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January 8th, 2012:

Weekend link dump for January 8

Has Harold Camping had a conversation with the Mayans yet?

The third party fetish could be especially damaging this year.

Sometimes the old ways are the best ways.

The etymology of “oops”, which I found via Susie Bright‘s remarks on judging the Golden Dukes.

This could be Eric Dick’s legacy some day.

I believe the proper comment to leave on this post would be #getoffmylawn.

“It is not persecution to be held to the standards that are applied to every other contractor that does business with the state.”

More threats to some people’s heterosexual marriages. May there be many more in the coming years.

The “Penis Mom” says what needs to be said.

People who fight depression are survivors, too.

Crackpots do make bad messengers.

It is kind of hard to imagine what a debate over standardizing time would be like today.

I think they should have included “Millard” as a choice, for completeness’ sake.

Turns out the Affordable Care Act is pretty good at helping root out fraud in Medicare, too.

Obesity is like smoking in that it’s much better to not start than to have to try to quit.

I agree with everything Joe Posnanski says about the Hall of Fame, standards, and steroid use.

“White House Denies CIA Teleported Obama to Mars” is, without a doubt, the best headline I will read this month.

Ron Paul and Louis Farrakhan have more in common than you might think.

It’s the year 2012, and George Will is still a lying, ethically challenged hack.

Let me Google that for you.

It’s official, I am in my declining years. You probably wonder what took me so long to realize that.

Apparently, Craig James has a Santorum problem.

Good for the NFLPA.

RIP, Lou Rawls. We’ll never find another singer like you.

Inmate outsourcing on the way out

This is unequivocally good news.

Dropping inmate numbers at the Harris County Jail will let the county end its nearly 5-year-old practice of shipping overflow inmates to Louisiana and other Texas counties within days, Sheriff Adrian Garcia said this week.

The jail population has fallen 31 percent since 2008, to 8,573 inmates. The jail has a capacity of 9,434, but has at times held more than 12,000. Garcia hopes the expense of contracts with far-flung jails – totaling $31 million in the last two years – has ceased for the foreseeable future.

As of Friday, the sheriff had no inmates in Louisiana and just 21 elsewhere in Texas; more than 1,600 inmates had been outsourced as recently as June 2010.

“I don’t want to be overly optimistic that this is forever a thing of the past,” Garcia said. “There are factors outside our control that could occur at any given time. But we’re excited that today’s reality is that we no longer will be having people outsourced outside of Harris County and that it will be a savings to the taxpayers.”

We’ll discuss those outside factors later. I want to pause for a moment to take credit for the use of the term “outsourcing” for sending inmates elsewhere. I’ll be even happier if a few years from now we’ve forgotten that it was ever needed. The fact that (nearly) all of our inmates are now here in Harris County should not obscure the fact that there are still too many of them; at least, there are still too many of them for the number of guards in the jails. We have patched this problem, for which the county’s multiple-year hiring freeze is an exacerbating factor, by squeezing a lot of overtime out of the guards, a solution that is both unfair to them and expensive to us. Now that we’re not paying Louisiana to house some of our prisoners, maybe we can take some of the money we’d been spending on that and use it to hire a few more guards. The Sheriff will make that request at the Tuesday Commissioners Court meeting. I can’t wait to hear what their excuse to turn him down will be this time.

So why are there fewer inmates to outsource, anyway?

Officials attribute the drop in inmates to several factors:

Local and national crime rates are down. There were 36,851 new felony cases filed in Harris County last year, down from 38,133 in 2010, and 44,006 the previous year. Misdemeanor courts also are sending fewer inmates to jail.

Harris County District Attorney Pat Lykos’ decision to stop filing felony charges against suspects found with trace amounts of illegal drugs as of Jan. 1, 2010. Those carrying used but empty crack pipes or other drug paraphernalia now face misdemeanor tickets.

[…]

“We did the right thing and then all these other benefits flowed from it,” Lykos said. “There are more officers on the streets, we have jail cells for dangerous criminals, and we can get to trial quicker.”

The county has launched various diversion programs. In April 2010, Garcia began allowing nonviolent inmates who enroll in educational or work programs to earn three days’ credit for each day served. As of mid-December, 3,661 inmates had been released early under the program, which can shave up to two months off the maximum county jail sentence.

Again, as you know, I agree with and applaud Lykos’ policy. It was the right thing to do, for the reason she states, and you can see the benefit we have reaped from it, in dollars and cents. The Sheriff’s new diversion programs, aimed as Lykos’ trace-amount policy is at non-violent offenders, is also showing measurable results. The old maxim about locking up those we fear and not those we’re just mad at has a lot of wisdom in it. If we make better choices about who we throw in jail, it costs us less money. You may say that comes at the expense of public safety, except that the violent crime rate is down, in Houston and in Harris County. It’s not locking up more people, it’s locking up the right people that makes a difference.

As good as all this news is, there is still a lot of room for improvement:

Earl Musick, president of Harris County Criminal Lawyers Association, cheered the drop in jail population, but said his group remains concerned at the number of inmates who are awaiting trial, unable to make bail.

The number of pretrial detainees fell along with the jail head count last year, but their share of the total population stayed at about 60 percent. On Friday, 6,220 of the jail’s 8,573 inmates – or 73 percent – were pretrial detainees.

“I’m not saying everyone in jail is innocent, but there are innocent people that are having to make that decision: ‘I guess I’ll give up my right to a trial so I can get out of jail,’ ” Musick said. “We’ve been shouting this message for years that not everyone charged with a criminal act needs to be locked up.”

Musick praised the Criminal Justice Coordinating Council, and said judges are beginning to examine their pretrial and sentencing choices.

Those numbers include a lot of people who will not be convicted of any crime, or at least of any crime that would normally include jail time, who are nonetheless going to spend days, weeks, even months in jail because they couldn’t make bail. Some of these people will wind up being acquitted, having their charges dropped, having their charges pleaded down to non-jail offenses, or being convicted and ultimately being sentenced to less time than they served pre-trial. This is the judiciary’s responsibility, and while they are making improvements, they have been responsible for this for a long time. Get enough of them to adopt more sensible practices, or to be replaced by those who will, and Sheriff Garcia won’t need to grovel before Commissioners Court for more jailers, as reducing the numerator in the inmate-to-guard ratio also accomplishes the task. Whether we do this the more cost-effective way or not is all our choice. Grits has more.

Your voter registration card is not in the mail just yet

Another side effect of the Supreme Court stay.

The only voter ID anyone should need

The only voter ID anyone should need

Even if you’ve registered to vote in Texas, you won’t be getting a new voter registration certificate until February. Although the latest blue cards expired at the end of the year, counties are waiting to mail out new ones until a long legal battle over the state’s redistricting maps — which has already pushed back the primary elections — has concluded.

Officials say residents will still get the new yellow certificates in time for the primary election, which was moved last month under a federal court order from its usual date in March to April 3, with early voting from March 19 through 30 and a runoff date of June 5. The certificates verify that voters are properly registered and provide them information on which districts they live in so they know which races they can vote in.

But like every other segment of the election timetable this year, the mailing dates are subject to change. The court fight over redistricting affects voting precincts and where registered voters may cast ballots, hence the delay in mailing out new voter registration certificates. Officials in Travis, Williamson, Hays and Burnet counties all said they are waiting for some resolution, which they hope will come by the end of the month, before mailing the hundreds of thousands of cards.

Williamson County Voter Registration Supervisor Julie Seippel said if the legal issues are not resolved in time to send the certificates, the courts will probably set new mailing deadlines for counties.

I just checked, and indeed my card expired on December 31. If you go to the Harris County Tax Assessor page, you will see that they have posted a notice about this. Given all the shenanigans they’ve pulled in recent years, one has to be aware of the possibility for abuse here. It hadn’t occurred to me until I read this story that my card was now out of date, and I suspect that many people are in the same position. Consider yourselves notified, and we’ll check back after the stay issue is resolved and the primary dates are finalized to see how the mailouts are progressing.

CSAPR stayed

This is what the Ship Channel looked like in 1973 (Source: National Archives and Records Administration)

There was some bad news at the end of the year.

A federal court ordered [last] Friday that the Environmental Protection Agency’s controversial cross-state air pollution rule be stayed — to the delight of Texas officials and the chagrin of environmentalists.

The rule, which sought to reduce sulfur dioxide and nitrogen oxide emissions from power plants in Texas and 26 other states, had been scheduled to take effect in January. Now it will await a ruling by the court on its legal merits.

[…]

Luminant, a Texas power-generation giant, said that it would no longer shutter two units at its Monticello coal plant in Northeast Texas. Luminant “intends to continue closely evaluating business and operational decisions given that this stay does not invalidate the rule, but delays a decision on its implementation until a final court ruling is issued,” the company’s statement said.

Environmentalists, who have been trying to shutter Monticello for years, are disappointed with the decision.

In a blog post, the clean-air group Downwinders at Risk wrote:

“If the rules get pushed back past the beginning of ozone season, it means all those dirty Luminant plants upwind of [Dallas Fort-Worth] in East and Central Texas will still be contributing a significant amount of smog pollution to the Metromess a year after our worst ozone summer in five years spotlighted state ineptitude in getting cleaner air.”

Needless to say, Rick Perry and Greg Abbott cheered this on and vowed to continue the fight to let polluters do whatever they want. The point of this rule is the very simple recognition that air pollution created in one state can and does travel to other states. Having grown up across the river from New Jersey’s manufacturing plants – you know, all that stuff Tony Soprano drives past on the Turnpike – I can personally attest to this. For that matter, we’ve seen this movie before right here in Texas, with the Midlothian cement plants and their deleterious effect on the air quality in neighboring Dallas and Tarrant Counties. You’d think it would be self-evident that those who create the problems would be held accountable for the cost they impose on others – this is the sort of concept we generally teach our children, after all – but not to Rick Perry and Greg Abbott. Perhaps someone should remind them what America looked like before the EPA came into existence. That’s where they’d like to take us again, and that’s why this is a big deal.

I emailed Jennifer Powis, who is running the Beyond Coal campaign here in Houston, for a reaction to this story. This is her reply:

It was very unfortunate and puts at risk air that millions of people breath. Texas has some of the worst air in the nation (I’ve attached a fact sheet above for you), and most of that pollution is generated by the 2,000 industrial facilities in our state. But at the same time, air pollution doesn’t stop at a state line and much of Eastern Texas is impacted by industrial emissions from Louisiana. Without a cohesive plan that forces states to be a “good neighbor,” we’ll continue to have problems with cleaning up the air we all breath.

There’s no doubt Texas has major air pollution problems and much of the blame lies with Governor Perry’s appointees over at the Texas Commission for Environmental Quality. But at the same time, this rule would have helped our state tremendously because it would have leveled the playing field for most of the Eastern states.

But don’t worry, this rule will eventually prevail. States across the nation need it in order to comply with basic clean air act provisions. Folks do a lot locally, but you also have to help out your neighbor. We’re one nation, and the clean air act recognizes that important fact.

The aformentioned fact sheet can be seen here. When you take that next deep breath of sweet chemical emissions from Louisiana, you know who to thank for it.

Electric school buses

Trans Tech eTrans 42 passenger electric school bus

There’s a lot to like about this.

Bus maker Trans Tech Bus this year said it would start making an electric school bus in a partnership with Smith Electric Vehicles. The eTrans bus is one of a new generation of zero-emission electric and hybrid-electric models that are slowly making their way to school districts around the county.

It’s hard to imagine the bulky, boxy school bus at the forefront of clean-energy and fuel-saving technology. Most buses run on diesel fuel, get mileage in the single digits and have the aerodynamic profile of, well, a school bus.

But school buses are almost ideally suited to be electric vehicles. For one thing, they cover fairly short distances on their daily runs, rarely leaving city limits on the way to and from school. And they follow set, predictable routes. That reduces the chances of a bus accidentally running out of battery power before it finishes its route and returns to the lot.

What’s more, school buses make frequent stops. While that’s bad for fuel-efficiency on a conventional gasoline or diesel vehicle, electric vehicles can capture some of the energy used in applying the brakes to recharge their batteries, extending their range.

One big plus: School buses are off the streets sitting in a depot for much of the day, giving them plenty of time to recharge their batteries.

“They have fixed routes and downtime in the day,” says Bryan Hansel, CEO of Smith Electric Vehicles, a Kansas City, Mo., manufacturer of the electric motors, batteries and underbody of the eTrans bus. “It really does allow you to maximize the use of that battery and make the money work.”

That story was published on December 28, so “this year” refers to 2011. See here and here for earlier stories about Trans Tech Bus. These buses will save school districts a lot of money over the long run in fuel, and would be a boon for air quality by taking a bunch of nasty diesel engine vehicles off the street. Only one problem, of course, and that’s the startup cost of buying a bunch of these electric buses, which cost more than regular buses. In a more functional society, we would see this for the excellent investment that it is and create a funding source to help school districts defray these expenses, but alas, we don’t have one. But hey, it’s a new year, there’s an election coming up, and if you can’t hope for better now then when can you hope for better? Regardless of anything else, I do hope HISD takes a look at these alternatives to diesel-fueled buses. This is the direction they and many other school districts need to be going.