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January 11th, 2012:

Fifth Circuit tosses injunction against sonogram law

Ugh.

A panel of federal appellate judges has authorized Texas officials to enforce a controversial abortion sonogram law while its constitutionality is being challenged in court.

In an opinion, the judges said the measure’s opponents “failed to demonstrate constitutional flaws” in the measure, which they said was “fatal” to their effort to prevent it from taking effect.

The abortion sonogram law, which lawmakers passed last legislative session, requires doctors to perform sonograms and describe what they see, including the size of the fetus and the length of its limbs. The measure has been in court almost since it passed, with opponents arguing it violates doctors’ First Amendment rights by forcing them to disclose information that isn’t medically necessary and that the woman may not want to hear.

You can read the full opinion here if you have the stomach for it; I’m afraid I don’t right now. I thought Judge Sparks’ ruling was very well reasoned, but apparently the Fifth Circuit is fine with the idea of the state compelling doctors to say things they wouldn’t otherwise in the course of treating a patient. That photo you see of Rep. Carol Alvarado, holding the implement of this law, is a reminder that it’s government intrusion at its most literal. Feel free to wince; I can think of plenty of people who should be wincing right now. BOR has more, and a statement from Peter Durkin of Planned Parenthood Gulf Coast is beneath the fold.

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Fewer inmate deaths

More good news for the Sheriff’s office.

The number of inmates who have died while in Harris County detention has plummeted during the last three years, a decline that Sheriff Adrian Garcia described as “deeply satisfying” but could not explain.

Three county prisoners died last year, down from 11 in 2010, and 16 in 2009, according to a Houston Chronicle review of custodial death records.

[…]

Alan Bernstein, public affairs director for the Sheriff’s Office, said Garcia has held the jail’s medical staff to high standards and noted that about 400,000 inmates were medically screened when they were jailed during the last three years.

“Each death is thoroughly investigated in accordance with Sheriff Garcia’s mission to make the agency as accountable and transparent to the public as possible,” Bernstein said. “But there is no identifiable cause or set of reasons for why the number of deaths has fallen steeply. The overwhelming majority of deaths were due to medical conditions that afflicted the inmates before they became inmates.”

Bernstein said only three of the 30 county inmate deaths from 2009 to 2011 took place inside a jail, including two inmates the county sent to Louisiana to reduce crowding. The rest of the inmates died after being transported in custody from jail to a hospital for treatment.

The decline in inmate deaths follows a June 2008 U.S. Justice Department report that accused Harris County of violating the constitutional rights of jail inmates, citing an “alarming” number of deaths of inmates in jail or after they were taken to hospitals.

See here and here for some background on that DOJ report. The feds threatened a lawsuit if things didn’t improve but have not followed through. One hopes that’s a “no news is good news” situation.

As for the numbers, while I have no doubt that this reflects the many improvements made at the jail since Sheriff Garcia took over from Tommy Thomas, I also suspect there’s a similarity to the homicide figures, in that this year represents a dip below the “normal” level. What you want to see is a downward trend. More importantly, you want to see that all reasonable steps are being taken to ensure that trend is downward, which over the last three years it has been. There’s more good press for the Sheriff at KUHF, as noted by Stace.

Meanwhile, the city recorded two deaths at its jail facilities, both suicides, and reiterated its desire to get out of the jail business. It’s still not clear to me what the “sobriety centers” that would replace the jails might look like, but one presumes that they will be better equipped to handle badly intoxicated people who could be a danger to themselves.

Payday lenders face new regulation

New regulations aimed at curbing the excesses of payday lenders are now in effect, but they will not be the last word on the subject.

Proponents of the new regulations passed by lawmakers during the 2011 session say they’re needed because the practice of offering short-term, high-interest loans to consumers has led thousands of Texans into a cycle of debt and dependency. Lawmakers heard horror stories about consumers being charged interest rates in excess of their initial loans.

Absent these regulations, the number of payday loan businesses in Texas has more than doubled, from 1,279 registered sites in 2006 to more than 3,500 in 2010. Opponents say this industry has flourished because of a 1997 law intended to give organizations flexibility to help people repair bad credit. A loophole allowed payday lenders to qualify, giving them the freedom to operate without limits on interest rates.

Though the new laws took effect on Jan. 1, state regulators have been working for months to finalize the language of the rules, and businesses are in the process of coming into compliance. Eventually, lenders will be required to disclose more information to their customers before a loan is made, including the cost of the transaction, how it compares to other types of loans and interest fees if the payment is not paid in full.

[…]

Consumer and faith-based groups say payday lenders have run amok with their promises of providing desperate Texans with quick money. (They started the website Texas Faith for Fair Lending to raise awareness about the problem.) In the midst of the regulation debate in the Texas Legislature, Bishop Joe Vasquez of the Catholic Diocese of Austin testified that nearly 20 percent of the people the diocese was assisting had reported using payday and auto title loans — and that debt was the reason they sought help from the church.

“If payday lenders were not making money from these families to line their own pockets, perhaps these families would not need the charitable and public assistance they receive,” Vasquez said in the February 2011 hearing. “They are generally embarrassed to admit they sought a loan without understanding the fees involved. We are concerned that our charitable dollars are in fact funding the profits of payday lenders rather than helping the poor achieve self sufficiency.”

See here, here, and here for some background. While the legislation passed in 2011 was a baby step in the right direction, I don’t really expect it to have much effect. As the story notes, a bill to cap interest rates on payday loans, which can be 500% or more, failed to pass thanks to a strong lobbying effort by the payday loan industry. There’s already legislative recognition that the job is unfinished, so we can hopefully expect more action in 2013, assuming it doesn’t get squeezed off the calendar by bigger issues like the budget, school finance, and re-redistricting. I don’t expect very much from the laws we actually got, but I am prepared to be pleasantly surprised.

One other factor that may be in play here is the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau, which can start to fulfill its mission now that it has a director. While Richard Cordray did not directly address payday lending in his opening remarks, it’s not hard to imagine the subject coming up, and it’s not hard to imagine the feds taking a more aggressive approach than the state did. Given that one of the main proponents in the Lege for more aggressive action had been Rep. Tom Craddick, it’ll be interesting to see how that dynamic plays out if it comes to pass. Would Republicans like Craddick and State Sen. John Carona hew to the feds-bad, states-good party line even as the feds supported their position, or would there be some fractures in that front? It’ll be worth keeping an eye on this.

How dry we were

We were drier than ever last year.

U.S. Drought Monitor

How bad is it?

Federal scientists confirmed Friday that Texas had its driest year on record in 2011.

The statewide average rainfall for the year totaled just 14.88 inches, according to the National Climatic Data Center, beating the previous low of 14.99 inches set in 1917.

During the last century, Texas averaged 27.92 inches of rain per year.

Temperature-wise, the state ended the year with its second-hottest mark, 67.2 degrees, finishing just below the record of 67.5 degrees set in 1921.

“Drought begets heat and then heat begets drought, and a feedback cycle develops,” said Victor Murphy, manager of climate services at the National Weather Service’s southern region headquarters in Fort Worth. “We saw this in May through September.”

So, climate change would be bad, then. Just something to think about. The bad news is that the La Niña pattern that drove last year’s dry weather is expected to persist in 2012. So making sure we are doing all we can to not waste water would be a good idea. SciGuy has more.