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July 7th, 2010:

Dems drop effort to remove Greens from the ballot

After the initial Supreme Court ruling, it was probably a long shot.

The Texas Democratic Party today cleared the way for Green Party candidates to remain on the ballot this year by dropping its state Supreme Court challenge to the legality of the Green’s ballot access petition drive.

However, the Democrats indicated the party will continue its lawsuit at a lower court level in an effort to obtain civil penalties in the case.

“Although the motion we filed today means it is almost certain that Green Party candidates will remain on the ballot in 2010, the facts demonstrate that the participants in this petition gathering scam acted improperly and we continue to seek penalties allowed by law,” said Democratic Chairman Boyd Richie.

Finding where the money trail leads is the main thing. Someone paid for that petition drive, and we have a right to know who it was. However that ends, I’m amazed at how many Republicans had a hand in trying to get the Greens on the ballot. You think maybe they’re a little worried? Postcards and BOR have more.

On we go with the red light camera debate

The DMN has a story about the ongoing red light camera debate around the state. There’s a lot of familiar stuff in there, but this bit caught my eye:

While camera critics dispute the safety data, the money generated has raised even more questions and intrigue, especially as collections have pushed into the tens of millions. A 2007 state law requires cities to set aside half of all profits to help fund regional trauma care centers. Most cities use their share for traffic safety and enforcement efforts.

Houston police Sgt. Michael Muench, who oversees that city’s red-light camera program, said his department has plowed all revenues into crash-scene investigation equipment, extra traffic patrols, radar guns and other traffic-related improvements. “So far, it’s working,” Muench said. Critics point to large disparities in the profits cities generate as evidence that some are just out to make a buck.

“In College Station, cameras were not put at the most dangerous intersections, but the most profitable ones,” said Jim Ash, a sales representative who began the petition drive to take down the cameras there.

I don’t get that. The “most profitable” intersections would be those that have the most red light runners. Isn’t that exactly where you’d want to put the cameras? I guess you could have intersections with a lower violation rate but a higher accident rate. I don’t know what things are like in College Station but I can’t say I recall hearing that argument in Houston. What am I missing here?

I’ll be honest, I’ve never really understood the “it’s all about money” argument against red light cameras. I get the concerns about cameras in the public sphere, and the concerns about due process. I certainly agree that cities should not reduce yellow light intervals as a way to generate more violations, as Baytown admitted to doing last year. For sure, cities can get into trouble if they depend on red light camera revenue for their general funds, as happened to Dallas. Their contract with the camera company seems to be less favorable to them than some others; compare the revenue and expense data for Dallas and Houston in the DMN story, for example. Houston, as far as I can tell, has done a decent job with this, but it is a potential issue.

All of these things I understand. But when I hear complaints about profits and cash grabs and whatnot, my reaction is always the same: If people didn’t run red lights, we wouldn’t be having this conversation. Everybody is fully capable of avoiding red light camera expenses. When I hear this argument, at least when I hear it in the absence of specific complaints about manipulated yellow light intervals or bad budget practices, what I hear is approximately “People should have the right to run red lights”. Maybe that says more about me than it does about the anti-camera position, but that’s where the camera opponents lose me.

The story notes that the anti-camera forces in Houston are preparing to announce that they have the signatures to force a vote on whether or not to ban the cameras this November. As things stand now, I don’t see any reason why I would vote for that proposition. Houston’s implementation seems to be working as intended, the contract is not onerous, and the revenue is being used appropriately. I’d like to see updated information about the violation and accident rates at the camera-enabled intersections, but I’d expect that to be part of the campaign for and against the proposition, so I can wait a little longer. One thing that could get me to change my mind would be evidence that camera data is being manipulated, as opponents in Baytown claim is happening there. Byron Schirmbeck, one of the leaders of the camera opposition in Baytown, sent me performance data for the cameras for March and April of this year, with the following explanation:

There are a few things to know about what is on the report. There is column A which is labeled “events” this is essentially each time that particular camera detects a violation of a steady red and forwards that to ATS for them to review. Column B is the total rejections, which would be for every reason, like they can’t see the plate clearly, there was glare in the camera, the camera malfunctioned etc, and anything that they declare as a “non violation” which is column C and accounts for the greatest number of the total rejections. Which would mean ATS reviewed the event and determined it to not be a violation for whatever reason. This is where the problem is: ATS, not the police department, has control over what they send to the PD without any oversight and any violation detected by the camera can be declared a “non violation” for any reason they see fit, including trying to manipulate the data. You could explain away a single digit variance for a couple of months, but you can’t explain away a 20% or more increase that continually grows to the point where nearly 6 out of 10 violations are declared to be “non violations”. The way I see it there are only 2 reasonable explanations possible, 1. ATS has deliberately thrown out tickets to make violations appear to have gone down in anticipation of a vote on the cameras, or 2. the cameras are detecting 20% more violations that really aren’t violations, which is alarming in itself as this makes one wonder about the integrity of the program. Why are the cameras doing that over several months each month? Who would get caught that shouldn’t have?

“ATS” is the camera vendor that has a contract to provide these services to Baytown. There may be a good answer for the questions that Schirbeck raises, but I’d want to know what it is before I’d endorse the Baytown program.

Anyway. There’s an accompanying story about how the business of red light cameras also means business for lobbying shops, as they try to fend off another attempt by the Lege to ban them. If that surprises you in any way, you would also probably be surprised by the news that it is currently hot and humid outside.

Grits visits the Harris County jail

Here’s a thoughtful post by Scott Henson on his visit to the Harris County jail and the proposed booking center, which was touted as a gateway primarily for arrestees with mental health issues. While acknowledging the need for more resources there, Scott hits upon an issue that I don’t think has gotten adequate discussion.

Both in booking and the mental health ward, I was told by several folks that the jail sees the same “repeaters” or “frequent flyers” over and over. The problem isn’t necessarily that the number of people sent to jail is increasing, in other words, but the same people are going to jail more often, too often.

At root, failures in community supervision are driving Harris County Jail overcrowding. Frequent flyers are almost all subject to the jurisdiction of the probation department, but intensive supervision and services clearly aren’t being applied, or at least applied effectively, to the most high-risk folks. There are just a few thousand people cycling in and out of the jail – many of them mentally ill, homeless, addicted, or with other major barriers to successful rehabilitation – who are primarily responsible for the demand for increased capacity. These folks generate high per-person costs over time but as a matter of policy (a de facto if not an intentional one), Harris County is spending money on them at the jail instead of seeking community-based alternatives.

How much cheaper would it be to focus on reducing the number of visits and lengths of stay by frequent flyers than to simply build more capacity to accommodate a dysfunctional system? Quite a bit, I suspect. That’s why IMO Harris County can’t build it’s way out of this problem: The same number of people can soak up a seemingly infinite amount of resources unless officials find smarter, more cost-effective ways to supervise them. Many folks, I was told (I’ve asked for an exact number), are processed through booking three or more times per year, and for a few of them the number is much higher.

Basically, what this says to me is that the problem is that we’re asking the criminal justice system to solve a problem that it’s not best suited to solve. Actually, we’re not so much asking them to solve it as we are leaving it to them to solve it because there are no other alternatives. We could have, as we once did, more public mental health facilities that would deal with these problems. We could have all kinds of other programs and outreaches and oversight, to ensure people with mental health problems had places to stay and access to medication (along with supervision to ensure they took their meds) and job placement counseling and so on and so forth. If we had these things, these so-called “frequent flyers” would likely not intersect with the justice system much more than the rest of the population, and in addition would likely be a lot more productive and self-sufficient. They’d be net contributors rather than primarily consumers of public services. I absolutely agree with Scott that in the long term, this would be vastly less expensive for the county, the state, and the federal government.

But we don’t have these sorts of programs or facilities. Anyone who proposed such a thing today would be ridiculed as a reckless spender at a time when belts must be tightened. And so, in the name of austerity and “fiscal responsibility”, we spend a ton more money dealing with these poor souls by putting them in a system that can’t help them, which ensures they keep coming back. Hell of a thing, isn’t it? It’s not how things have to be, it’s our choice it’s this way.

I don’t know what the best answer is. I’m sure some combination of federal, state, and local money would be needed for stuff like this, but I don’t even know how you’d get started. I don’t know what infrastructure already exists and needs to be utilized, and what doesn’t exist and needs to be invented. What I do know is that what we have now isn’t working, and that if I had a choice I’d prefer to see more of my tax dollars go to solutions outside the criminal justice system. The Sheriff’s proposal, which won’t be on the ballot this year anyway, is an improvement over the status quo, and it may be the best we can do until such time as we’re ready to try something truly different. Grits thinks there are still problems and that what’s been proposed is still a de facto expansion of the jails. You should read his piece for his argument; at this point I can’t say I disagree. For sure, we’re still not doing nearly enough to reduce the overall inmate population, which would ameliorate those concerns. If we can take those steps, I’ll be very happy to continue that conversation. If this is the best we can do, let’s do the best we can with it.

DA responds to CM Johnson

Council Member Jarvis Johnson said his piece last week about his recent arrest for not pulling over on a traffic stop. Yesterday, the Harris County District Attorney had their say about it.

Houston City Councilman Jarvis Johnson told police he did not pull over for an officer trying to stop him last week because he was doing something more important, prosecutors said in court this morning.

Assistant Harris County District Attorney Eilleen Bogar said Johnson told police “what he was in the process of doing took priority over the officer wanting him to stop.”

Bogar said she did not know what Johnson was doing. Details were not listed in the preliminary report Bogar had for Johnson’s arraignment this morning in state District Judge Michael McSpadden’s court.

After the brief hearing, Johnson’s attorney denied that the 38-year-old Johnson made that statement.

“We can emphatically deny that those statements were made,” lawyer Michael Harris said.

He declined to answer questions about what Johnson was doing before he was arrested for evading arrest, a state jail felony.

I’m still not speculating. But I sure can’t wait to see how this ends.

Tar balls in Galveston

Let’s hope this is not the start of something bigger.

About a dozen tar balls that washed ashore on Crystal Beach were identified Monday as oil from the BP well blowout in the Gulf of Mexico, the first evidence that oil from the spill has reached the Texas coastline.

But it was unclear whether the oil from the blowout dropped off a passing ship or drifted nearly 400 miles.

[…]

An onslaught of tar balls on Galveston’s beaches would be disastrous for the island city’s tourism economy. Galveston Mayor Joe Jaworski hoped the tar balls were a one-time occurrence.

“It is such a small amount that I’m waiting to see whether more comes or not the next few days before getting really upset,” Jaworski said.

Like I said, let’s hope this is all there is to it. Hair Balls and In the Pink have more.