to me what Abbott intended with this order and what if anything he’ll do in response to the courts’ actions. We do know what the plaintiffs in that bail lawsuit are doing, however.

Gov. Greg Abbott’s order restricting the release of some Texas jail inmates during the coronavirus pandemic is being challenged in federal court. Civil rights attorneys filed a court motion Wednesday arguing the order unconstitutionally discriminates against poor defendants and also takes away judges’ power to make individual release decisions.

[…]

On Wednesday, in an ongoing federal lawsuit over Harris County’s felony court bail practices, attorneys representing inmates filed a motion for a temporary restraining order against Abbott’s order. The motion asks U.S. District Judge Lee Rosenthal to order Harris County judges to ignore Abbott’s order until a full hearing can be held.

“The text of the Order purports to block release of presumptively innocent individuals even if state judges conclude that there is no individualized basis for their pretrial detention — but only for those who cannot pay,” the motion said.

Abbott said Tuesday that his legal team and the attorney general’s office worked for days on the order to ensure it met “constitutional muster.” His order “doesn’t focus on how deep somebody’s pocketbook is. It has to do with how serious the crime they committed,” he said. A spokesperson for the governor did not immediately respond to questions about the court challenge Wednesday.

My guess is that Judge Rosenthal will not be impressed by Abbott’s order, but I expect we’ll know soon enough.

And then there’s this.

Judge Lina Hidalgo

Judge Lina Hidalgo issued an order Wednesday directing the Harris County Jail to release some low-risk inmates to mitigate the spread of coronavirus.

It could take up to 32 hours for the relevant agencies to weigh in and allow eligible people to leave the downtown campus of the third largest jail in the country.

The order by Hidalgo — more than two weeks in the making — calls on Sheriff Ed Gonzalez to assemble a list of people accused of nonviolent offenses with no violent prior convictions. Murray Fogler, a lawyer for Gonzalez, estimated this initial list could include 1,000 to 1,200 people who fit the criteria.

The order cites the grave risk the disease poses to both the jail population and the whole Houston area.

“Without significant reductions in the current population, the lack of physical space, supplies, and staff to control an infectious outbreak in the Harris County Jail system is likely to spread to the greater Harris County region,” the order says. “These detainees spend significant time in communal spaces, including dormitories, eating areas, recreation rooms, bathrooms, and cells or holding areas, and are unable to choose to do otherwise. Further, detainees live in spaces with open toilets within a few feet from their beds, and unable to access a closed toilet that would not aerosolize bodily fluids into their living spaces.”

The order excludes anyone with three or more drunk-driving convictions, a conviction for burglary of a habitation or any pending temporary restraining orders.

See here and here for the background. The order, which is embedded in the Chron story, also takes into account inmates who have tested positive for COVID-19. The jail is going to be a huge vector for the virus, and the only thing we can do about it is to minimize the number of people who could be affected by it. Again, I wonder what if any resistance we’re going to get from the state.

More on Abbott’s stay-in-jail order

Here’s that more detailed Chron story I referenced yesterday. I’m just going to quote the newer information about Greg Abbott’s executive order that attempts to basically stop most releases of inmates from the jail regardless of the coronavirus situation.

The newly appointed monitor over Harris County’s misdemeanor bail protocol, Duke law professor Brandon Garrett, said the decree violated “many state and federal constitutional provisions.”

Alec Karakatsanis, a civil rights attorney who represents thousands of indigent defendants awaiting trial at the lockup on felony charges, called the governor’s stance illegal and perilous.

“The edict is dangerous, unprecedented, chaotic, and a flagrantly unconstitutional attempt to infringe fundamental constitutional rights,” he said. “If enforced it would have catastrophic public health consequences.”

[…]

The governor’s order suspends portions of the Texas Code of Criminal Procedure and statues related to personal bonds, barring any personal bonds for anyone with a prior violent conviction or a conviction involving the threat of violence. He also outlawed releasing inmates with prior violent convictions on electronic monitoring.

In a barely veiled reference to the preparations taking place by Harris County Judge Lina Hidalgo, the governor suspended portions of the Texas Government Code permitting a county judge, mayor or emergency management director from releasing people outlawed under his new order. He said criminal court judges who handle misdemeanor and felony cases may still consider such releases on an individualized basis for health or medical reasons proper notice to prosecutors.

Among prison inmates, Abbott suspended portions of the state criminal code related to commuting sentences for anyone convicted of violence or threats.

Multiple plans for lowering the jail population have evolved in the past two weeks, including an executive order by Hidalgo that never came to fruition and a request by the lawyers who sued the county over its bail practices. District Attorney Kim Ogg also entered the discussion, telling the sheriff and presiding district judge that she wanted to weigh in and expedite releases of low-risk inmates in the “high likelihood” of a federal court order dictating either substantive bail hearings or outright release on personal bonds.

“As the legal representatives of the State of Texas, we also have the duty to be advocates for victims and the community in a full and fair bail hearing related to the proposed release of individuals who do pose a substantial risk to public safety,” Ogg wrote, in the letter obtained by the Houston Chronicle.

Hours before Abbott’s announcement, Chief U.S. District Judge Lee H. Rosenthal convened an emergency hearing by phone to address incomplete plans by plaintiffs in a federal civil rights case to craft the a release order for people accused of some nonviolent offenses, along with lawyers for the sheriff and the county judge.

An official from Attorney General Ken Paxton’s office told the federal judge that Paxton was poised to appeal any order by Rosenthal that called for blanket releases of inmates.

See here for the previous post. The Trib adds on.

Abbott’s order applies to inmates who have been accused or convicted of “a crime that involves physical violence or the threat of physical violence,” which defense attorneys called a vague and subjective standard. Abbott’s directive also appears to apply to inmates with any history of violent offenses — meaning a person arrested on a nonviolent drug charge last week could be held if he had a decades-old conviction of a violent offense.

Though the order bans release of inmates on no-cost, personal bonds, it does not set a standard for how high a bail amount must be. Presumably, judges could still release inmates on bonds of $1, defense attorneys said.

Legal experts questioned the order’s validity, and it drew immediate rebukes from Democrats and bail reform advocates, who argued the order discriminates against poor people. Several Texas counties, including Harris and Dallas, have in recent years had their bail practices deemed unconstitutional for discriminating against poor defendants.

“It is a dangerous, unprecedented, chaotic and flagrantly unconstitutional edict that if enforced would expose many people around the state of Texas to a public health catastrophe,” said Alec Karakatsanis, executive director of the Civil Rights Corp, which has been at the helm of Harris County’s federal bail lawsuits.

El Paso Democrat Joe Moody, a state representative and former prosecutor and defense attorney, said “if followed, this order will see jails bursting at the seams [with] minor drug offenders, homeless people whose most recent ‘crime’ was something like simple trespass & everyday citizens picked up on the flimsiest of allegations.”

According to Abbott’s order, a judge may consider a defendant’s release for health or medical reasons, after the district attorney is notified and there is an opportunity for a hearing.

You can see the executive order here, and a brief analysis of why it doesn’t pass constitutional muster here. Rep. Gene Wu was on a call with Abbott and reports that the Governor is either misinformed or not telling the truth about his own order. The ACLU of Texas has responded to Abbott’s order, and I presume we’ll have some action in the federal court today. I should note that Ken Paxton jumped out in front of this parade ahead of Abbott’s order, which prompted a couple of folks to observe that Ken Paxton is himself under a felony indictment and out free on bail. Hey, irony went into hospice care sometime back in 2002, so just keep swimming. The Texas Observer has more.

Still trying to do something about the coronavirus risk in the jail

Time is extremely limited for this.

A federal judge Friday asked lawyers to hammer out a plan for releasing about 1,000 indigent inmates detained on bonds of $10,000 or less amid fear of a COVID-19 outbreak at the third largest jail in the country. The judge indicated she would take up the fate of another 3,400 people in the Harris County Jail awaiting trial on higher bonds next week.

The instructions by Chief U.S. District Judge Lee H. Rosenthal came in response to an emergency request Friday by the team of lawyers who challenged the county’s bail policies. They argued that thousands of poor defendants trapped in the jail simply because they couldn’t afford bail should be granted immediate bail hearings or be released.

The pleading laid a grave situation at the hands of a judge who has made many tough decisions in the criminal justice realm.

“A public health catastrophe of historic proportion looms in the Harris County Jail. Only this Court can avert it,” the motion says. “With every passing hour, the risk of disaster increases. All eyes turn to this Court in this dire moment.”

The bail lawsuit motion for a temporary restraining order and preliminary injunction seeks release of about half the jail’s population of nearly 8,000 if they cannot be afforded immediate bail hearings. This would mean thousands of people charged with nonviolent offenses would be allowed to await trial on bond outside the facility, as they would otherwise be able to do if they could post cash bond.

Other local officials, including the sheriff, state district judges and top county official have been tackling the potential public health threat from different angles over the past two weeks, seeking compassionate releases of medically vulnerable inmates, bonds for those accused of nonviolent offenses, or some cross-section of the two groups.

But early Friday lawyers from Civil Rights Corps, the Texas Civil Rights Project and pro bono counsel from Susman Godfrey, stepped in with a constitutional approach to the jail problem that could allow much more drastic cuts in the population than the compassionate release plans outlined by the sheriff and the county judge.

Rosenthal asked the lawyers for indigent defendants and attorneys for the sheriff and the county to assemble by Monday a list of thousands of people who might qualify for release based on their bond amounts, charges, criminal histories and risk factors. In addition, the judge indicated she would move swiftly on a subset of the indigent defendants who can’t pay their bond. She asked for confirmation that 1,000 or so people being held on bonds of up to $10,000 were not subject to other holds or detainers.

The sheriff and county officials told the judge that they had no objection to this first group being released if they fit the judge’s criteria. According to a lawyer for the plaintiffs, the only agency that opposed the release of those facing $10,000 bonds was the Texas Attorney General’s Office.

Sheriff Gonzalez had been working on this for the past week, trying to get individual judges to allow some inmates to be released, but the process was slow. County Judge Lina Hidalgo had been working on an executive order that would have released a larger number of inmates, but she shelved it after objections from the Attorney General’s office; you can read that story for the details. And I know, we’re all going to be murdered in our sleep by a rampaging horde of pot smokers and check kiters, but let’s do pause for a moment and consider what the alternative might be:

In another effort to address the issue, Harris Health System leaders on Friday sent a letter asking for the release of defendants with nonviolent offenses.

The county medical system’s president and CEO stressed that an outbreak in the Harris County Jail is not a matter of if, but when.

“The Harris County Jail and other large correctional facilities pose a real and immediate danger to the health of the community,” Esmaeil Porsa said. “An even limited outbreak of COVID-19 in the Harris County Jail has the potential to overwhelm our already overburdened hospital system. If this happened — and the likelihood is high — it could leave many vulnerable people in our community without access to care.”

Porsa urged the county to consider prioritizing inmates over 60 with pre-existing conditions such as cancer, diabetes, asthma and chronic pulmonary disease, heart disease and HIV. Jails are known to have higher concentrations of people in the high-risk group, he said.

He added that social distancing is nearly impossible, with dorm settings holding between 20 and 60 people in a close space. And quarantine is also unfeasible when inmates are booked in and out of the jail on a daily basis.

We could just let them all die, I suppose. I’m sure Dan Patrick would approve. I would rather not do that.

UPDATE: And now Greg Abbott is involved, and I’m confused.

As the first Harris County inmate tested positive for COVID-19 Sunday, Gov. Greg Abbott issued an executive order blocking any release of inmates from jails and prisons accused or convicted of violent crime.

“Releasing dangerous criminals from jails into the streets is not the right solution and doing so is now prohibited by law by this declaration,” Abbott said at an afternoon briefing.

The news comes as federal, state and local government officials continued to squabble over details of what a jail release would look like as they attempted to prevent a catastrophic outbreak among the approximately 8,000 people incarcerated at the downtown facility.

The governor was referencing Attorney General Ken Paxton’s motion to prevent Harris County from releasing 4,000 people awaiting trial on felonies, saying such a move would “allow dangerous criminals to roam freely and commit more crimes during the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic.”

“Protecting Texans is one of my highest priorities. It is vital that we maintain the integrity of our criminal justice system and continue to enforce state law during this pandemic,” Paxton said. “My office will not stand for any action that threatens the health and safety of law-abiding citizens.”

Hours earlier a federal judge convened an emergency hearing to address plans that plaintiffs in a federal civil rights case had hammered out over the weekend with lawyers for the sheriff and the county judge to release inmates accused of some nonviolent offense.

An official from Paxton’s office appeared telephonically at that hearing and said the AG planned to appeal an order by the federal judge to the 5th U.S. Circuit if it called for any blanket releases.

The judge set a hearing for Tuesday to address a possible appeal.

There wasn’t anything in the previous story about people accused or convicted of violent crimes, hence my confusion. I assume there are still plenty of people in the Harris County jail for misdemeanor charges, so it’s not at all clear to me what the extent of the dispute is. Maybe later versions of the story will make that more clear.

UPDATE: There’s now a more detailed version of the Chron story and also a Trib story, but this post is too long already. I’ll be back with more tomorrow.