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mental illness

The gaps in Texas’ background check law

From Pro Publica:

In the spring of 2009, Elliott Naishtat persuaded his colleagues in the Texas Legislature to pass a bill that he believed would require the state to report court-ordered mental health hospitalizations for Texans of all ages to the national firearms background check system.

Nearly two years had passed since a student with a history of serious mental illness had gone on a deadly shooting rampage that left 32 dead at Virginia Tech. And Naishtat, then a Democratic state representative from Austin, argued that Texas was as vulnerable as Virginia had been to such mass shootings because it didn’t require the reporting of involuntary mental health commitments to the FBI’s National Instant Criminal Background Check System, known as NICS. Federally licensed dealers are required to check the system before they sell someone a firearm.

“This bill will ultimately save lives, and I hope you’ll give it your most serious consideration,” Naishtat said when he introduced the measure.

But 13 years after the legislation became law, following a string of mass shootings carried out by troubled young men, an investigation by ProPublica and The Texas Tribune has uncovered a major gap in the law and its implementation.

Despite language in Naishtat’s bill that says local courts should report to the state’s top law enforcement agency any time a judge orders any person, regardless of age, to receive inpatient mental health treatment, the news organizations found that they are not reporting juvenile records because of problems with the way the law was written, vague guidance from the state and conflicts with other Texas laws.

[…]

When it comes to the reporting of adult mental health records, the Texas law has been highly effective. By the end of 2021, the state had sent more than 332,000 mental health records — the sixth-highest number in the country — to the national background check system, according to FBI data.

Unlike adult records, juvenile records are tightly controlled under state law, which includes criminal penalties for officials who release them unlawfully. That has likely contributed to widespread confusion about the reach of the 2009 law, which does not differentiate between adults and minors, said Dru Stevenson, a South Texas College of Law professor whose research focuses on gun violence and regulation.

“Anybody dealing with either health records or juveniles are super skittish about preserving privacy and confidentiality,” he said.

Mike Schneider, a former Harris County juvenile court judge, said the 2009 law fails to account for nuances in the juvenile code. For example, the law requires the reporting of all court-ordered mental health commitments. But Schneider and other juvenile officials say that in many cases juveniles end up in inpatient treatment not through a judge’s order, but via treatment plans agreed to by mental health professionals working on their cases. Additionally, Schneider said he interprets the law to directly address only the mental health commitments of juveniles already in lockup, not those first entering the system.

As a result, he estimated that some 99% of juvenile mental health commitments in the state are not the result of the kinds of judicial orders spelled out in the 2009 law.

“It’s just a really, really, really tiny sliver and would miss most of the people who are juveniles who have court-ordered mental health services,” he said.

The Office of Court Administration convened a task force of clerks, judges and various state officials more than a decade ago to figure out how to increase the number of all mental health records being sent to DPS.

The resulting report, published in 2012, found that “DPS lacks the resources to assist the district and county clerks with reporting mental health information.” It made a number of recommendations for ensuring better reporting across the state, including that OCA distribute a reporting manual to clerks detailing the law’s exact requirements. But neither the report nor the resulting manual addressed the reporting of juvenile records.

The agency has since moved to remedy that.

“Recently, because of increased questions, we decided to update the quick reference table to make it even more clear that juvenile records should be included under those provisions, and an updated FAQ section will be going in the manual,” spokesperson Megan LaVoie wrote in an email last month.

Amid a lack of clear direction, courts across the state aren’t following the law as Naishtat intended.

[…]

Schneider, the former Harris County juvenile judge, said the Legislature should address the narrowness and ambiguity that has resulted in the widespread failure to report juvenile mental health records, though he said such an effort will require lawmakers to answer difficult questions about how to handle sensitive records. In his mind, the law should cover young Texans with troubling histories of bullying, animal cruelty and sexual assault, behavior that foreshadows what experts call “future dangerousness.”

“What do you do with kids who have tortured a cat or a dog or done something really cruel, sexually or not, to another kid?” he said. “Those are, I think, the ones that people really worry about, because that seems to be so strongly correlated with really, really bad outcomes in the future.”

This is a long story with a lot of detail, so go read the rest for yourself. I think I’ve captured the main points in my excerpts, so the real question is whether the Lege is even interested in trying to address the gaps in that law. On that score, there was no comment from either Dan Patrick or Dade Phelan, so at the least there’s a lot of work to be done to even get it on the radar. And in keeping with what I’ve suggested before, this isn’t a whole solution but a part of one. Combining a fix to the Naishtat law with a ban on most types of gun purchases by anyone under the age of 21 would be a start. But first, the will to act has to be there. We can have a say in that this November.

The empty “mental health” promise

What’s going on in Uvalde these days.

Days after the May 24 shooting, Texas Gov. Greg Abbott promised an “abundance of mental health services” to help “anyone in the community who needs it … the totality of anyone who lives in this community.” He said the services would be free. “We just want you to ask for them,” he said, before giving out the 24/7 hotline number — 888-690-0799.

That’s a tall order for a community in an area with a shortage of mental health resources, in a state that ranks last for overall access to mental health care, according to a 2022 State of Mental Health in America report.

Mental health organizations are assembling a collection of services to assist those who seek help in Uvalde. But there have been hiccups and hitches along the way.

There is worry that what’s being offered is not coming together as fast or efficiently as it could be, and that it’s being assembled without keeping in mind the community it serves: Many residents are lower income, and some may have difficulties with transportation, or are mainly Hispanic. Many are not accustomed to seeking out therapy, or are distrustful of who is providing it.

Quintanilla-Taylor didn’t believe many would use the mental health services and had doubts about their long term availability.

“It’s not going be prevalent. … I don’t trust the resources, and that’s coming from an educated person,” said Quintanilla-Taylor, who’s pursuing a doctorate in philosophy and specializing in organizational leadership at the University of Texas at San Antonio.

[…]

Uvalde County Commissioners, the countywide government body, voted Thursday to purchase a building to create the Uvalde Together Resiliency Center to serve as a hub for long-term services, such as crisis counseling and behavioral health care for survivors.

Abbott set aside $5 million in funding for the center, which has been operating at the county fairgrounds.

Texas Sen. Roland Gutierrez, whose vast district includes Uvalde, said the community needs continuity of care and rather than create a new building the state could invest in the existing local community health clinic, in operation for 40 years and already serving 11,000 uninsured Uvalde residents.

“These are people who have behavioral health on the ground. They actually have the one psychiatrist in Uvalde right here,” Gutierrez said Friday referring to the clinic. “We needed to have the budget so that we can bring in therapists, which we would have been able to do with that money. Instead, they’re starting from whole cloth this promised center you’re going to have the district attorney run?”

Gutierrez, who has shifted a district office from Eagle Pass to Uvalde, said he met with 11 families whose children survived the shootings and were either wounded or sent to the hospital.

“What the families have been telling me is they don’t want to see one therapist one week, a different one the following and another one yet maybe the next week,” he said. “So, they are having trouble with appointments, with continuity and that’s very, very important, especially when we are talking about young children.”

Gutierrez said he sent a letter to Abbott asking for $2 million for the existing free community clinic to provide crisis care but has not heard back.

I’ve discussed this before, and this is another illustration of the problem. We can count on hearing two things whenever there’s a mass shooting in Texas. One is the usual blather about guns and why restricting access to guns isn’t the answer. The other is a rush to talk about mental health, both as a means of explaining the shooter’s actions and now more regularly as an alternate mitigation for gun violence that doesn’t restrict access to guns. It was a big component of the Cornyn bill, and may have been a key to its passage since there’s no question that more mental health services and funding for those services are badly needed. I’m happy to see that happen, it’s just that we all know this is only one piece of a much larger puzzle.

From the state perspective, any and all talk of mental health and services for mental health that comes from our state leaders is guaranteed to be little more than hot air. We have the longstanding issue of healthcare in general being out of reach for too many people because of lack of insurance, and the continued resistance to expanding Medicaid, which would be the single biggest step forward in that regard. We have the also longstanding issue of healthcare in rural areas, from hospitals closing for lack of funds to scarcity of doctors in rural areas, a problem that was supposed to have been solved by the passage of the tort “reform” constitutional amendment nearly 20 years ago. More recently there was Abbott’s redirection of over $200 million in funds from the Department of Health and Human Services to his never-ending border boondoggle. At every opportunity, the Republican leadership has made it clear that they don’t care about funding healthcare in general, and mental health services in particular. But they are willing to use the promise of mental health services as a distraction when the next crisis hits. That’s where we are now, and where we will be again if nothing changes.

Cornyn-Murphy gun bill gets final passage

What great timing, huh?

Exactly one month after a gunman shot and killed 19 children and two teachers in a Uvalde elementary school, the most significant new gun laws in decades were headed to President Joe Biden’s desk on Friday after the U.S. House cleared a bipartisan package of reforms requiring greater scrutiny of young buyers, closing the so-called boyfriend loophole and more.

The gun laws, authored by a group of senators including John Cornyn of Texas, easily passed the Democratic-controlled House on a 234-193 vote, just hours after 15 Senate Republicans joined every Democrat in approving the bill in the Senate late Thursday night. Biden is expected to sign the bill into law.

“When I met with families from Uvalde, they asked me how it was possible for the man who murdered their loved ones to get a dangerous weapon so easily,” U.S. Rep. Joaquin Castro said in a statement. “Today, Congress has voted to pass historic gun safety reforms that will save lives and keep deadly weapons out of the hands of people who present a clear danger to their communities. We need to make more progress on gun safety, but today’s vote is an important step forward.”

It is the first tightening of federal gun laws since 1994. It bolsters background checks on buyers under 21 years old and restricts access to firearms for dating partners convicted of domestic abuse. The bill creates stiffer penalties for gun trafficking and “straw” purchasing, in which someone buys a firearm for someone prohibited from owning one.

The legislation also provides funding for mental health programs, school security and for states to enact red flag laws or other intervention methods meant to stop shootings before they happen.

Just 14 Republicans voted for the bill in the House, where GOP leaders had urged members to oppose the legislation. Only one Texan was among them: U.S. Rep. Tony Gonzales of San Antonio, whose district includes Uvalde. The rest opposed the legislation.

See here for the background. It would be nice to feel good about this, even as watered down as this bill is, but with SCOTUS on a rampage, it’s hard to feel good about anything. The fact that this got initial passage in the Senate on the same day that SCOTUS essentially declared all state gun control measures to be illegal was the kind of irony none of us needed. I’m sure it’s just a matter of time before a federal lawsuit is filed to invalidate even this modest effort, and who would take a bet on those plaintiffs losing? But here we are anyway. If we can ever find our way to fixing the courts, we can improve on this and do a lot more besides. One step at a time. The Trib has more.

Cornyn’s gun control bill passes the Senate

Happy to have had my cynicism proven wrong.

Exactly four weeks after a teenage gunman armed with a semiautomatic rifle massacred 19 elementary schoolers and two teachers in Uvalde, the U.S. Senate voted 64-34 Tuesday night to advance a bipartisan compromise that, if enacted, would become the first major legislation on gun safety since 1994.

The legislation does not restrict any rights of existing gun owners — a nonstarter for Senate Republicans. Instead, it would enhance background checks for gun purchasers younger than 21; make it easier to remove guns from people threatening to kill themselves or others, as well as people who have committed domestic violence; clarify who needs to register as a federal firearms dealer; and crack down on illegal gun trafficking, including so-called straw purchases, which occur when the actual buyer of a firearm uses another person to execute the paperwork to buy on their behalf.

The legislation includes $11 billion for mental health services and $2 billion for community-based antiviolence programs. It also includes money to help young people access mental health services via telemedicine, money for more school-based mental health centers and support for suicide hotlines.

Republican John Cornyn, the senior senator from Texas, who was formally rebuked by the Republican Party of Texas on Saturday evening for taking part in the bipartisan negotiations, said he felt confident that senators would see the deal as a reasonable compromise. If it holds up, that would itself be an extraordinary achievement after years in which mass shootings have devastated American communities with numbing reality.

“This is an issue that divides much of the country, depending on where you live, and maybe divides people living in the same household. But I think we have found some areas where there’s space for compromise and we’ve also found that there are some red lines and no middle ground,” Cornyn said on the floor of the Senate. “We’ve talked, we’ve debated, we’ve disagreed and finally we’ve reached an agreement among the four of us but obviously this is not something that is going to become law or fail to become law because of a small group of senators. The truth is we had a larger group of 20 senators, 10 Republicans and 10 Democrats, come together and sign on to an agreed set of principles, and I believe that as the senators see the text that supports those principles, they will see we’ve tried our best to be true to what those agreed principles should be.”

See here for the previous update, and here for a copy of the bill. It still has to pass the House, but I expect that will happen. This bill started out as modest and got watered down further – I mean seriously, we couldn’t just raise the minimum age for buying gun to the same as it is for buying a beer? – and yet it’s the first real advance in a long time. It remains the definition of “better than nothing”, but we’re so used to nothing it feels like more.

To be sure, there are issues.

There’s still a fundamental problem on the Democrats’ part in getting here: They ceded to Republican arguments that the problem is mental health and school safety and not simply the fact that the country is awash in deadly weapons. The extra funding in the bill for mental health support is a good thing, but a good thing that could have been achieved through Medicaid expansion to the hold-out states without pushing the myth that mental illness is intrinsically tied to violence and further stigmatizing it. It accepts school massacres as inevitable by beefing up school security—which does not make Black and brown students safer, since they’re often targets of abuse from cops at school—and creating programs for trauma support in schools for after the attacks occur.

There are some improvements, though none is without a downside. It enhances background checks for 18 to 21 year olds seeking to buy assault weapons. That imposes a waiting period on them from three to 10 days,  which could prevent some impulse massacres. But that provision sunsets in 10 years, ending in 2032.

The bill includes $750 million that could help states that don’t have red flag or crisis intervention laws implement them. These laws allow for courts to order weapons removed from people determined to be a danger to themselves or others. The grant money, however, is in the form of Byrne JAG grants and can be used for a variety of law enforcement and judicial programs, including mental heath courts, drug courts, and veteran courts. This is a win for Republicans whose states don’t have and won’t pass red flag laws. They want their states to still be able to access the money, so other “crisis intervention” programs will receive it and guns don’t necessarily have to be removed from people in crisis.

The loophole that allows dating partners convicted of domestic violence to keep their guns is partially closed. Current law only bars individuals who have committed violence against a spouse, live-in partner, or someone with whom they share children from owning guns. The ban has been expanded to anyone convicted of domestic violence against someone they have a “continuing serious relationship of a romantic or intimate nature” with, including “recent former” dating partners. It does not stipulate what “recent” means. It is not retroactive, so survivors from past attacks can’t petition to have their abuser’s weapons taken away. It also allows people convicted of misdemeanor domestic violence to get their guns back in five years if they don’t commit other crimes.

The National Domestic Violence Hotline calls it “partially closing” the loophole, and a “significant step,” but advocates warn that there’s still a loophole in the “recent” language. “He doesn’t need to be ‘recent’ to cause harm,” Susan B. Sorenson, a University of Pennsylvania professor who studies family violence, told The Washington Post. “Feelings, not all of them positive, live on long after a relationship has ended.”

One of the more significant parts of this bill just flat won’t mean anything in a lot of states.

But even if it passes, federal funding for the bill’s most-discussed provision is unlikely to persuade many of the 30 states that don’t have red flag laws—most of them Republican-led—to adopt them. Some of these states have repeatedly voted down red flag legislation; at least one has formally outlawed their implementation. This means the federal gun control bill, aimed at reining in the epidemic of mass shootings, could have limited impact in a large swath of the country.

[…]

In a deadlocked Congress that has struggled to pass bills to keep kids fed and local governments running, the Uvalde shooting spurred momentum for this package to come together, though it falls short of many Democrats’ goals. The House, with its stronger Democratic majority, was able to pass a slate of gun control measures immediately after the Texas shooting that would have blocked semiautomatic rifle sales to people under the age of 21, created stricter gun storage regulations, and outlawed the sale of magazines holding more than 15 rounds of ammunition. That package stood no chance in the evenly divided Senate, where most bills have to garner the support of at least 60 senators because of the filibuster. An idea to create a national red flag law emerged in the hours immediately following the Uvalde shooting, but Democratic lawmakers saw both logistical challenges to that proposal and political ones.

Thus, optional funding for states to create their own red flag laws seemed like the safest bet to get anything across the finish line with Republicans wary of taking any action on guns, lest they lose their re-elections. Tellingly, several of the GOP senators in the bipartisan Uvalde-response contingent are retiring.

But while the incentive money could be used to help states that already have red flag laws, half a dozen state lawmakers and experts tell Mother Jones it is unlikely federal funding will persuade states that don’t already have red flag laws to create them.

This includes the state where tragedy prompted the bipartisan legislative framework in the first place: Texas. “I don’t believe any federal requirements or incentive would get Texas to move on this,” says Texas state Rep. Diego Bernal, a Democrat in favor of stricter gun control.

He draws a comparison to Texas, joined by 11 other historically red states, opting not to take federal funds in order to expand Medicaid healthcare access to more poor residents: “If we’re not willing to take tremendous amounts of federal money, at no expense to us, in order to insure our uninsured residents, then I don’t see any daylight for financial incentives to get us to adopt a red flag law.”

I haven’t seen any discussion of what kind of legal challenges might get filed against this bill, assuming it does pass as now I believe it will. You know the NRA, which opposes the Cornyn/Murphy bill, will not sit quietly, and there are plenty of wingnut Attorneys General and Trump judges out there. That’s an issue for another day, I suppose. For now, be glad we got what we got, and let’s keep working to make it possible to get more in the future. The Chron has more.

Of course we don’t do nearly enough for mental health

Because Republicans rush to talk about “mental health” every time there’s another mass shooting, it’s important to remember that their response to meeting the demand for mental health, in schools and elsewhere, has been completely inadequate.

Tucker’s was the kind of positive outcome state lawmakers pictured in 2019, when they worked to increase mental health resources for students after the mass shooting at Santa Fe High School that left eight students and two teachers dead.

Access to those services again is at the forefront as Republican leaders respond to last week’s massacre in Uvalde.

Mental health experts say the 2019 initiatives, including hundreds of millions of dollars more in funding, have only begun to address Texas’ mental health crisis, and that the state does little to track even their limited outcomes. Many school districts are left to fund their own interventions.

There is little evidence that mental illnesses cause mass shootings or that people diagnosed with them are more likely to commit violent crimes. Advocates also warn that scapegoating mental illness can stigmatize the wide spectrum of people living with psychological disorders.

“It’s absolutely something that should be addressed — but it’s not a panacea,” said Greg Hansch, executive director for the Texas chapter of the National Alliance on Mental Illness. “It’s more of a secondary or tertiary factor.”

Gov. Greg Abbott and other top Republicans have pointed to the shortage of mental health resources, especially in rural Texas, as a key factor in the Uvalde shooting, while rejecting calls for stricter gun laws.

The 18-year-old gunman, who killed 19 children and two adults, legally purchased the assault-style weapon he used in the shooting spree and had “no known mental health history,” Abbott said.

Even with the 2019 reforms, mental health care remains vastly underfunded in Texas. That largely is because of budget cuts two decades ago and years of stagnant funding to community mental health services. Today, Texas provides less access to care than any other state, and nearly three quarters of children and teenagers with major depression do not get treated, the highest rate in the country, according to the nonprofit group Mental Health America.

Without a direct source of state funding for mental health care, school districts in Texas are forced to rely on a patchwork of state and federal programs, most of which do not guarantee that money will flow to mental health services for students or training for teachers. As a result, only a tiny fraction of Texas’ roughly 1,200 public school and open-enrollment charter districts have enough counselors, social workers and psychologists to meet professionally recommended student-to-provider ratios, according to a recent Houston Chronicle analysis.

Central to lawmakers’ 2019 response was a new mental health consortium overseen by the University of Texas System, with a $99 million initial investment for programs focused on children and teens, including virtual visits between child psychologists and students referred by school staff. The Legislature also increased funding to Communities in Schools, which places staff directly on campuses and had employed Tucker’s social workers.

In addition, lawmakers required school officials to form “threat assessment teams” to identify students who may pose a risk of violence, and put forth another $100 million to school districts every two years that can be used to hire security personnel, provide mental health services and buy physical upgrades, such as metal detectors and bullet-resistant glass.

In the first year, however, just 12 percent of Texas school districts reported using any of the funds for mental health support, while 8 percent said the money was used for behavioral health services, according to a survey by the Texas School Safety Center at Texas State University.

A task force later found the Texas Education Agency was not collecting meaningful data on mental health programs in schools, including the number of students they serve or “any standard outcomes” they measure. The Legislature responded with a bill last year to bolster reporting, but the agency has yet to release any results.

Annalee Gulley, director of public policy and government affairs for Mental Health America of Greater Houston, said lawmakers have taken encouraging steps to support mental health but should have paired the funding with more direction for school officials on how to spend it.

“A critical lesson learned in the years following the Santa Fe High School shooting is funding alone is not enough,” Gulley said. “Instead, the state must connect financial resources to guidance on the most effective strategies to support the safety and well-being of educators and students following such a catastrophic event.”

Much of the focus since 2019 has been on the telehealth effort known as TCHATT, including more than $50 million in added pandemic funding last year. The program has been slow to expand, however, serving only about 6,000 students so far. By comparison, Communities in Schools serves 115,000 students annually on a $35 million budget. There are more than 5 million students in Texas.

So yeah, still a long way to go, and that’s before we get to things like the challenges of hiring all of the counselors that would be needed in Texas’ 1200 school districts and thousands of schools. And this story never mentions the need to expand Medicaid, which would be the single biggest thing that we could do in Texas to improve mental health care for everyone, not just for students. I started the draft of this post a couple of weeks ago, before the Cornyn/Murphy gang got what passes for traction on a bipartisan framework for a gun control bill (still no bill, and the framework remains under negotiation, but there’s an agreement to come to an agreement, and that’s the progress in question), and since then we’ve had that, more ridiculous talk about all of the non-gun things that actually cause mass shootings, the lunatics at the Texas GOP convention basically accusing Cornyn of treason, and a bunch more people getting shot and killed, but we haven’t had much talk about mental health. As with gun control itself, the Republicans and their gun enablers will be happy to just let that fade away, until the next time it has to be trotted out as an excuse for the latest mass casualty.

Andrea Yates, 20 years later

This case still breaks my heart.

Twenty years after their killings, attorney George Parnham still dutifully visits the graves of Andrea Yates’ five children.

He regularly drives to Clear Lake to leave flowers for Noah, 7; John, 5; Paul, 3; Luke, 2 and Mary, 6 months. He makes sure the grass over their graves is cut. He still weeps when he talks about them.

“I haven’t had a case in my entire career that has impacted my life as much as this case has,” said Parnham. “It’s something about the kids.”

During Yates’ 2002 trial, which drew international attention, many couldn’t fathom how a 36-year-old mother could drown her own children in a bathtub. The definitions of postpartum depression and psychosis were not yet commonly known. In order to defend Yates, Parnham had to educate the public about mental illness.

“When a person is suffering from mental illness and is in a psychotic state, they make decisions based on their own reality,” he said. “They don’t have a decision-making process based on rational thinking.”

The case brought mental health awareness, and postpartum mental illness in particular, into public awareness. Since it happened, more therapists, psychiatrists and medical professionals have dedicated their careers to helping women struggling after giving birth. More resources and interventions have also become available.

“Over the years, we’ve seen more and more women speak up and ask for help,” said Dr. Sherry Duson, a licensed therapist and counselor who founded the Center for Postpartum Family Health in Houston . “And there’s a greater understanding among OB-GYN pediatricians that perinatal mental illness is common and treatable and needs to be addressed.”

You should read the rest. It’s still painful to consider all the ways that Andrea Yates was failed by everyone around her, but at least we are more cognizant of mental illnesses, in particular postpartum depression and psychosis, than we were before. And God bless George Parnham for all the work he did on this case, and for his commitment to Andrea Yates and her children after all this time. May we never see another case like this again.

Commissioners Court rejects Ogg’s request for more prosecutors

I fully expected that Commissioners Court going from 4-1 Republican to 3-2 Democratic after the last election would signal big changes in how business was done in Harris County, but I didn’t expect this to be the first milestone on the new path.

Kim Ogg

Harris County Commissioners Court on Tuesday rejected Kim Ogg’s request for 102 new prosecutors, a stinging public defeat for the first-term Democratic district attorney by members of her own party.

The rejection came less than 24 hours after a former assistant district attorney filed paperwork to challenge Ogg in next year’s primary, a sign criminal justice reformers may have lost patience with the self-described progressive after helping elect her in 2016.

The three Democratic members of Commissioners Court — commissioners Rodney Ellis and Adrian Garcia and County Judge Lina Hidalgo —supported increasing the district attorney’s budget by 7 percent, in line with increases for other county departments. Ogg had asked for a 31 percent increase, which would grow her prosecutor corps by a third and include 42 additional support staff.

“This is not the only way, and certainly not the most cost-effective way to decrease prosecutor caseloads,” Hidalgo said.

[…]

Ogg, who did not attend the court meeting, issued a statement after the vote.

“We will continue to fight every day to ensure that justice is done in every case for every crime victim, every defendant and the community,” she said. “Harris County must have a district attorney’s office with sufficient resources to ensure that all cases are resolved fairly and in a timely manner.”

See here for the background and here for an earlier Chron story that previewed the Tuesday Commissioners Court meeting. Ogg had addressed the criticism of her proposal, and also answered the question about maybe hiring prosecutors on a shorter-term basis, but it wasn’t enough to get any of her fellow Dems in line. I would say her best bet right now is to take what the ACLU of Texas said in a press release following the Commissioners’ vote to heart:

“Adding more prosecutors in Harris County is not the ultimate solution for reducing mass incarceration and fighting racism in the criminal system. While the Harris County Commissioners Court has taken a more measured approach than the initial proposal, the addition of new prosecutors must come with clearly defined standards for reducing incarceration — such as expanding pretrial diversion, reducing case disposition time, and reducing existing caseloads — instead of prosecuting more cases. The commissioners were right to call for studies into how best to improve the district attorney’s office, and District Attorney Ogg should commit to specific plans for how any newly hired prosecutors will be used. That’s accountability.”

“There is no question that Harris County prosecutors have high caseloads, but the solution is not to add more prosecutors in a cycle that endlessly ratchets up the size of the criminal system. The smartest way to reduce caseloads is to dismiss more cases, identify more cases for diversion, and invest significantly in substance use disorder and mental health treatment that help people who need it and prevent them from ending up awaiting prosecution in the first place.”

Seems to me this conversation will need to include HPD, the Sheriff’s office, and all of the other law enforcement organizations in Harris County as well. If the DA needs to prioritize what cases get prosecuted, they will need to prioritize what arrests they make. Commissioners Court needs to do its part, too, by working to expand mental health offerings. The Lege could also pitch in here, though for obvious reasons I’ll keep my expectations low. Everyone has a part to play – Kim Ogg’s part is bigger than the rest, but it’s not just her. Maybe by the time next year’s budget is being discussed, we’ll have less to argue about.

And speaking of next year:

Audia Jones, the former prosecutor who on Monday filed paperwork to challenge Ogg, spoke against the proposal. Jones said she left the district attorney’s office in December in part because she said Ogg’s administration has been too reluctant to offer jail diversion to defendants of color, in contrast with their white counterparts.

She said temporary court closures caused by Hurricane Harvey are not a driver of increasing caseloads, as Ogg contends, but rather are a result of her administration’s policies.

Murray Newman, who had some earlier thoughts about the Ogg proposal, notes that Audia Jones is married to Criminal Court Judge DaSean Jones. I’m not sure how that conflict gets sorted out if she wins (one obvious remedy would be for Judge Jones to step down), but that’s a concern for another day. I would have picked County Attorney Vince Ryan as the first member of the class of 2020 to get a potential primary opponent – designating a treasurer is a necessary step to running for office, but it doesn’t commit one to running – but here we are.

How many prosecutors do we need?

Opinions differ, but it’s a big question in Harris County right now.

Kim Ogg

Hanover is one of many prosecutors Harris County District Attorney Kim Ogg said are overburdened — the reason she has asked Commissioners Court for a budget that would fund 102 additional assistant district attorneys and more than 40 support staff. Ogg said the surge is needed to clear a backlog in cases exacerbated by Harvey, a driver of overcrowding at the Harris County Jail.

Her proposal to expand the prosecutor corps by a third, however, has evolved into a proxy battle over the future of criminal justice reform in Harris County. Ogg finds herself so far unable to persuade Democrats on Commissioners Court as well as reform groups, who have questioned her self-identification as a progressive and said her proposal would lead to more residents in jail.

“Simply adding prosecutors is the strategy that got us here in the first place, with this mentality that the only thing we can spend money on is police and prosecutors,” said Jay Jenkins, project attorney with the Texas Criminal Justice Coalition.

Ogg, a first-term district attorney who unseated a Republican in 2016 with the support of many progressive groups, said these critics fail to grasp the on-the-ground realities of her prosecutors, whose heavy workloads mean they sometimes are the reason cases are delayed and defendants languish in jail.

Ogg pledged to send the first 25 new hires to the felony trial bureau, where she said they can help achieve the reforms progressives seek, such as identifying low-risk defendants who can be sent out of the criminal justice system without a conviction.

“Who else is going to divert offenders who should re-enter society, and prosecute the people who should be incarcerated to protect the public?” she said. “This is a question of how fast do our funders really want to reform our justice system?”

Ogg laid out her argument in an interview Wednesday at the district attorney’s temporary quarters at 500 Jefferson, where a regular shuttle takes prosecutors to the criminal justice complex more than a mile away.

Ogg said since taking office, she is proud to have diverted 38,000 defendants for a variety of low-level offenses, including marijuana possession, misdemeanor theft, first time DUI and mental health-related charges such as trespassing. With an active caseload that jumped from about 15,000 when Harvey hit to 26,523 this week, she said prosecutors are not always able to give victims and defendants the attention they deserve.

Her staff noted Harris County’s 329 prosecutors are less than half the number in Illinois’ Cook County, which is only slightly more populous.

“With adequate staff, we’ll be able to offer pleas that are reasonable earlier,” Ogg said. “We’ll be able to focus on public safety to make sure we don’t let someone go who is really a risk and threat to either his family or his community.”

She sought to mollify the concerns of progressives who fear it could lead to more people in jail, saying, “There’s no data showing that more prosecutors equals more prosecutions.”

Here are the original statements put out by TOP and the TCJC. This subsequent Chron story gives some more detail.

“We would like to stop the clock and take time to consider other options, primarily looking at funding for mental health issues,” organizer Terrance Koontz said.

Koontz said TOP is looking at housing options for nonviolent offenders who may need to reset their lives.

“We’re talking about individuals who are being arrested for minor drug charges or being homeless on the street or having a mental problem, and they definitely shouldn’t be sitting in jail,” Koontz said. “We are not here to attack D.A. Ogg, we just want more time to consider our options.”

[…]

Doug Murphy, president of the Harris County Criminal Lawyers Association, agrees with Ogg’s proposal.

“Having witnessed the daily reality of their lack of manpower what we’re seeing is Harris County was the fastest moving docket in the country, we called it the rocket docket, and it slowed it down to a snail’s pace,” said Murphy. “What we got is bloated dockets because they don’t have the manpower to work these cases up and marshal the evidence.”

Murphy believes more prosecutors would help pick up the pace of getting cases to trial, resolved and even dismissed. “If I weren’t witnessing daily the backlog and the frustration, I would be in total agreement with the other organization,” Murphy said.

Koontz still worries that more prosecutors would ultimately mean more arrests and more people wrongly incarcerated.

“We just want to consider other viable options outside of just hiring the prosecutors,” Koontz said. “Because although it does not seem like putting more people in jail, at the end of the day we feel like more people will end up in jail than not and at the end of the day its black and brown people who are overwhelmingly being incarcerated.”

Honestly, I think everyone is raising valid concerns. The chaos of Harvey has caused a big backlog for the DA’s office, and it doesn’t serve anyone’s interests for cases to drag out because there just isn’t the time or the bandwidth among overworked assistant DAs to get to them. On the other hand, Kim Ogg made promises about how she was going to reform the system, and a big part of that was not prosecuting a lot of low-level crimes or crimes involving people who need mental health treatment. They also worry that while Ogg might not backtrack on her stated priorities, the next DA who inherits her bigger office may not share those priorities. It’s not at all unreasonable to worry that an increase in prosecutors will be counter to Ogg’s stated goals.

So how to resolve this? Grits suggests increasing the Public Defender’s office by an equivalent amount – Commissioner Rodney Ellis has suggested something like this as well, and the PDO is seeking more funding, so that’s on the table. I like that idea, but I also think it may be possible to assuage the concerns about what happens after the backlog is cleared by putting a time limit on the hiring expansion. Is it possible to hire people on one or two year non-renewable contracts, to get the office through the backlog but then have it return to a smaller size afterward? I’m just spitballing here, but if we agree that clearing the backlog is a worthy goal, then we ought to be able to find a way to ensure that doing so doesn’t lead to mission creep. I’m open to other ideas, but I feel like this is something that needs to lead to a compromise, not one side winning and the other side losing. I hope we can get there.

Health care needs to be a twofer

Lt. Governor candidate Mike Collier is on the right track here, but he needs to keep going.

Mike Collier

Lieutenant governor hopeful Mike Collier announced his health care reform plan Tuesday, which aims to reduce costs and increase access to health care in Texas.

“Achieving these goals will not be easy,” Collier said in a statement. “But it’s time to get cracking. Doing nothing — the only skill our current governor and lieutenant governor seem to possess — is no longer acceptable.”

Colliers faces incumbent GOP Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick in November’s general election. Patrick has been a fierce opponent of the Affordable Care Act and any move to expand Medicaid, the health care program for the poor and disabled, to include the working poor.

Collier said Texas’ decision not to pay for health care costs for Texans who cannot afford health insurance is “unbelievably stupid,” and said that using federal dollars to close the coverage gap will bring Texas an estimated $9 billion per year in federal dollars and create as many as 250,000 jobs.

Collier said his plan also includes deploying state money to encourage Texans to buy insurance, which he said will drive down the cost of health care.

Additionally, Collier emphasized price transparency and a “Patient Financial Bill of Rights,” which would require insurance companies to provide health care prices in advance, show the availability of less expensive drugs and procedures, and itemize bills “in plain language,” among other requirements.

This is all good, but it’s missing an opportunity. You’ve heard me say this before, but it bears repeating – over and over and over again – that if we’re really going to talk about improving mental health care, which is all we ever talk about after another mass shooting, then we have to talk about expanding Medicaid, because it’s by far the biggest and best way to pay for mental health care for the people who need it. If we’re not talking about expanding Medicaid, then we’re just flapping our lips when we bring up the “mental illness” shibboleth. We need to keep saying this until it starts to sink in. You took a good first step, Mike Collier. Now please take the next steps.

Senate considers mostly symbolic ideas on school safety

Once again, see if you can tell what’s missing from this discussion.

Nearly three weeks after a shooter killed 10 people at a high school southeast of Houston, lawmakers gathered at the Texas Capitol on Monday to discuss new school safety measures that might prevent another tragedy — and stopped short of rallying behind ideas like adding metal detectors to schools or updating school architecture.

“It’s going to be very difficult to stop every incident,” said state Sen. Larry Taylor, R-Friendswood, discussing the variety of situations in which students could be harmed.

Monday’s meeting came after Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick, a Republican, created the Senate Select Committee on Violence in Schools & School Security to study ways to limit violence in Texas public schools before they reopen in August. Prior to those orders, Abbott had released a 40-page school safety plan with dozens of proposals of his own in response to the shooting at Santa Fe High School.

Lawmakers studied many of Abbott’s ideas Monday, including ensuring that teachers are trained through Mental Health First Aid, a day-long course that trains individuals on how to spot and respond to mental illness and substance abuse. State Sen. Charles Schwertner, R-Georgetown, said around 25,000 school staff members in Texas have already been trained through the program.

[…]

In addition to metal detectors, lawmakers discussed designing schools to prevent threats, like by keeping administrative offices at the front of schools. Legislators also briefly discussed monitoring cameras, limiting school access points and improving locks.

It’s better than blaming everything on doors and video games, but not much more productive. I will take all the usual mutterings about mental health seriously when there’s a real proposal on the table to expand Medicaid, since expanding Medicaid will be by far the single most effective thing we can do to actually help many of the people who have mental health issues in Texas. As for the rest of it, I’m sure they could have some marginal benefit, but it all has the feel to me of talking about installing new windshield wipers when there’s smoke coming from the car engine and you have two flat tires. When are we going to address the real problems?

Reducing solitary confinement

This is good.

Sheriff Ed Gonzalez

Almost five years after images surfaced of a mentally ill inmate wallowing in a cell full of human waste and bugs, the Harris County jail has cut in half its use of solitary confinement.

The decrease is due in part to a decision to stop putting rule-breakers in solitary, officials say, and in part to the creation of two rehabilitative mental health units that provide a path out of isolation.

“It’s a step in the right direction,” said Anthony Graves, a death row exoneree who has spoken out against the use of solitary confinement since his release. “It says that people are now getting serious about criminal justice reform.”

In the fall of 2014, the jail had 240 inmates isolated in so-called administrative separation. By March of this year, that number had plummeted to 122, or just over 1 percent of the jail’s population, according to data from the office of Sheriff Ed Gonzalez.

[…]

“There’s a nationwide trend where correctional facilities are moving away from the use of administrative separation and in keeping with best practices and current practices, and also trying to do what’s best for the inmates themselves,” [Sheriff’s Office Major John] Martin said. “There are a lot of studies out there that suggest keeping them confined by themselves might not be best so gradually we started changing a lot of our practices. I think a difficult part is changing mindsets – just getting people to think differently.”

The following year, in an effort to shift mentally ill inmates out of isolation, the jail launched the first of two pilot programs. The 2015 initiative, now known as the Social Learning Program and housed in the 2L unit at the 1200 Baker complex, holds just under two dozen inmates who get 16 hours of out-of-cell time per day.

“They were in the hole — but now they’re not because of the program,” said Major Mike Lee, who oversees the jail’s mental health and diversion programs.

In the 2L unit, arrestees get programming and cognitive behavioral therapy-based groups twice a day. Groups focus on communication skills, medication management and anger management.

“It’s so they won’t resort to the same behaviors when they get out,” said Sean McElroy, the jail’s mental health program administrator through The Harris Center.

But part of the goal is also that, after some time spent in the program, the inmates can be transferred back to general population.

“It’s something we feel is in everybody’s best interest,” Martin said.

Michele Deitch, a criminal-justice expert and senior lecturer at the LBJ School of Public Affairs at the University of Austin, concurred, adding that mentally ill inmates are often at a higher risk for landing in solitary.

“It’s well-established that solitary confinement is detrimental to the health of people, especially people with mental illness,” she said. “People with mental illness are far more vulnerable than other populations in the jail. They are more likely to be exploited by other inmates, they’re less likely to be able to follow directions, they are more likely to deteriorate under the conditions of confinement in the jail and, because of their frequent inability to conform their behavior to the rules, they are disproportionately likely to end up in solitary.”

This is what I want to see. This change in policy is more humane, will lead to better outcomes, and will ultimately cost the county less money. And it’s just heartening to see the Sheriff’s office staying on top of staying on top of the research and following the best practices. We deserve and should expect nothing less.

More pre-trial diversion

DA Kim Ogg moves forward on more campaign promises.

Kim Ogg

During a press conference Tuesday, Ogg laid out in broad strokes the policy recommendations written by the committees and emphasized that she is seeking participation from experts and Houston’s leaders.

“We listen to the community,” she said, flanked by about 30 volunteers including former HPD Chief C. O. Bradford and Thurgood Marshall School of Law professor Lydia D. Johnson. “We are evidence-based and data driven, but it is important to know how the community wants tax dollars spent to enhance public safety.”

Ogg released the full reports from committees on officer-involved shootings, evidence integrity, equality, immigration, bail-bond reform, mental health and diversity.

Many of the reforms proposed using technology and data more efficiently to streamline the criminal justice system, such as moving to a paperless district attorney’s office or using evidence-based risk assessments to determine bail amounts.

Tarsha Jackson, the Harris County Director with the Texas Organizing Project, was on the bail bond committee and applauded Ogg for involving people with different backgrounds, some with conflicting interests.

“It was a tug of war,” Jackson said of her committee that included a bail bondsman and a representative of the Texas Criminal Justice Coalition. “We had deep debate on what the district attorney can do in regard to bail reform, about what’s possible. And the final results were some good policies that she can implement.”

You can see the committee reports here. The themes all came from the campaign, and however you feel about the conclusions, I’d hope we can all respect a process that involved a broad spectrum of stakeholders who worked together across a range of perspectives. The Press read through the reports so you don’t have to.

Among the most noteworthy is the passing mention that Ogg’s administration “will work with all of the Harris County Law Enforcement agencies” to implement cite and release “for appropriate misdemeanor crimes,” which was not mentioned during the press conference. This has been a topic of debate for years, if not a full decade, after the Texas Legislature authorized police in 2007 to issue citations for various small-time crimes rather than arresting people and hauling them to jail. It’d be like getting a traffic ticket, then going to court for it later. It applies to crimes such as driving with an invalid license, criminal mischief, graffiti and possession of less than four ounces of pot (Ogg already diverts most pot cases).

[…]

Also noteworthy are plans to expand mental health diversion. Staci Biggar, a Houston defense attorney who was on Ogg’s mental health transition team panel, said that the idea was to transition people charged with low-level crimes like trespassing, often related to a person’s mental illness, away from jail and into treatment. Rather than asking for money to fund a program, she said judges can still issue pretrial diversion contracts to mentally ill defendants and individualize the terms based on that person’s needs.

“The idea is placing more people on bond and placing them in facilities, making pretrial conditions be to go see a particular health provider, or maybe they need to stay in a particular living situation,” Biggar said. “They can order somebody to see a doctor and they can order somebody to be treated by one organization. If you take a misdemeanor [defendant] and maybe that’s the first or second time they’re arrested, yes, you’ve been arrested, but we’ll drop the charges if you go and do these various things. It shouldn’t be that we wait until you’re really, really in trouble before there’s a stronger intervention for mental health.”

Other noteworthy nuggets from the eight transition team reports include the end to hiking bail to sometimes tens of thousands of dollars for suspected undocumented immigrants; vetting expert witnesses in capital murder cases more extensively and never “expert shopping”; and releasing to the public body-cam footage of officer-involved shootings as long as it does not impede an ongoing investigation — among various recommendations from the officer-involved shooting panel headed by former Houston police chief C.O. Bradford.

As Ogg says, you can judge her by her results in 2020. I think she’s off to a great start.

Sandra Bland Act passes

Good.

Sandra Bland

The Texas House initially approved the Sandra Bland Act on Friday with a unanimous vote. The body now has to vote on the mental health bill one more time before it reaches Gov. Greg Abbott’s desk. (Update, May 20: The House voted 137-0 to give the bill final approval)

Senate Bill 1849 would mandate that county jails divert people with mental health and substance abuse issues toward treatment, make it easier for defendants with a mental illness or intellectual disability to receive a personal bond and require that independent law enforcement agencies investigate jail deaths.

[…]

Senate Criminal Justice Committee Chairman John Whitmire struck several provisions from the original bill amid criticism from police groups that it would hamper law enforcement’s work, including adding extra steps to legally secure a consent search. Bland’s family expressed disappointment in the Senate version of the bill, calling it a missed opportunity because it removed language relevant to Bland’s stop.

The bill’s sponsor, Rep. Garnet Coleman of Houston, and other lawmakers have said they understand the disappointment, but there will be other opportunities to address in legislation interactions with police.

See here for the background. Sandra Bland’s family was not happy with the Senate changes to the bill, but it’s almost always better to pass something that can be built on later rather than pass nothing and hope to try again from scratch. It may take several sessions before anything else gets done, and nothing will happen without a big push, but this was progress and I’m glad it succeeded. A statement from Rep. Coleman is beneath the fold.

(more…)

The Sandra Bland Act

Good.

Sandra Bland

State Rep. Garnet Coleman, D-Houston, on Thursday filed House Bill 2702, dubbed the Sandra Bland Act.

The exhaustive piece of legislation would expand what qualifies as racial and ethnic profiling; mandate people experiencing a mental health crisis and substance abuse be diverted to treatment over jail; and create more training and reporting requirements for county jails and law enforcement.

The legislation is named in honor of Sandra Bland, a black, 28-year-old Illinois woman who was found dead in an apparent suicide in the Waller County Jail in 2015.

Bland was pulled over in Prairie View on July 10, 2015, by then-Texas Department of Public Safety trooper Brian Encinia after she failed to signal a lane change. When Bland’s conversation with Encinia became heated, he arrested her on a charge of assaulting a public servant. She was found dead in her cell three days later.

Bland shouldn’t have been arrested, Coleman said during a news conference to announce the bill’s filing.

“It led to a death that didn’t have to occur,” said Coleman, who chairs the House County Affairs Committee.

The Sandra Bland Act would make several changes to how Texas law enforcement officials and jailers interact with those they stop or detain.

There’s more on the bill in the story, so go check it out. You know how I feel about this. Rep. Coleman has been working on this, which implements the reforms that were agreed to in the settlement of the lawsuit filed by bland’s family, for some time now. If anyone is going to get the details right, it’s Rep. Coleman. Let’s hope this gets a good reception. Grits has more.

New Sheriff not interested in defending current bail policies

Good.

Ed Gonzalez

Ed Gonzalez

After defeating Sheriff Ron Hickman in the election this month, Sheriff-elect Ed Gonzalez is already sticking his nose in Hickman’s official business — mainly, the lawsuit filed against him.

Hickman, along with the county, all the county judges and five bail hearing officers, has been sued for participating in what a national civil rights group calls an unconstitutional bail system. The plaintiffs, Civil Rights Corps, argue that poor people in Harris County are being systematically jailed before trial just because they cannot afford to pay an arbitrary bail amount, unlike wealthier people charged with the same crime.

While Hickman has voiced support for bail reform in the past, he and his lawyers have nonetheless insisted he be dismissed from this lawsuit since he is simply complying with court orders from judges to house these people in the jail. Civil Rights Corps, however, argues that since many of these people are being held unconstitutionally, the sheriff is still liable. And it just so happens that Hickman’s successor agrees.

In an affidavit presented before U.S. District Judge Lee Rosenthal in federal court on Monday, Gonzalez called the county’s bail system unconstitutional and asked Rosenthal to keep the sheriff in the lawsuit — essentially encouraging Civil Rights Corps to continue to [sue] the office he will soon inherit.

[…]

Gonzalez’s premature involvement places the Harris County Attorney’s Office and its hired private attorneys in a somewhat awkward position: Once Gonzalez assumes office, county attorneys will be representing a public official whose views are seriously at odds with their entire argument — that nothing is legally wrong with the county’s bail system.

While the county raised ethical concerns in court yesterday about Gonzalez filing an affidavit apparently in support of the party that is suing him, Judge Rosenthal did not find any problems with it. In fact, one attorney from the Houston law firm Susman Godfrey, which is a plaintiff along with Civil Rights Corps, argued that the greater ethical concern was Gonzalez being “represented” by people who do not represent his views.

Judge Rosenthal is expected to decide soon on which parties will remain in the lawsuit.

The county argued Monday that its bail practices are not in violation of the Constitution since defendants see a magistrate within 48 hours (most of the time). And that magistrates, county attorneys said, have the information in front of them to consider a defendant’s ability to pay, as the Constitution requires. Civil Rights Corps lead attorney Alec Karakatsanis, however, repeatedly argued that the county was missing the mark: The point, he argued, is that magistrates systematically choose not to consider a defendant’s ability to pay bail, sending low-level, low-risk defendants to jail instead of giving them a personal bond.

See here for prior blogging on this. In case you’re curious, this is what Sheriff-elect Gonzalez is refusing to defend:

Anthony Wayne Goffney shuffles toward the floor marker where he is told to stand, wearing light blue pants and a smock top, four days after being jailed for trespassing.

A prosecutor rattles off information about his arrest as Goffney, stooped and gray-haired, appearing confused, gazes over his shoulder.

Court records show Goffney has dementia and a history of homelessness, yet his poverty is not discussed as hearing officer Jill Wallace, appearing via a video link, decides whether to jail him or let him go free.

Wallace says, rapid-fire: “Bond is set at $5,000. You’re denied a pretrial release bond.”

Then she adds: “Are you requesting the court to appoint you a lawyer?”

“Who me?” he asks.

“Yeah, you,” she answers.

Then Wallace sends Goffney to jail.

The videotaped encounter – among thousands that occur 24 hours a day at the Harris County courthouse – is among a cache released by the Texas Organizing Project showing what officials say is judicial indifference to a parade of poverty, homelessness and hopelessness.

“The elderly man [Goffney] has nobody to speak for him,” said Tarsha Jackson, a TOP organizer. “It’s inhumane and it’s not fair.”

There more, including video, at the story link. I don’t know about you, but that sure doesn’t sound like anything that has to do with “justice” to me. The county is arguing that the lawsuit should be dismissed because it has made progress in addressing the issues. Judge Lee Rosenthal has said she will make a final determination in January, after the new officeholders have had a chance to get sworn in. We know where Gonzalez stands, and I’ll be shocked if Kim Ogg isn’t there with him. We’ll see what that means for the case.

Checking in with Ed Gonzalez

Also known as Harris County Sheriff-elect Ed Gonzalez.

Ed Gonzalez

Ed Gonzalez

Ed Gonzalez will have a lot to do when he assumes the position of the county’s top cop in January.

He’ll have to rein in overtime pay, manage the Harris County jail population and win over the thousands of employees who backed his opponent in Tuesday’s election.

First, though, he plans to reactivate his peace officer’s license, which has been inactive since 2012.

“He will have to mail his application and pay a fee of $150 and take 40 hours of training including the basic state and federal law update,” said Gretchen Grigsby, spokeswoman for the Texas Commission on Law Enforcement. “Texas law will give him two years to do that.”

[…]

The county’s third sheriff in the last two years, Gonzalez will now turn his attention to managing the office and a sometimes-scandal-prone jail of nearly 10,000 inmates. The move could bring yet another seismic shift among the highest echelons of the department’s command staff.

“I haven’t finalized in my mind yet any thoughts on who I might keep or might not keep or bring in or anything like that,” Gonzalez said.

He said he hoped to meet with Hickman soon to assess operations at the department and have a transition framework in place within a week or so.

Observers will also be watching to see how Gonzalez fulfills pledges he made during the campaign to bulk up jail diversion programs and fight crime more effectively.

With county budget talks beginning in March, Gonzalez will have just a few months to get up to speed on the internal workings of a department of more than 4,600 employees and budget of approximately $483 million.

Harris County Budget Officer William Jackson said he would be meeting with Gonzalez and other newly elected officials to guide them through the budget process after they take office in January.

“Commissioner’s Court only approves the budget as a single number at the top,” Jackson said, explaining that if Gonzalez had different priorities, he will have flexibility to shift funds within his budget.

Gonzalez will also have address approximately 300 vacancies within the department, which has contributed to a crunch in staffing in both patrol and detentions, and said he would not rule out re-implementing measures former Sheriff Adrian Garcia – Hickman’s predecessor – had used to try to address jail overcrowding or other issues at the sheriff’s office.

“Everything needs to be considered and be on the table,” Gonzalez said, noting that Hickman’s reforms had caused both jail and patrol overtime to spike. “All that needs to be looked at.”

Like Kim Ogg, Ed Gonzalez had a strong electoral showing, but it’s not clear to me that he got crossover votes. Comparing his result to the judicial races, there were fewer undervotes in his race, so I’d say he probably just retained more of the Democratic base vote than the judicial races did. That was more than enough for a strong victory, and is perhaps a more accurate picture of Democratic turnout in Harris County in 2016, but it’s a slightly different dynamic than it was for Ogg.

Also like Ogg, Gonzalez will have a lot of issues to address beginning on Day One. He won’t face the kind of turnover that Ogg will face, which means he’ll retain the institutional knowledge and experience that already exists, but it also means he’ll have to work with a number of people who didn’t support him, and he’ll have to implement changes for an institution that may not want to change. The biggest challenge he faces is with staffing, and the single best thing that could happen to him is for the DA and the courts to send fewer people to the jail for him to have to find space and oversight for. Ogg will help with that, but it will be on Gonzalez to try to persuade the misdemeanor court judges to work with him. He can also implement some policies to facilitate early release for inmates that earn it, as his predecessor Adrian Garcia had done.

He’s going to have to deal with the challenge of mental illness among the inmate population, and especially among the people who cycle in and out of the jail. The old saw about the jail being the biggest mental health facility in Texas remains true, and unfortunately the results of the national election will not only not offer any help on that score, it’s a virtual certainty to make it worse. Also not going to get any better will be issues with undocumented immigrants and a large community of voters who supported Gonzalez in the election but deplore the current processes for checking immigration status and handing over some offenders to ICE.

There are things Ed Gonzalez can do as Sheriff to enable his success, and there are things that are beyond his control that will affect his success, like whether the misdemeanor court judges continue to treat the jail’s capacity as essentially unlimited. One factor that I’m less sure how to evaluate will be Gonzalez’s relationship with Commissioner’s Court. Steve Radack and the now-departed Jerry Eversole were Adrian Garcia’s biggest antagonists. I expect Rodney Ellis will be a strong ally, but he’ll also expect results. It’s not in his control either, but the best thing that could happen to Gonzalez could be another Democratic sweep in Harris County in 2018, ushering in misdemeanor court judges who are willing to give personal recognizance bonds, and maybe a second ally on Commissioners Court. We’ll see what he can do with what he’s got until then. The Press has more.

More on the Sandra Bland settlement

State Rep. Garnet Coleman is working to implement the reforms mandated by the Sandra Bland lawsuit settlement.

Sandra Bland

House Democrats sparred with state law enforcement officials over questions of racial profiling Tuesday at a sometimes contentious hearing. It was the latest in a series of House County Affairs Committee hearings on policing in advance of the 2017 legislative session. Committee chair Garnet Coleman, a Houston Democrat and veteran lawmaker, has announced he plans to file the Sandra Bland Act, named for the Prairie View A&M University alum who died in the Waller County Jail after a traffic stop in 2015.

“There are solutions to the criminal justice issues that have come up because of Sandra Bland,” Coleman told the Observer, “and they should be on the front burner of the Legislature this coming session.”

Lawmakers heard testimony from the co-author of a 2015 University of North Carolina study on traffic stops that found that black drivers in Texas are 59 percent more likely than white drivers to be searched during Texas Department of Public Safety traffic stops. When state Representative Jonathan Stickland, R-Bedford, asked if researcher Frank Baumgartner was accusing DPS of racial profiling, Baumgartner responded cautiously.

“There is a robust disparity between the likelihood that a white driver and a black driver will be searched even when you control for variables other than race,” he said.

Lawmakers themselves were also reluctant to use the term “racial profiling” during the hearing, due in part to a Texas statute that offers a narrow legal definition of the term.

“The statute needs to be changed,” said Coleman, “because there are disparities that we can’t currently call ‘racial profiling’ that maybe we should be able to.”

DPS director Steve McCraw denied that his agency engages in profiling of any kind, and attributed the racial disparities in Baumgartner’s report to security concerns at the border. The allocation of so many officers to the border to combat “transnational gangs and cartels,” McCraw said, led the statistics to show excessive stops and searches of “minorities.”

Coleman countered that McCraw’s point was irrelevant to Baumgartner’s report, which had focused on the disparity of outcomes between black and white drivers. “Now come on, man,” he chided McCraw, “I know you went to school. I know you understand statistics.”

[…]

[Last] Thursday, the Bland family’s lawyer announced that the family had settled a civil suit against Waller County for $1.9 million. The settlement also mandates a number of procedural reforms — an agreement Reed-Veal called “a victory for moms across the country.” The settlement, which hasn’t been finalized, would require that the Waller County Jail keep a medical professional on staff at all times and use electronic sensors to monitor jailers’ check-ins.

The Sandra Bland Act, Coleman told the Observer, will expand the settlement’s reforms statewide and mandate additional changes, banning pretextual traffic stops (stops for minor infractions in order to investigate unrelated criminal activity), mandating access to health professionals in all jails, incentivizing the use of de-escalation tactics, and expanding access to personal recognizance bonds.

Coleman explained he also has a personal stake in the bill. “I got stopped 11 times in the first year I had my driver’s license,” he told the Observer. “So I understand the issues the bill addresses from being in the affected community.”

See here for the background. McCraw is a longtime partisan hack who should not be trusted, but does need to be overcome. The good news here is that Waller County has approved the settlement. The bad news is that DPS appears to be playing dumb about the whole thing.

A lawyer for the Bland family and DPS officials on Tuesday appeared to be at odds as to whether the settlement in that lawsuit — brought against Waller County, some county employees and former DPS trooper Brian Encinia — includes an agreement to institute additional statewide de-escalation training for all incoming troopers and those already on the roster.

Testifying before the Texas House Committee in County Affairs, Tom Rhodes, the Bland family’s Texas-based attorney, told lawmakers that the settlement includes a $1.9 million payout, including $100,000 from DPS. While the department was not a party in the lawsuit, it agreed to pay that amount to indemnify Encinia, who arrested Bland in a July 10, 2015 traffic stop that quickly escalated to an arrest. As part of the settlement, DPS also agreed to set up the training, Rhodes said.

But earlier in the day, DPS director Steve McCraw indicated the department already requires 76 hours of de-escalation training that’s embedded in its school for recruits.

“I was told just the opposite which is one of the reasons we required that as part of the settlement,” Rhodes told lawmakers.

Asked for clarification about McCraw’s comment, a DPS spokesman said DPS “has not settled litigation regarding Sandra Bland” and is not party to any agreements between her family and the Waller County defendants.

“The department is looking at a number of options regarding the issues discussed today,” DPS spokesman Tom Vinger said, pointing out that the department earlier this year began requiring troopers to complete an eight-hour de-escalation course.

Citing confidentiality restrictions, Rhodes said he couldn’t provide many details about the settlement discussions but he indicated he had reached a deal on the de-escalation training with DPS’ general counsel.

“All I can say is today was the first time I heard they had that training, and it seems like to me when we insisted on that as part of the settlement if they had it they would’ve said it,” Rhodes said in an interview after the hearing. “If it’s already there I’m glad it’s there. Obviously it’s not that effective — whatever they’re doing — because it certainly didn’t help in Sandy’s case, but that’s not the agreement we reached.”

Like I said, McCraw cannot be trusted. Someone at DPS with more integrity than him needs to get this worked out one and for all with the Bland family.

Family of Sandra Bland settles its lawsuit

I hope this brings them some peace, but more importantly I hope it leads to fewer inmate deaths, in Waller County and elsewhere.

Sandra Bland

The family of Sandra Bland — who died last year in a Waller County Jail cell — has reached a settlement with Texas officials in a wrongful death lawsuit, a lawyer for the family said Thursday.

Waller County and the Texas Department of Public Safety will pay the family a total of $1.9 million and the county has agreed to policy changes, according to attorney Cannon Lambert. The terms were finalized Wednesday, Lambert said.

[…]

Terms of the settlement:

  • Waller County will pay the family $1.8 million. The Texas Department of Public Safety will pay the family $100,000.
  • “To prevent future document falsifications, Waller County jail will use automated electronic sensors to ensure accurate and timely cell checks.”
  • “From here forward, Waller County jail will now provide an on-duty nurse or EMT for all shifts.”
  • “The Waller County Judge pledges to actively seek passage of state legislation providing for more funding for jail intake, booking, screening training and other jail support like telemedicine access for Texas county jails AND HE SUPPORTS HAVING ANY RESULTING LEGISLATION NAMED IN SANDRA BLAND’S HONOR!”
  • “The Waller County Sheriff’s Office shall provide additional jailer training (including ongoing continuing education) on booking and intake screening.”

“The case is settled in its entirety,” Lambert said, but “this is the beginning, not the end.”

Lambert said Bland’s mother is pleased with the settlement “particularly because of the non-economic components.”

See here for all prior bogging on this. I too hope this is a beginning and not an end. “No more inmate deaths” is a goal we should have as a society, and while we’ll never get there, we should do all we can to get as close as we can. Grits for Breakfast, which goes into detail on the terms of the settlement, ThinkProgress, the Current, and the Press have more.

Legislation to ban the jailing of rape victims proposed

Hard to argue with, I must say.

DA Devon Anderson

The controversial jailing of a rape victim to ensure her testimony could lead to a new state law protecting victims’ rights to an appointed attorney.

State Sen. Joan Huffman is joining with Harris County District Attorney Devon Anderson and Sheriff Ron Hickman to push for new legislation to protect witnesses facing jail time through a legal mechanism known as an attachment order, or witness attachment.

The announcement Friday came on the heels of a firestorm after a mentally ill rape victim filed a lawsuit last month over being detained in the Harris County jail for almost a month while waiting to testify against her attacker.

[…]

“The process of attachment is a rarely used but extremely vital tool for attorneys to ensure the testimony of a witness,” said Huffman, R-Houston. “It should only be used when there is no other way to hear testimony that is critical to public safety or in the best interest of the public.”

Huffman said what happened to the rape victim was “distressing” and she is looking at a wide swath of possible changes, mostly for large jurisdictions in Texas.

In addition to requiring judges to appoint counsel, Huffman said she is looking at requirements that office holders, or their designees, sign off on the order. There could also be a requirement to renew the order every 72 hours.

“I envision it almost like the special protections we have in the juvenile system, like making sure they have counsel and someone is keeping tabs on them,” she said. “And that way everybody knows what’s going on and everybody is on the same page.”

She said smaller jurisdictions would probably be exempt, since it would be unlikely that a witness in jail in a small rural county would “fall through the cracks.”

See here, here, here, and here for the background. It’s hard to argue with the intent of such a bill, but one could easily argue that this should never have happened here without DA Anderson and Sheriff Hickman’s knowledge and consent, and that it happened is more a failure of common sense and office management than anything else. That said, if it takes a law to ensure that every office has that kind of procedure in place, then so be it. I would argue that small counties should not be exempted from it, as informing the DA and Sheriff is hardly an imposition, and ensuring they are informed would also ensure they are accountable. So kudos to Sen. Huffman for proposing this, but forgive me my exasperation that she had to propose it.

Jailed rape victim’s lawyer calls for special prosecutor

To investigate the actions of the DA’s office that led to her incarceration.

DA Devon Anderson

Prosecutors broke the law when they jailed a rape victim in order to secure her testimony against her attacker, the woman’s attorney claimed Monday in a letter to Harris County District Attorney Devon Anderson.

Attorney Sean Buckley said he believes prosecutors illegally obtained a court order to confine his client in the Harris County Jail last December, committing the crime of official oppression.

He called on Anderson to appoint a “special prosecutor” to investigate the matter.

“Reasonable minds cannot disagree that I have made more than a colorable claim that your employees engaged in the Class A misdemeanor offense of Official Oppression in their callous and deliberate mistreatment of my client,” Buckley stated in the letter. “This is an exceedingly serious matter on multiple levels that clearly deserves a full, fair and independent investigation by a neutral and detached prosecutor with no ties to your office.”

Anderson countered Monday that her office didn’t break any laws.

“There is no reason to believe that anyone in this situation – the prosecutor or the judge – believed that what they were doing was unauthorized by the law,” Anderson said at a Monday press conference. “No crime was committed. I will not recuse off this case.”

She apologized to the victim, reiterating that prosecutors believed it was the only option at the time.

“I would say something to (the victim), that I’m very sorry about how all of this played out,” she said. “And the last thing that we ever want to do is cause further distress, further trauma to a victim.”

[…]

The woman, 25, had agreed to testify against her attacker, Keith Hendricks, but had a mental collapse on the witness stand in December. She was found walking in traffic outside the criminal courthouse and was committed to a psychiatric ward at St. Joseph Medical Center, according to the lawsuit. The judge then delayed the trial until January.

Buckley believes his client was held at St. Joseph through a valid mental health warrant.

“I have no complaint about that,” he said. “We agree she needed to be hospitalized for her mental health condition.”

But prosecutors, he said, also used an improper court order – issued and signed by the judge on the day of the woman’s December testimony – to take the woman into custody following her discharge from St. Joseph.

That order was obtained illegally, Buckley said. According to Texas law, an attachment order can be obtained only if the witness resides in the county or has been served with a subpoena and failed to appear – none of which applied to his client, he said.

“My request for an outside investigation is directed specifically at the allegation that prosecutors broke the law when they did this,” he said.

Court records show that a subpoena was issued for the woman in October, but Buckley said it was never served and was not in effect at the time of trial two months later. Furthermore, he asserted that the original subpoena was defective because it had an incorrect address for his client.

“My position is that no prosecutor could ever conclude that the attachment order used against my client was lawful,” he said. “It’s obvious that this order violates the law.”

See here, here, and here for the background. Normally with this kind of dispute over the facts of a case, you’d let the jury sort it out. Here it means that there won’t be a special prosecutor appointed, unless DA Anderson comes under enough pressure that she relents and appoints one. “Pressure” in this case means political pressure, and so far I haven’t seen much involvement from other officeholders, including Commissioners Court. If and when that happens, it will be a lot harder for Anderson to hold out. The Press has more.

Behind The Tower

Fifty years have passed since Charles Whitman went on an infamous killing spree at the University of Texas. Now a group of historians at UT have taken an in depth look at Whitman and his actions, and tried to answer questions we still don’t fully understand today.

By Larry D. Moore, CC BY-SA 3.0, Wikimedia Commons

What happens to events that historians ignore, events that are recorded primarily as scattered patches of memory? What kind of history is told by novelists and journalists?

We all know what happened, right?

On August 1, 1966, a twenty-five year old University of Texas student named Charles Whitman went up to the observation deck of the UT tower armed with guns, ammunition, and canned food. For 96 minutes he held the campus in a state of terror. Whitman killed 14 people that day and wounded more than 30. One of the wounded died a week later and one died decades later of injuries connected with his bullet wounds. Austin Police officers Houston McCoy and Ramiro Martinez (and two other men) made their way to the top of the tower, without knowing who or what they would find. They cornered Whitman and then shot and killed him. Later it was discovered that Whitman had murdered his mother and his wife in the early hours of the morning before his rampage. The shooting was broadcast on the radio and on television and it became a major national and even international news story.

This is arguably the most important event to take place in modern Austin history. There were thousands of eyewitnesses and dozens of survivors. The local archives contain police reports, records of a high-profile Governor’s Commission, medical records, military records, and university records. We have dozens of interviews with survivors: with people who remember and people who have been trying to forget.

It took 30 years for a journalist, Gary Lavergne, to write A Sniper in the Tower, a well-researched and thoughtful narrative. A few oral histories appeared over the years in Texas Monthly and local newspapers. It was only in 2006, that Texas Monthly Senior Editor Pam Colloff spent three months tracking down survivors and recording their memories. In 2014, Elizabeth Crook published a novel about that day called Monday, Monday. Movies, TV shows, novels and even songs refer to the shooting in passing.

But where are the historians?

Bullet holes remained in the concrete and balustrades around the tower when I arrived at UT as an Assistant Professor in 1990, but no visible commemorative marker of the events of that day existed on the UT campus. In 1999 the garden behind the tower was dedicated to the memory of those killed, wounded, or touched by the shooting, but then it took another 8 years to add a plaque that publicly acknowledged that commemoration for the first time. The History tab on the UT webpage devoted to the tower still doesn’t even mention the shooting.

These are events that cry out to be studied. They are also events that raise important questions about commemoration, about public remembering and forgetting, and about the uses of public history.

In Spring 2016, graduate students in the UT History Department’s Public History Seminar set out to construct a website for writing a history of … and immediately we ran into our first problem. What are we studying? The events of August 1, 1966? Charles Whitman himself? The victims and survivors? The immediate responses, or the aftermath, or the public memories? Do people have a right to forget? What do we want to know? What questions do we have and what questions to we want to answer?

Link via Slate. There’s a lot there to read, and a lot we’re still learning even after all these years. I for one did not know that Whitman had a serious addiction to amphetamines, which no one made a big deal about because amphetamines were so common at the time. Check it out.

More on the jailed rape victim

The Chron pens a harsh editorial.

DA Devon Anderson

Although a spokesman for the district attorney’s office has admitted this miscarriage of justice should never have happened, Harris County District Attorney Devon Anderson defends the prosecutor involved in the case. She says the prosecutor tried to find a suitable place for the sexual assault survivor to stay after her breakdown and even paid for a night in a hotel out of his own pocket. Calling it “an extraordinarily difficult and unusual situation,” the DA said there were “no apparent alternatives” that would ensure the victim’s safety and that she also would appear to testify. Coming from a district attorney who presents herself as a champion of crime victims, that’s mighty hard to swallow. Throwing a mentally ill rape victim into jail because there’s supposedly no other place for her to go should shock the conscience of every citizen of Harris County.

[…]

Voters will pass final judgment on Anderson’s handling of this matter. With the district attorney up for re-election in November, the incident already has become a political issue.

Meanwhile, we call upon our elected leadership to ask the U.S. Justice Department for a federal investigation of this case. The DA and the sheriff have offered their own explanations, but an independent inquiry is absolutely essential.

We also urge Harris County Judge Ed Emmett and county commissioners Jack Cagle, Gene Locke, Jack Morman and Steve Radack to take the time to read the lawsuit the victim’s lawyer filed. It’s a frightening document outlining an unimaginable perversion of justice. We hope they lose sleep thinking over what they need to do about it.

See here and here for the background. We absolutely should be hearing more from Judge Emmett and Commissioners Court – including Sen. Ellis – on this. Do they support a federal investigation into what happened? We need to know.

and yes, this is a campaign issue.

District attorney candidate Kim Ogg on Tuesday again pushed for reform in the treatment of crime victims, criticizing the controversial jailing of a rape victim by Harris County prosecutors to ensure the woman would testify in court.

Ogg said the district attorney’s office could improve how victims are detained if prosecutors are worried witnesses might fail to show up in court. She also suggested the creation of a new division in the district attorney’s office that would be responsible for prosecuting people who commit sex crimes.

“I will never put a crime victim in jail to secure a conviction,” she said at a Tuesday press conference. “There are so many other things we can do … There is no excuse for putting this woman in jail.”

[…]

Ogg called last week for an independent investigation of the case and has now made crime victim treatment a campaign priority, saying her proposed reforms would be implemented if she is elected in November.

Sheriff candidate Ed Gonzalez has also been speaking out about this. You may say, we shouldn’t politicize this. I say District Attorney and Sheriff are political offices for a reason, and it is ultimately on the voters to decide how and when to hold the people who serve in those offices accountable when stuff like this happens. DA Anderson and Sheriff Hickman have given their responses to what happened. We get to decide how we feel about that. That’s how it’s supposed to work.

Falkenberg talks to DA Anderson about jailed rape victim

Worth reading, as you would expect. I’m going to quote from the conclusion:

DA Devon Anderson

[Assistant DA Nick] Socias appeared to have diligently tried to help, but he seemed to be trying alone. Anderson’s office said she wasn’t informed about the situation until near the end of trial.

She should have been involved from the start. The sheriff as well. When I asked, Anderson couldn’t think of a single thing the prosecutor could have done better. One is glaringly obvious: ask for help.

In the end, the victim testified, and her bravery helped get a serial rapist off the street.

But the cost to the victim was too high, something Anderson said “we regret very much.”

“We’ve just been crushed by this,” she told me.

I believe her. But a young rape victim has been destroyed by this. It’s not acceptable to say that was unavoidable.

See here for the background, and do read the whole thing. I don’t think Devon Anderson has been a terrible DA. She has done, or at least tried to do, some good things, from better handling of marijuana cases to not being bulldozed by politics in the Planned Parenthood investigation. She’s a clear step up from Chuck Rosenthal. But this case demonstrates an appalling lack of oversight within her office. There’s just no way that an ADA should have been able to make the decision to hold a crime victim, let along a rape victim, in jail without the full knowledge and consent of the DA and the Sheriff. Maybe they would have signed off on it and maybe they would have insisted on finding another answer. Maybe if they had signed off on it there would have been better management of the process that could have avoided the terrible things that happened to the victim while she was inside. Whatever the case, the fact that it did happen without them knowing about it is a problem. That Anderson didn’t see that on her own is an even bigger problem.

Why would you even think to put a rape victim in jail?

I am outraged.

The 25-year-old rape victim, frightened and long-suffering from mental illness, agreed in December to testify against the Houston man who brutally assaulted her in 2013.

She hoped to put him behind bars for life.

But that decision landed her in the Harris County jail for more than a month over the Christmas holiday – terrified, helpless and hopeless, according to a federal lawsuit filed this week in Houston.

The woman, diagnosed with bipolar disorder and schizophrenia, had a mental breakdown on the witness stand and then was jailed by Harris County prosecutors who feared she wouldn’t come back to court.

“They didn’t care. They got what they wanted,” the woman’s mother said Wednesday about the Harris County District Attorney’s Office. “She was collateral damage and they didn’t care what happened to her.”

News about the case shocked Houston’s defense attorneys and advocates for rape victims.

“That is beyond ludicrous,” said Lavinia Masters, a sexual assault victims advocate. “I’m amazed that a judge would allow that. You’re further victimizing a victim.”

District Attorney Devon Anderson said the woman, who was homeless when she was raped, was going through a “life-threatening mental health crisis” and told prosecutors she was not going to return to testify.

“If nothing was done to prevent the victim from leaving Harris County in the middle of trial, a serial rapist would have gone free – and her life would have been at risk while homeless on the street,” Anderson said in a video statement. “This was an extraordinarily difficult and unusual situation. There were no apparent alternatives that would ensure both the victim’s safety and her appearance in trial.”

She defended the prosecutor named in the lawsuit, Nicholas Socias, and said any claim that her office does not support crime victims is “outrageous.”

[…]

Jailing a witness to ensure they testify is an unusual move in Harris County, especially when the witness is not also facing criminal charges. Over the past two decades, there have been a smattering of published accounts of rape victims being jailed across the country.

Officials with the Houston Area Women’s Center said respecting the dignity of survivors and providing full support are paramount.

“We have no direct knowledge of this particular case, but are concerned that sexual assault is already under-reported and that this may further deter survivors from coming forward,” said Rebecca White, the center’s chief executive officer.

I can’t even begin to imagine the thought process that led to the conclusion that jailing this poor women was a good idea. I mean, I know that the Harris County Jail is called the largest mental health facility in the country, but that doesn’t make it a hospital, and it doesn’t make it an acceptable place to try and treat someone who doesn’t belong in jail. This was just monumentally bad judgment, and Kim Ogg is right to call for an independent investigation of what happened. For shame.

If we really cared about improving mental health in Texas

We would have expanded Medicaid at our first opportunity.

It's constitutional - deal with it

It’s constitutional – deal with it

Federal health officials say people with mental illness and addictions are being left behind in Texas because the state hasn’t expanded Medicaid to more low-income adults.

The health care program for the poor is controversial for many Republicans. The U.S. Supreme Court ruled that expansion was a voluntary part of the Affordable Care Act, and 19 states have declined to expand it.

A new federal report estimates that expanding Medicaid in Texas could help 406,000 mentally ill and uninsured Texans get treatment, according to Richard Frank, an Assistant Secretary for Planning and Evaluation at the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services.

“If states are serious about addressing mental illnesses, opioids, and other substance use disorders, expanding Medicaid offers a unique opportunity to do so,” Frank said in a national conference call with reporters. “It will bring people into effective treatment and is fully paid for under the Affordable Care Act.”

The new federal report discusses how untreated mental illness affects homelessness, job productivity, and jails and prisons. The report says states that did expand Medicaid were able to save money on programs for mental health or the uninsured, or divert the money to other programs.

A copy of the report is embedded at the link above. This is the same song we’ve been singing since 2011, with this being roughly the 1000th verse. The positive effect of getting access to reliable mental health care for these people cannot be overstated – among many other things, it would keep a lot of so-called frequent flyers out of jail – but the state Republican leadership does not care and will not hear it. You know how whenever there’s another gun massacre, the only thing we’re all allowed to say is that we should do more to promote mental health as a way to maybe not have so many gun massacres? The part we’re not allowed to say is that the Republicans in this state won’t do a damn thing to actually promote mental health. It’s the same old story, and the only way it ends is with electing different leaders. The Statesman has more.

What’s next for Adrian Garcia?

We haven’t seen the last of him, I suspect.

Adrian Garcia

Adrian Garcia

In less than a year, former Harris County Sheriff Adrian Garcia has gone from being the top Democratic elected official in Harris County to an also-ran in back-to-back elections.

Garcia’s resounding primary loss to U.S. Rep. Gene Green on Tuesday leaves him politically precarious, having alienated several onetime allies by resigning the sheriff’s post last May to run for Houston mayor and later challenging an incumbent in a safe Democratic seat.

“When you take an oath, you run and take an oath to hold an office, it’s supposed to mean something,” said state Sen. John Whitmire, who backed Green. “And to leave in the middle and look like an opportunist and want to run for mayor, and then you don’t make that, and then you run against a congressman that most people felt was doing a very good job, a congressman that actually endorsed you for mayor … I think Adrian’s got real problems.”

Garcia’s campaign said he was unavailable for comment Wednesday, but he said at his election watch party Tuesday night the race was not personal and that he planned to rest before assessing future options.

“Will this be my last campaign? I doubt it,” he said to applause. “I lost two campaigns, but I jumped in always with the idea of doing more. I took a chance. My heart was in the right place.”

[…]

Many of the former sheriff’s attacks were biting. “Gene Green perpetuates the cradle to prison pipeline,” read a news release from late February. Another, from January, declared, “Gene Green protects polluters, not Pasadena.”

Facing limited financial resources, as well as opposition from many Democratic officeholders and area unions, however, Garcia was unable to outmaneuver Green, who outspent him $585,000 to $171,000 during the first six weeks of the year.

Those affiliated with Garcia’s campaign framed that financial shortfall as critical.

“We had a lot of factors working against us. We were in an extremely short two-month race against a 23-year incumbent who’d accumulated significant financial resources, and, yet, we made significant strides and held Congressman Green to 58 points,” Garcia campaign spokesman Sergio Cantu said in an email. “The message and the messenger were not the problems. We are proud of what we achieved, and we hope this opens the door to see change on the issues in this district.”

Several of the former sheriff’s supporters remained optimistic about Garcia’s political future.

“Will he run again? He might if it’s the right place for him to serve,” Garcia consultant Mustafa Tameez said. “That’s the nature of politics. You win some and you lose some. But he’s demonstrated his ability to raise money. He’s demonstrated his ability to get the votes.”

It’s true that after leaving the Sheriff’s office and having it handed to a Republican as well as running what were basically two contested Democratic primaries in the space of five months, Garcia has a few bridges to rebuild with past allies. But let’s not forget, he won five November elections before this, plus two contested primaries, so there’s no reason to believe he’s finished just because those last two elections did not go his way. There’s a very simple way for Garcia to get back into the good graces of his fellow Democrats, and that’s by working, vigorously and visibly, to help elect Democrats up and down the ballot this fall. Hold fundraisers, donate to candidates, attend as many campaign events for the party and for candidates as possible. Continue working on engaging with and boosting turnout in the Latino community. Keep talking about the issues that drove those two campaigns, and the good work that was done as Sheriff. Do those things, and I guarantee, bygones will be bygones.

Assuming we get to that point, then what office might Garcia reasonably seek in the near future? Before he resigned as Sheriff, when his Mayoral campaign was still in the rumor-has-it stage, I suggested Garcia stay in office, declare he wasn’t running for re-election in 2016, then at his first opportunity declare his candidacy for County Judge in 2018. He could still do that, but as we know there are some other people – Annise Parker, for one – who have expressed interest in that office as well. Now, there’s no reason why Garcia couldn’t declare for County Judge. No one is entitled to anything, and he’s be as strong a candidate as anyone we could put forth. But if we’re looking to maintain some harmony, if we’re trying to ensure that the reservoir of goodwill that he just finished refilling doesn’t get immediately drained, then we should at least consider a Plan B.

Which is why my suggestion is: County Commissioner, Precinct 2, the seat formerly held by Sen. Sylvia Garcia. It’s still a county office, which given Garcia’s tenure as Sheriff is a good fit, he’d be extremely likely to have a clear path to the nomination, and if we also have a strong candidate for County Judge it would put thoughts of having a Democratic majority on Commissioners Court in people’s heads, which is sure to get folks fired up. When I say this seat is a good fit for Garcia because of his time as Sheriff, I’m particularly thinking of all the crap he had to endure as Sheriff from the rest of the Court, which was generally hostile to him and got even more so after Jack Morman knocked off Sylvia Garcia in 2010. As a former Sheriff and a candidate for Commissioners Court, Garcia could turn a lot of the criticism they gave him back on them, in terms of budgeting, putting pressure on the criminal court judges to use Pretrial Services and set reasonable bail, and screaming from the rooftops in favor of Medicaid expansion and the much-needed boost for mental health funding and treatment it would bring. I can’t think of anyone better positioned to make these arguments in a Commissioners Court race, or anyone who could pose a bigger threat to a sitting Commissioner. We know Garcia can raise money, and the people who are grumbling about his Mayoral and Congressional races now would surely be willing to pitch in and help him in a race like this. If I had the power to do so, I would absolutely make this happen.

I don’t have that power, of course, I’m just another schmoe in the cheap seats making noise. But this is my scenario for Adrian Garcia, for whatever it’s worth. The path I’m highlighting is easy this year and a lot harder after that, but it’s all doable. What he chooses to do is up to him, but if he wants to know what I think, here it is.

Ground broken on the joint processing center

Good.

The majority of suspects arrested by Houston police get booked at one of two city jails, and within 48 hours they are transferred and booked in all over again at the Harris County Jail.

Two years from now, officials say, this duplication will be a thing of the past. The central and southeast police lockups will close, freeing up 100 police officers who were assigned to jail duty. And individuals arrested by city or county law enforcement will enter one building where they will be booked into one unified system and be able to tap into various services based on their needs.

For years, local officials have been trying to drum up support for a joint city-county processing center, a model that has existed for decades in Travis County and elsewhere around the country. On Tuesday, they broke ground – at what is now a parking lot across from the Baker Street Jail – on a 246,000 square foot facility to be built with $70 million in county and $30 million in city bonds.

The Joint Processing Center promises to save money, eliminate duplication of tasks and speed up processing. Through a centralized process, a person who needs detox, dialysis or psychotropic medication will be steered in that direction at the start. This plan takes into consideration both the fact that the majority of incoming suspects are held for a short time and that the Harris County Jail treats more mental health patients than any facility in the state.

[…]

One goal of the center is to better manage and care for the so-called frequent fliers, many of whom have a confirmed mental health diagnosis and may be homeless, who revolve in and out of the jails on low-level offenses, sometimes without the chance to connect with a social worker or a psychiatrist who could prescribemedicine.

County Judge Ed Emmett said once the jail facility is in place, it should offer an alternative for “people who are not criminals, they are mental health patients.”

Mayor Annise Parker said the new center will save the city $4 million a year in elimination of redundant processes.

“We have been laboring in an old and outmoded system, with old and outmoded jails, for a number of years,” said Parker. “The plans for this have been dusted off five or six times. For whatever reason, we don’t finish the conversation to get to a resolution and a contract agreement. Well, we finally made it to the finish line” she said Tuesday, through cooperation of a number of city and county agencies.

See here, here, and here for the background. Voters approved funds for this in 2013, so it’s good to see it finally get off the ground. I expect it will make a big difference in how the system works.

Council approves inmate processing center deal with Harris County

Very good news.

go_to_jail

An end is in sight for the inefficient process of shuttling prisoners in and out of redundant local lockups after the City Council on Wednesday approved an agreement with Harris County to build a long-discussed inmate processing center.

Public officials have discussed the need for a new booking center since the 1990s, because the current facility in the county jail tends to be over capacity even when the jail population is low and booking processes are inefficient. Roughly half the inmates booked into city jails also face state charges; they end up transferred to the county jail, where they are booked again.

City leaders have been enthusiastic backers of the processing center, knowing a larger booking facility will allow them to realize a longtime goal of shuttering the two aging municipal jails. Most big Texas cities closed their jails long ago, as these facilities typically only hold those arrested for low-level misdemeanors, usually for no more than 48 hours.

“The sooner we can get out of the jail business, the better,” said Councilman Ed Gonzalez, a former police officer who chairs the council’s public safety committee. “This will be a cost savings for us. It’s been a long time coming.”

The city and county committed a combined $9 million to design the center a year ago, and they are approving their shares of the $91 million needed to build the 238,000-square-foot, three-story facility. The building will hold 552 beds, along with offices, interview rooms, DUI processing areas, evidence lockers, lineup rooms, a clinic and courtrooms.

[…]

City voters in 2007 approved $32 million in bonds to build what would have been a larger, 2,500-bed processing center, but county voters that year rejected a $195 million bond issue for the same purpose. Presented again with a $70 million bond issue for the current, scaled-back proposal in 2013, county voters said yes.

The city’s ultimate contribution to the facility’s construction, barring any cost overruns, will be $27.3 million. Some of the other 2007 bond dollars were used to open the Houston Recovery Center, which diverts intoxicated prisoners from jail and pairs addicts with social services. That center has reduced the population of city jails and is expected to do the same at the processing center.

The facility, scheduled to break ground next month at the northeast corner of San Jacinto and Baker streets, will connect to the county jail via a tunnel.

Construction of the joint processing center was approved to begin last June, after both Harris County and the city approved finding an architect in 2013. The sobering center was opened earlier in 2013. Once this new facility opens in 2017, the city will spend more than $4 million less per year on handling inmates, and will free up about 100 cops now working at the city jail to do other things. The new facility will also have mental health treatment services, which will hopefully enable more people to get the help they need and keep them out of jail in the future. All in all, a very positive step forward.

Ballot order drawn

vote-button

Here is the official ballot order for City of Houston candidates this November, via Chron reporter Mike Morris on Twitter. You’re all familiar with my rant about ballot order by now – we have electronic voting machines, they should simply randomize the ballot order for each voter – so I’ll just skip it and move on. Whether anyone’s ballot position ultimately makes a difference or not – I sure hope it doesn’t, but I wouldn’t bet on it – we’ll have to wait and see. All I know is that in any field with more than four candidates, I’d rather be first or last than anywhere in between.

This would be a short entry if this were all I had to say, so in the interest of filling out a proper length, here are two announcements about candidate forums. On Monday, Mental Health America of Greater Houston is hosting a Mayoral forum on behavioral health, a topic I’m willing to bet you haven’t heard much about in this election. The Houston Police Department has one of the only Mental Health Divisions in the entire country, so this is an issue that needs some public discussion. MHA of Greater Houston, NAMI of Greater Houston, the Council on Recovery, and the Houston Recovery Initiative are partnered for this event. That’s this Monday, August 31, at 6:30 PM at the University of St. Thomas, Jones Hall, 3910 Yoakum – see here for details.

Want a forum for candidates other than Mayoral candidates? On Thursday, September 3, you can attend a forum on environmental issues for At Large Council candidates, brought to you by the Citizens’ Environmental Coalition, League of Women Voters of Houston, and over 20 cosponsors representing environmental organizations in the Houston region, including Hermann Park Conservancy. The event is at 6 PM at the Cherie Flores Pavilion in Hermann Park, and it will be moderated by yours truly. It’s free and open to the public – see here for details. Don’t leave me hanging, come on out and hear what the candidates have to say.

What Dallas County can teach us about jail overcrowding

Why can’t Harris County be more like Dallas County, at least in this regard?

go_to_jail

Dallas County’s jail population has hit an all-time low. That means more spacious jail tanks and fewer bologna sandwiches.

If the trend continues, it could add up to big savings for taxpayers.

The jail, the seventh-largest in the country, is the biggest expense item in the Dallas County budget, at $107.7 million annually.

For the past two years, the average jail population each month has hovered around 6,100. Last month, it was 5,618.

[…]

County officials said there’s no single explanation for the current population decline. Some possible factors:

1. Fewer book-ins: So far this year, there have been fewer new arrivals than in 2013 and 2014.

2. More diversion programs: For most inmates, the jail serves as a holding facility. From there, they return to society, go to prison or get sent to another institution, such as a drug treatment center or hospital.

A variety of programs can shorten jail stays. Low-risk offenders who can’t post bail can pay a small fee and get out before their trial dates. Some can serve their sentences under house arrest instead. Others go to diversion courts, such as drug court or mental health court, which focus on their particular needs.

A federally funded project helps identify inmates who are mentally ill so they can be moved out of custody and given help. In the past six months, the number of inmates identified as mentally ill has gone up, Stretcher said.

3. New software: Criminal case files have gone digital, thanks to new software launched in the spring.

Now, attorneys, investigators and victim advocates can look at the same file at the same time. They don’t have to pass a paper file from person to person.

Cases can be presented to grand juries faster, which shortens jail stays, said Ellyce Lindberg, an assistant district attorney. The software allows the county to track where cases get stuck.

4. More bus rides to prison: Inmates bound for state prison are shipped out on buses run by the Texas Department of Criminal Justice. Those buses can haul off 150 to 200 people per week, resulting in significant drops in the jail population.

For years, the county has worked to speed up the paperwork needed to move these prisoners. And the reduction in book-ins means there’s been more time to catch up on backlogs.

5. Foul weather: Jail populations typically fluctuate seasonally, said Noonan of the Bureau of Justice Statistics. In general in Dallas County, bookings increase in the summer and drop off slightly in the fall and winter.

That pattern may have been thrown off by the exceptionally heavy rains in the past several weeks.

Emphasis mine. This isn’t rocket science. We can choose to keep fewer people in jail if we want to, and we can do so at very little risk to public safety. In every other context when it comes to spending taxpayer money, there are plenty of people there to intone somberly about “making tough decisions” and “living within our means” and so forth. For some reason, they’re not nearly as much a part of this kind of budget discussion. You tell me why that is the case. Link via Grits.

Outsourcing inmates again

We’ve been down this road before.

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For the first time in three years, the Harris County sheriff began transferring busloads of inmates this week to other correctional facilities to avoid overcrowding at the state’s largest jail.

The jail population is currently at 93 percent of its 9,434-bed capacity, Harris County Sheriff Ron Hickman said Monday. He said part of the problem may stem from two recent back-to-back storms with flooding that delayed magistrate courts and consequently stalled the release of some low-level offenders.

Hickman also indicated that judges who set monetary bail for inmates have influenced the rising numbers because 62 percent of the jail’s occupants are awaiting trial.

The fluctuating jail population, he said, is out of his control. “In large part, the jail population is controlled by the courts, who determine which offenders will be released pending adjudication and which will be detained until trial,” Hickman said.

[…]

Hickman said another round of storms and flooding could cause the jail population to climb again.

“A singular event, like another bad rain and floodwaters, would cause us to shut courts down which would back prisoners up on the capacity side of our storage, and we’d be in violation of jail standards again,” he said.

The sheriff said he had very few options for dealing with the high numbers.

See here for previous blogging on this topic. This may be a temporary situation exacerbated by all the damn rain we’ve been having, but we wouldn’t be in this position if the overall jail population hadn’t been trending up. If we want to avoid being vulnerable to the vicissitudes of the TDCJ and the weather gods, there are three things we can do.

1. Bail reform. There are too many people sitting in jail awaiting trial. Some of them belong there, but some of them don’t. Less onerous bail amounts, and more personal recognizance bonds, would solve this problem.

2. Expand Medicaid. OK, I know, there’s nothing Harris County can do about this, and our state leaders are a bunch of deranged lunatics on the subject. Be that as it may, as we well know the Harris County Jail is the country’s largest mental health hospital. Many of the people in the jail getting treatment for mental illness can only get that treatment when they are in jail. You know what would change that? If they had health insurance. How could they get that insurance? If they were eligible for Medicaid. We’ve been over this before, too. The state of Texas and it’s Republican-fueled refusal to expand Medicaid are a big cause of Harris County’s jail overcrowding. Every taxpayer in the county is paying for that.

3. Review and possibly expand the existing early release and ankle monitor programs that were put in place by then-Sheriff Garcia and the courts. Direct deputies to issue citations instead of making arrests for minor violations. None of these would likely be very big, but every little bit helps, and they are options that Sheriff Hickman himself has some control over. Surely that’s worth consideration. Hair Balls has more.

Minding Houston

Want to know about mental health issues and how they are being addressed by the Legislature? Tune in to Minding Houston, the legislatively-focused blog of Mental Health America of Greater Houston. From their About page:

Mental Health America of Greater Houston is pleased to offer the blog, “Minding Houston,” which covers legislation and issues associated with the current Texas Legislative Session.

Mental Health America of Greater Houston’s mission is to enhance the mental health of all Houstonians and improve the lives of those with mental illnesses. We accomplish this through collaborative education, outreach and advocacy.

Mental Health America of Greater Houston, founded in 1954 by Miss Ima Hogg, has a long history of service to the community. We are an affiliate of the state organization Mental Health America of Texas and the national organization Mental Health America. We have been a United Way agency since 1958.

For more information, visit our website www.mhahouston.org.

Their most recent post is an overview of budget issues for mental health in Texas and Harris County. Check ’em out.

Medicaid expansion: Still a great deal, especially for cities

So many uninsured people could get covered if Medicaid expansion were universal instead of just here and there.

It's constitutional - deal with it

It’s constitutional – deal with it

Expanding Medicaid under the new health care law would do a lot to slash the number of uninsured people, at least in some of the nation’s largest cities, according to a new report.

A review of 14 diverse big cities finds that the cities in states that are expanding the low-income health care program under the Affordable Care Act will see roughly twice the decline in the number of insured compared to cities in states not opting for the expansion, according to an analysis by the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation and the Urban Institute.

Three states are still debating whether to implement the expansion, while 21 have declined it, according to a count from last week by the Kaiser Family Foundation.

The seven cities in states expanding the program will likely see the number of uninsured drop an average 57 percent, while the remaining seven cities will see an average 30 percent drop, the report finds. The projected declines range from 25 percent in Atlanta, Ga., which isn’t expanding, to 66 percent in Detroit, Mich., which is.

Medicaid expansion would affect large portions of each city reviewed, but it would have an especially huge impact on four of the 14. More than half the population in Detroit, Memphis, Miami and Philadelphia, would be eligible for Medicaid after expansion, but only Detroit is in a state opting for expansion.

Medicaid is just one aspect of the law. Combine its impact with the law’s subsidies, and more than half the population in all but one city would be eligible for some kind of insurance assistance, the report’s authors find. The resulting flow of revenue to the cities would be a boon to their economies, the authors argue.

You can see the report here. The Chron mentions this in passing but doesn’t bother going into any details. Not really surprising that big cities would do disproportionately well under Medicaid expansion, but of course only those cities lucky enough to be in the states that chose the rational and compassionate path will benefit that way, even as the states that have rejected Medicaid expansion could really use it. More here from Think Progress.

Meanwhile, a related story from the Trib, even if it didn’t realize it was related.

The sheriff of the state’s largest county is peeved with the Texas Department of State Health Services, the agency that runs the state’s mental health hospitals.

The agency is not offering the care that it is required to provide, the Harris County sheriff, Adrian Garcia, said. Given proper treatment, the sheriff argues, some patients would not be committing the crimes of which they are accused. Instead, they end up in Harris County’s jails, where they are a health care and financial burden to the county.

Sheriff Garcia has allies, and might even get some help. The state agency is being reviewed by the Legislature’s Sunset Advisory Commission, which will hold hearings later this month on a report from its staff that calls the system a mess. “Resolving the current crisis in the state mental health hospital system requires action, starting now,” the first recommendation states.

The report is remarkably clear, as these things go, detailing changes in organization and programs that would reboot the agency. It has floundered since undergoing a reorganization ordered by lawmakers who were trying to create “a truly integrated health services organization” in 2003.

“The state mental health hospital system is dealing with enormous pressure from increased commitments from the courts, and the review found that a lack of communication and collaboration between DSHS and the judiciary only exacerbates the problem,” the staff analysts wrote. They added that out-of-date facilities, “critical shortages” of clinical staff and the agency’s struggles with organization and new legislative initiatives have added to the troubles. The agency did not offer much resistance in its formal response, saying the report “captures the challenges we face” and that agency officials “understand and support the intent and direction of the recommendations.”

In other words, the system is not working. The recommendations include increasing staff for the hospitals and expanding capacity by contracting with local providers whenever possible.

I say it’s related because jail inmates and people with chronic mental illnesses are two more populations that would greatly benefit from Medicaid expansion, as we’ve discussed before. Wouldn’t it be nice to have the federal government pick up some of this tab, as they are ready and willing to do, unlike the state? Yeah, sorry about that. We’ll need to have a better state government first, then we can see about that.

Dewhurst admits he has no control over his campaign

I can’t think of any other way to characterize this.

So very sad

Lt. Gov. David Dewhurst said Monday he was “appalled” by Land Commissioner Jerry Patterson’s decision to publicize court filings detailing Dan Patrick’s past mental health issues and that he tried to put a stop to the initial document release as far back as two weeks ago.

In his first public comments since Patterson released documents to state media showing that Patrick was hospitalized and treated for severe depression and a suicide attempt in the 1980s, Dewhurst reiterated in an interview that his campaign had nothing to do with the attack.

Dewhurst, an 11-year incumbent reduced to the role of underdog heading into the May 27 runoff against Patrick, attempted to distance his campaign from the fallout that ensued following the release, saying he strongly advised Patterson against the dissemination of the court records weeks ago.

The rationale: Releasing sensitive documents aimed at damaging Patrick’s campaign could backfire and damage his own chances of winning re-election.

“Whatever you do could have some reflection on me,” Dewhurst said he told Patterson at the time, noting that he was not privy to the details of the documents. “I don’t want anything to do with it.”

Patterson, who initially said he could not recall the conversation with Dewhurst from two weeks ago, had a “memory recovery” later Monday that the incumbent was “unimpressed” when the two first talked about possible court documents earlier this month. He ended up bucking Dewhurst anyway, releasing hundreds of pages of documents to reporters late Thursday.

He followed with another document dump Friday, ignoring a second personal appeal from Dewhurst to refrain from releasing documents and even emailing reporters to say he “didn’t give a damn” about the lieutenant governor’s opinion.

“He was not happy about it,” Patterson said of his Friday conversation with Dewhurst.

See here for the background. All I can say is “seriously?” Dewhurst couldn’t get Patterson, who really wants him to win, to respect his opinion that this was a bad idea, and he didn’t have the cojones to make Patterson listen to him? Who’s in charge over there, anyway? All this assumes that you buy Dewhurst’s explanation that he was totally in the dark as to what Patterson had to leak out, a story that the Observer finds difficult to believe. Whatever it was that this was supposed to accomplish, it didn’t.

I shouldn’t be too surprised that this was the path taken, whether Dewhurst was directly involved or not. The problem, as I’ve noted before, is that most of the things that David Dewhurst could say about Dan Patrick that most normal people would think of as negatives, the people that will actually be voting in this runoff consider to be badges of honor. Calling someone a scum-sucking bottom feeder isn’t very effective as a line of attack if it’s what the voters want to vote for.

The editorial pages have been busy clucking their tongues over this, not that they really want to since they don’t much like Dan Patrick, either, but the DMN’s Rodger Jones raises an interesting point: Would news organizations have printed this information if they had dug it up for themselves? Almost certainly they would have. He puts it all in the context of nuance and big-picture-ness, but to me it’s simply a matter of stigmatization. Reporting that a candidate for political office had spent time in a mental health facility if that information had been part of a public record (as was the case here, since it came from a deposition in a lawsuit) is one thing. Painting it as something shameful is another. The shame belongs to Patterson and Dewhurst for their attempt to demonize Dan Patrick for one of the few things that aren’t unlovely about him. PDiddie, the Trib, and Campos have more.