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January 17th, 2014:

Friday random ten: Baby, you can drive my car

Or you could, if it hadn’t been clobbered by a pickup truck coming the other direction and drifting into my lane while I was waiting at a stoplight last weekend. So in memory of my old minivan, whose fate is still in the hands of the insurance adjusters, here are ten car songs.

1. Car And Driver – Bill Morrissey
2. The Car Hank Died In – Austin Lounge Lizards
3. Car Train – The Jazz Jury
4. Car Wash – Rose Royce
5. Chasing Cars – Snow Patrol
6. Electric Car – They Might Be Giants
7. Fancy Car – The Honeycutters
8. Fast Car – Tracy Chapman
9. In The Car – Barenaked Ladies
10. Race Car Ya-Yas – CAKE

Wish me luck with the bureaucracy and paperwork. Not being at fault doesn’t mitigate the annoyance.

If you want to be treated for mental illness, go to jail

You’ve heard it said that the Harris County Jail is the largest mental health facility in Texas. Here’s a great story in the Observer by Emily DePrang that illustrates what that really means.

go_to_jail

Of the 9,000 or so inmates here, more than a quarter take medication for mental illness, meaning that many days, this jail treats more psychiatric patients than all 10 of Texas’ state-run public mental hospitals combined.

Most of those patients live in the general population and get their psychotropic drugs alongside inmates taking blood thinners or insulin. But some stay here on the second floor, in the Mental Health Unit, an award-winning program that functions as a full psychiatric hospital within the jail. The unit can treat almost 250 inmates at a time for serious mental illnesses. All receive medication; some also attend therapy and visit with caseworkers who help them plan for life after release. Many leave the jail more stable and connected to social services than when they came in.

Outside the jail, Houstonians with mental illness often can’t find those kinds of services. Harris County has one of the most underfunded public mental health systems in a state that consistently ranks last, or almost last, in per capita mental health spending. The Mental Health Needs Council, a policy advisory group made up of mental health practitioners, estimates that in 2012, almost 70,000 adults and more than 14,000 children in Houston with severe mental illness needed help from the public system but couldn’t get any. Hundreds of people are currently on a waiting list for basic mental health services—and that’s progress, down from 1,600 during the summer.

This isn’t because of some inefficiency in the public system versus the jail, but because of who pays for each. Community-based mental health care is funded mostly by state government, and for years, the Texas Legislature starved its public system. Like all public services, community-based mental health care was never flush, but in 2003 lawmakers slashed funding and limited treatment to just three diagnoses. Thousands of people who relied on the system were suddenly ineligible. Many went into crisis and were picked up by police or wound up in emergency rooms, where they stayed briefly, stabilized, and were released, still unable to get treatment in the community.

A crisis-driven system evolved, one that was inefficient, ineffective and unkind. It was also expensive. While the state initially saved money in 2003 and with subsequent cuts, it passed the cost on to counties, which had to deal with the real consequences of untreated mental illness. In Harris County, the number of law enforcement calls about people in psychiatric crisis jumped from fewer than 11,000 in 2003 to more than 27,000 in 2012.

As people with mental illness filled the jails, counties like Harris were forced to act. They added mental health programs to their law enforcement agencies and jails, a humane move, but one that shifts costs from the state to local taxpayers and blurs the lines between institutions designed to punish and those meant to treat. That’s how Texas’ largest jail became its largest mental hospital. And that’s why many Texans can get better mental health treatment inside the jail than out of it.

Again, when I say that Rick Perry and his cronies don’t want people to get health care, I’m talking about more than just the refusal to expand Medicaid. But the refusal to expand Medicaid is still a big part of the problem.

White men, age 22 to 55, who are medically indigent—meaning they don’t have insurance and aren’t eligible for Medicaid—are the group most likely to end up both needing the public mental health system and, at some point, going to jail. Preston Murski is all these things. He’s a Houston native, 22, blond and chatty, and he slips easily into a grin. But he faces an uncertain future. When we meet in the Harris County Jail’s chaplaincy room—just a concrete floor, plastic chairs, a dry-erase board and a battered wooden podium—he flickers between bravado and worry. Like all the inmates, he wears baggy orange clothes, but a purple hospital wristband signifies that he’s in the Mental Health Unit.

“I started coming to jail when I was 14,” Murski says. “It’s been in and out, doing six months in, a month out, a year in. I’ve been with MHMRA since I was 14.” MHMRA is the Mental Health and Mental Retardation Authority of Harris County, the primary provider of public mental health services for medically indigent Houstonians like Murski.

“When I was in juvenile [detention], they give you one or two free refills of your medication. My medication costs like $800 because I take a lot of Seroquel, and I take a lot of Adderall. So [after] I get that free refill, my dad’s like, ‘I’m not paying this money. I ain’t got the cash.’ And I’m not on insurance, nothing. I’m just walking around. So meds run out. I go to jail. It’s always been the story of my life. If my meds run out, I go to jail.”

Access to services for juveniles is a major challenge in Houston. The Mental Health Needs Council found that in 2012, about 19,300 children and adolescents in Harris County suffered serious emotional disturbance and needed help from the public system. Most had already developed substance abuse problems and 40 percent had been exposed to trauma. But 74 percent of those 19,300 kids received no mental health treatment at all.

Many ended up in trouble with the law. Almost 69 percent of the children referred to the Harris County Juvenile Probation Department in 2012 had a diagnosable mental illness.

[…]

But once in the jail, help is available. Dr. Scott Hickey, director of outcomes management for the county mental health authority, says that’s both good and a symptom of the public system’s problems. “There are any number of individuals who have dropped out of the treatment system who reconnect through our jail mental health services,” Hickey wrote in an email. “In addition, there are many who received care only through the jail [T]he root cause of many system problems, including this one, is our inadequate outpatient service capacity.”

The mental health authority estimates it would need a fourfold budget increase to satisfy the current demand in Harris County. But there is a way lawmakers could decrease demand: expanding Medicaid. Andrea Usanga, policy director for Mental Health America of Harris County, an advocacy group, says that had Texas chosen to expand Medicaid under the Affordable Care Act (aka Obamacare), it would have made an enormous difference. “Close to 90 percent of the individuals who are currently served in the public mental health and substance abuse system would be eligible for Medicaid if it were expanded,” she says. Gov. Rick Perry’s choice not to expand it, she says, was “all political. It’s really sad. Ideology hurts everyday people all the time. Everyday people are suffering.”

Harris County’s public mental health authority not only lacks the funds to meet the demand in the community but also can’t offer whole areas of needed services, Usanga says. When I tell her about Murski’s alcohol problem, she nods. “I’m not surprised.” She says that one of the major barriers to effective mental health care is that the public system still treats mental illness and substance abuse separately. “If you have a substance abuse issue, there’s a very, very high likelihood that you’re having some type of mental health issue, too,” she says. “MHMRA will treat the mental health issue, but you can’t go to MHMRA to learn how to safely withdraw from substances. Our system is not set up to do this. So it’s a very ineffective way to be dealing with folks with co-occurring issues.”

We’ve discussed this before. Expanding Medicaid wouldn’t solve all problems, but it would be a huge step forward and would be a big help for an awful lot of people. Really, we’d all benefit from it. We’d benefit by not having to pay for costlier and less effective care for fewer people. We’d benefit by the increased economic potential of thousands of people who could be productive citizens if only they could get the help they desperately need. We’d benefit by having a lower crime rate and by being able to direct police resources to more productive pursuits. And we’d benefit directly because whether we realize it or not, we all almost certainly know someone who needs this help but is unable to get it. We are perfectly capable of making this situation better. We just have to choose to do it. That’s not going to happen with the current state leadership. There’s really not much more to it than that.

Rolling out the laptops

I look forward to seeing how this goes.

Tens of thousands of local students will receive taxpayer-funded laptops or tablets this month as the Houston and Clear Creek school districts join the national movement toward digital education.

School leaders say dispatching the devices can help bridge the gap between rich and poor families and lead to more engaging instruction, though some recent trials elsewhere were plagued with problems.

As the nation’s seventh-largest school system, HISD will be closely watched as it becomes the latest big-city district to experiment with giving students personal technology devices to use in class and at home.

By the end of January, the Houston Independent School District plans to have distributed laptops to roughly 18,000 students at a quarter of its high schools. At the same time, Clear Creek ISD expects to deploy about 6,000 tablets to all its ninth- and 10th-graders. Both districts intend to dispatch many more devices over the next few years.

“This project is not going to go without bumps,” said Lenny Schad, HISD’s chief technology officer. “But I’m confident when those bumps do occur, we’re going to be able to react very quickly and move forward.”

[…]

Research into whether personal technology programs – typically called one-to-one initiatives – lead to improved student achievement has yielded mixed results. While some districts and states started giving devices to students on a small scale more than a decade ago, few of those efforts have survived, largely for budget reasons.

But as cell phones and computers have become ubiquitous, technology experts say schools need to take public education more into the digital age.

“It is irresponsible for any school district not to be moving to creating 21st century learning environments. I think it’s criminal,” said Leslie Wilson, who co-directed Michigan’s $40 million school laptop program in the early 2000s. “But it’s also criminal to go about doing that without doing it right.”

[…]

Clear Creek voters approved the technology plan as part of a bond referendum last May. By the fall of 2015, the district expects to dispatch about 30,000 tablets to students in grades 4 through 12. The cost per device, including software, a case and extended warranty, is $541, according to the district.

HISD officials say leasing the HP laptops is cheaper, at about $260 for the device and software, excluding the case.

In both districts, the students ultimately have to return the devices.

So far, HISD has funded its laptop program with federal dollars designated for low-income students as well as professional development. For this school year, the district has budgeted more than $8.1 million for the devices, teacher training and other expenses. By January 2016, HISD plans to dispatch nearly 65,000 laptops to all its high school students.

HISD Superintendent Terry Grier has said he eventually would like to give devices to younger students as well.

See here, here, and here for the background. I agree that school districts need to make modern technologies available to their students. How else do we expect students to learn about them? It’s also vitally important for districts to have a solid plan for deploying laptops or tablets or whatever, to have a strong training program in place for teachers, and to track results and make adjustments as needed. There’s not enough long-term research available yet to provide clear guideposts, but we can at least learn from the failures of others. I’m excited about this and I hope it produces great results.

VRA 2.0

Texas Redistricting:

[Thursday] morning, Congressman Jim Sensenbrenner (R-WI), Senator Patrick Leahy (D-VT), and Congressman John Conyers (D-MI) introduced proposed amendments to the Voting Rights Act that would rework the section 5 coverage formula invalidated by the Supreme Court in Shelby Co. v. Holder.

The text of the bill – styled the Voting Rights Amendment Act of 2014 – can be found here.

Under the proposed amendments, states and local entities would be required to submit voting changes for preclearance before putting them into effect if they met the conditions of two new statutory triggers.

Ari Berman has a thorough analysis of the bill:

The Sensenbrenner-Conyers-Leahy bill strengthens the VRA in five distinct ways:

1: The legislation draws a new coverage formula for Section 4, thereby resurrecting Section 5. States with five violations of federal law to their voting changes over the past fifteen years will have to submit future election changes for federal approval. This new formula would currently apply to Georgia, Louisiana, Mississippi and Texas. Local jurisdictions would be covered if they commit three or more violations or have one violation and “persistent, extremely low minority turnout” over the past fifteen years.

The formula is based on a rolling calendar, updated with a current fifteen-year time period to exempt states who are no longer discriminating or add new ones who are, creating a deterrent against future voting rights violations. It’s based on empirical conditions and current data, not geography or a fixed time period—which voting rights advocates hope will satisfy Chief Justice John Roberts should the new legislation be enacted and reach the Supreme Court.

The new Section 4 proposal is far from perfect. It does not apply to states with an extensive record of voting discrimination, like Alabama (where civil rights protests in Selma gave birth to the VRA), Arizona, Florida, North Carolina, South Carolina and Virginia, which were previously subject to Section 5. Nor does it apply to states like Ohio, Pennsylvania and Wisconsin that have enacted new voting restrictions in the past few years.

Moreover, rulings against voter ID laws—like in Texas in 2012—will not count as a new violation. Voter ID laws can still be blocked by the Department of Justice or federal courts in the new states covered under Section 4, but that will not be included as one of the five violations needed to keep the state covered. This exemption for voter ID laws was written to win the support of House majority leader Eric Cantor and other Republicans.

2: The legislation strengthens Section 3 of the VRA, which has been described as the Act’s “secret weapon.” Under Section 3, jurisdictions not covered by Section 4 could be “bailed-in” to federal supervision, but plaintiffs had to show evidence of intentional voting discrimination, which is very difficult to do in court. Under the new Section 3 proposal, any violation of the VRA or federal voting rights law—whether intentional or not—can be grounds for a bail-in, which will make it far easier to cover new states. (One major caveat, again, is that court objections to voter ID laws that are not found to be intentionally discriminatory cannot be used as grounds for “bail-in” under Section 3.)

3: The legislation mandates that jurisdictions in all fifty states have to provide notice in the local media and online of any election procedures related to redistricting changes within 180 days of a federal election and the moving of a polling place. This will make it easier for citizens to identify potentially harmful voting changes in the forty-six states not subject to Sections 4 and 5.

4: The legislation makes it easier to seek a preliminary injunction against a potentially discriminatory voting law. Plaintiffs will now only have to show that the hardship to them outweighs the hardship to the state if a law is blocked in court pending a full trial. There will be a preliminary injunction hearing on North Carolina’s voting law in July 2014, before the full trial takes place July 2015.

5: The legislation reaffirms that the attorney general can send federal observers to monitor elections in states subject to Section 4 and expands the AG’s authority to send observers to jurisdictions with a history of discriminating against language minority groups, which includes parts of twenty-five states.

As Berman notes, the bill doesn’t go nearly as far as many of us would like – not taking voter ID laws into account for the preclearance criteria is a big deal – but it does do a lot to make up for the mess that SCOTUS left behind when they killed Section 4. Putting Texas back under preclearance would be major. As Daily Kos notes, the bill does have the support of Civil Rights veterans like Rep. John Lewis, as well as the ACLU, but it has attracted criticism from several minority groups. This is likely the best we’re going to get, and as Ed Kilgore says, getting enough support from Republicans to pass it – hell, to bring it to a vote – is far from assured. I can’t even begin to imagine the level of deranged fanaticism it will drive Ted Cruz to. President Obama pledged to fight for a renewed Voting Rights Act, and this bill can be considered a down payment on that promise, but of course if he pushes for it too much it’ll ensure all the Republicans oppose it. So we’ll see where, if anywhere, it goes from here.

Big Brew

I like the sound of this.

beer

For three days in October, the [George R. Brown] convention center will host Big Brew, a major new festival that aims to tap into the region’s burgeoning craft-beer scene by putting 1,000 beers out for public sampling, along with seminars on what you’re drinking and where it comes from.

To satisfy Houstonians’ growing passion for pairing food with beer, some of the biggest chefs in town are lining up 40 local restaurants for an evening of culinary improvisation.

“We really do think we can make this a beer-tourist destination,” said Big Brew organizer Clifton McDerby of Food & Vine Time Productions.

[…]

McDerby said the sampling hall during Big Brew will feature 1,000 craft beers. A selection that large would rank among the larger ones in beer festivals nationally, said Julia Herz, craft beer program director for the Brewers Association industry group.

“It’s a goal, but it’s a goal that we will reach,” McDerby said.

The main tastings will be preceded by two smaller events, a food-and-beer pairing and an exclusively Texas tasting, on the evenings of Oct. 23 and 24, respectively. All will be inside the Brown Convention Center.

McDerby said there also will be a downtown pub crawl, and additional events in the vicinity are likely to be added.

The pairing event will feature food selections from 40 Houston restaurants, 29 of which have signed up.

McDerby said a culinary committee led by noted restaurateurs Robert Del Grande of RDG & Bar Annie, Michael Cordúa (Américas , Artista) and Randy Evans (Haven) is developing the list.

The Texas tasting will feature 40 in-state breweries exclusively.

I’m thinking this was Mayor Parker’s favorite press conference of all time.

Houston Mayor Annise Parker on Tuesday turned a public announcement about a new beer festival into a toast to the city’s industriousness and traditions of hospitality.

“Houston has always been a place for entrepreneurs,” she said, adding craft brewers to a legacy of dynamic business owners who stimulate the local economy.

“Today we celebrate an industry and a city on the rise,” she said, raising a glass of Houston-brewed beer from Saint Arnold Brewing Co. “Here’s to our city, and here’s to beer.”

I’ll drink to that. The festival will run from October 23-25, and tickets go on sale on February 17. They’re limiting sales to 11,000 tix for the main event, so I’d advise buying yours quickly, not to mention perhaps planning for a vacation day on the Friday. The event webpage is here, the Facebook page is here, and a photo gallery from the press conference is here. CultureMap has more.