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January 6th, 2012:

Friday random ten: In with the new

Out with the old year, in with the new songs:

1. New Blood – Robert Cray
2. New Blue Moon – Traveling Wilburys
3. A New Day Yesterday – Jethro Tull
4. New Blues – Joe Satriani
5. New Jazz Fiddle – Asylum Street Spankers
6. New Kid In Town – Trisha Yearwood
7. New Math – Tom Lehrer
8. New Romeo – Southside Johnny and the Jukes
9. New Sensation – INXS
10. New Year’s Day – U2

I’m not quite old enough to remember when New Math was called “New Math” – by the time I got to school, it was just plain old math. But here’s an animated review for those of you who are old enough to remember it, or young enough to wonder what the hell we’re talking about:

The whole “take one from the tens place” is painfully familiar. My apologies to anyone else who might be wincing.

With the new year, you have a new opportunity to help me spend some more iTunes money. I received a $25 iTunes gift card for Christmas and would love to have some suggestions from you as to what music to buy with it. I did this four years ago after getting my first iPod, and got good results. Links to videos of whatever songs you suggest would be appreciated. Thanks! And may the new year be better than the old year, for all of us.

More on the crime lab and the city jail

Here we have some more information about Mayor Parker’s plans for the crime lab, though it’s still not really clear where this is going.

Parker wants to make the lab independent of HPD and the city, overseen instead by a local government board similar to the Port of Houston Authority, whose members are jointly appointed by the city, county and other local municipalities. Mayoral spokeswoman Janice Evans said a proposal may come before City Council this spring.

County leaders say their Institute of Forensic Sciences already is independent, free from law enforcement influence. They point to its respected work and lack of a case backlog.

Parker, however, said the city lab’s future is not with Harris County.

“The area that I’m in control of is to have an independent crime lab,” the mayor said Wednesday. “If that can become a regional crime lab where the county is a full participant, I’d love to see that happen. Sending all our work over to Harris County simply substitutes one government master for another government master.”

County Judge Ed Emmett said the apparent disagreement seems to be a concern over “whose name is on the door,” and said he hopes that can be overcome.

“This is a perfect opportunity to consolidate a government service,” Emmett declared. “If they want to go off and duplicate services by creating it somewhere else – fine, but we’re going to move forward with a world-class Institute of Forensic Sciences.”

I’m not sure I understand this. I can see where the Mayor is coming from, and if her belief is that the city would be more of a tenant to the county in the Institute of Forensic Sciences than a partner with them then her reluctance makes some sense, but I think Judge Emmett makes a strong point. If this boils down to an issue of governance, it’s worth trying to work out. If it’s more fundamental than that, then I’ll need to learn more about what the city’s vision is, and how much it will cost compared to what we’re doing now and what we could be doing with the IFS.

Then there’s the city’s jail, which have had their own problems of late.

Parker said the city jails could be phased out even without the type of joint processing center that bond voters rejected in 2007.

The city is negotiating to buy a property that would be used a “sobering center” to divert some inmates from the jail.

“If someone just needs a place to sleep it off, sober up, maybe get connected to some social-service help, we think we can accommodate that,” Parker said.

Services, Evans said, could include help for the mentally ill, whom Parker said also must be diverted from jail. Such steps could reduce the city jail population enough to allow the remaining inmates to be handed to the county, the mayor said.

Keeping the mentally ill out of jail has long been a topic of discussion at the county, Emmett said, but the problem likely will take an expensive facility to solve.

I like this idea, though we’ll have to see what a “sobering center” is and how it differs in function and cost from the jail. Philosophically, it’s the right direction, as is the principle of diverting the mentally ill from the jail to other facilities that can actually help them. Whether it truly requires an “expensive facility” or not remains to be seen, but I think this has a decent chance of being a viable alternative to that. Grits has more.

Eversole gets off easy

They did it all for these (Source: Wikipedia)

And so it ends.

The receiving line of well-wishers and smiling faces that came to life in the usually somber federal courtroom Wednesday was 10 years in the making.

Jerry Eversole, who fell from one of the highest perches in Harris County politics to land as an unemployed felon, shook hands, slapped backs and thanked supporters with deep sighs of relief: He was not going to prison.

The former Harris County Precinct 4 commissioner was sentenced Wednesday to three years of probation.

Eversole’s longtime friend and co-defendant, Mike Surface, also was sentenced by U.S. District Judge David Hittner to three years probation. Surface was fined $5,000.

[…]

Immediately after Hittner’s ruling, a jubilant Eversole hugged supporters and family members in the crowded courtroom.

“I’m very anxious to get the rest of my life started,” said Eversole, 68. He said dealing with the corruption trial “has been like towing an anchor.”

“We’re excited about waking up tomorrow and realizing I can go get a job – I can start doing things,” Eversole said. “I felt very useless the last few months.”

[…]

Sentencing guidelines had suggested both men faced six months of either incarceration or probation, or some combination of the two, as well as fines.

Both will be on probation for three years, during which time neither of the avid gun collectors will be able to buy or possess any of the antique Colt .45 pistols they amassed in combined collection worth tens of thousands of dollars.

Oh, the humanity. Whining works, kids. I don’t really have anything else to say about this.

Murder by numbers

There were a lot fewer murders committed in Houston last year than in recent years.

HPD recorded 195 murders for the year as of Friday, a 27.5 percent decrease from the previous year’s total of 269. The preliminary figure doesn’t yet include the death of a 27-year-old woman who police believe was killed in her west Houston apartment on New Year’s Eve.

As long as the 2011 total remains below 200, it would be the lowest since 1965, when 139 people were killed, said HPD homicide division Capt. David Gott.

Harris County’s unincorporated areas also reported fewer murders. The 2011 preliminary total stands at 60 – down more than 7 percent from the 65 in 2010. Murder totals have continued to drop in unincorporated Harris County since 2009, when 87 were reported.

Hair Balls has a slightly different number for the city. The story primarily focuses on the comparison to last year, but if you look at the accompanying chart, what stands out to me is that the number of murders in Houston has dropped nearly fifty percent from the peak of 376 in 2006. Since the story doesn’t look that far back, it doesn’t mention this, which means it also doesn’t dredge up the association of that year with Hurricane Katrina evacuees and their supposed effect on the city’s crime rate. For the city of Houston, there’s a spike from 2005-07, and a trough this year, otherwise the annual number of murders is between 250 and 300. For unincorporated Harris County, outside of a one-time spike in 2009, the body count is basically the same, right at about 60, every year from 2004 through 2011. I point this out for two reasons. One is that it’s plausible to me that there isn’t much more we can do to affect the murder rate in a given year. It is what it is, and outside of larger societal trends that affect the crime rate in general, year to year variations are likely to be statistical noise. What that means is that if the number creeps back up to 250 or so for Houston in 2012, it doesn’t represent a failure of public policy, just a return to historic norms after an unusually slow year. That’s not going to stop the city from taking credit for the decline, nor should it. They do have some policies to point to as causes, and as such we may see a downward trend. But don’t be surprised if it goes up this year, and don’t spend too much time looking for a reason. These things do happen.

And two, in 2010 after the uptick in unincorporated Harris County murders was noted, County Commissioner Steve Radack was critical of Sheriff Adrian Garcia for not having enough patrols to suit him. I can only presume that after two years of normal numbers, including a dip in 2011 to the lowest level seen since 2004, that Radack will now be fulsome in his praise of the Sheriff for his restoration of law and order. Otherwise, his criticism from two years ago will have been shown to be little more than crass political haymaking, and surely that wasn’t the case. Right?

Chapter 42

Other than the updated highrise ordinance, Council has not yet taken up the proposed revisions to the city’s planning code, also known as Chapter 42. That will be on the agenda soon, and the Chron has an overview of where things now stand.

Now, officials want to extend that urban area and its accompanying density cap – allowing a maximum of 27 housing units per acre – from Loop 610 to Beltway 8. The change would come with a series of updates to the existing development code, including community safeguards to make it easier for residents to protect the character of their neighborhoods even as the ordinance would allow developers to subdivide lots for more construction, officials said.

Officials say developers are waiting to build properties that would meet demand for more housing at varying price levels but have hesitated without any density rules in place outside the Loop.

“This city is growing and we are the envy of the nation,” said Sue Lovell, who worked to develop the proposed ordinance changes before she finished her final City Council term last month. “But with that comes (the question of) how do we continue development, but at the same time protect the quality of life in our neighborhoods? Chapter 42 provides that.”

Population in the Houston area has grown 7.5 percent during the last decade, to nearly 6 million. Homes near the urban core, however, have not provided the flexibility in size and price that many new residents want, said Suzy Hartgrove, a spokeswoman for the city’s Department of Planning and Development. Instead, transplants lured to the area by jobs are moving to more affordable areas in Houston suburbs, she said.

“The thought was that you’re recognizing that as the city grows and densifies you’re just trying to provide an opportunity for more of a variety of housing stock,” Planning Director Marlene Gafrick said.

Still the best comment anyone has made on the highrise situation

I’m glad someone is thinking about the issue of where people are moving and how housing prices affects that. I’m sure these Chapter 42 revisions will have some positive effect on that, but it’s not clear how much. Matthew Yglesias has often written that this is basically a supply and demand problem, and the solution to creating more affordable housing in the urban core of any large urban area is to alter or remove regulations that prevent more housing from being built. As he lives in Washington, DC, his main target is a local ordinance that forbids most construction of anything higher than six stories. Here in Houston, we’ve just added some restrictions on where highrises can be built, but its effect will likely be felt only on the margins. We actually have quite a few highrises and midrises being built or being proposed right now, though ironically they all tend to be of the high-end, luxury variety. They’re mostly being built in expensive neighborhoods, so that is to be expected. What we don’t have is a strategy for enticing development in places where the land is cheap and the population has been declining, like the Fifth Ward. I don’t have any advice for how to do that – it’s hardly an easy problem – but I would like to see more thinking about it.