Category Archives: Criminal Justice

Fertitta Earns Chron Nod for DA

It wasn’t a surprise when Zack Fertitta was endorsed by the Chronicle to be the Democratic nominee for District Attorney. After seeing him in action at an event in Kingwood, where he exhibited a commitment to public safety and common sense criminal justice reform, little doubt was left that Democrats could have a strong candidate in November, as long as we give him our vote on May 29th in the Democratic Primary.

I caught a second speech of his at the Sharpstown Democrats club recently and put it on tape. I’m sure you’ll come to the same realization that he’s a great candidate deserving of our vote in May and November.

What A Great Idea: An Independent Crime Lab

Houston Mayor Annise Parker made the proposal today to create an independent crime lab to serve HPD and perhaps other crime-fighting entities. The slide show is an interesting one which gives us a clearer picture.

As outlined by Parker, City Attorney David Feldmanand chief development officer Andy Icken, the seven members of the board could not be removed by City Council except for intentional misconduct. They envision the board would include a representative from the Innocence Project, the legal team nationally renowned for its work in exonerating the wrongfully convicted. Feldman said Innocence Project co-founder Barry Scheckcalled him and told him he thought it was an excellent idea.

“I clearly prefer to have our forensics sciences not under the influence of police, prosecution or politics,” Parker said.

Sounds reasonable to me, but not to my Council Member, who seems to have a lock ’em up no matter what attitude about this. Because lives are in the balance in some of the worst crimes, some balance on the independent board is indeed called for, so, I’ll  just chalk it up to typical right-wing electioneering on the part of Mike Sullivan. So much for keeping politics out of this, right?

Anyway, the cost of something like this obviously is on our minds. The current cost of $23 million to run this kind of operation sounds about right, but the start-up costs would definitely be a concern. Ensuring there is no duplication of services offered by the County’s facility is one solution; however, if the County isn’t willing to step up and help create this kind of facility (the county is mandated by law to report to the Commissioner’s Court, apparently) then that’s a problem, too.

There’s a solution somewhere–a practical one, rather than a political one. Unfortunately, when different political ideologies are in charge of things, these clashes will happen. In this case, I prefer the Mayor’s plan.

Update:  Thanks to Kuff for catching this nugget of hope:

County Judge Ed Emmett said that although the city and county are on separate tracks right now, Parker’s proposal ultimately could make it easier for the two governments to come together.

“By having the LGC, it opens up more options for how the city can approach forensic science, including partnering with the Institute of Forensic Sciences,” Emmett said.

The Campaign Against Wage Theft in Houston

There’s a story in today’s Chron about several workers walking out of Ruggles in Montrose for what is described as lack of pay. Specifically, it is about workers who work for tips getting shortchanged. The owner of Ruggles says he’s working on it, but is also embroiled in other legal issues. Still, legal issues aren’t much of an excuse to not pay some folks.

Again, this is just one example of an ongoing crisis called wage theft. Here in Houston, there is now a movement asking Mayor Annise Parker and Houston City Council to take a stand against the practice:

It is time to take action now considering that: Wage theft disproportionately impacts those who already live in poverty ; Workers who aren’t paid are forced to fall back on public safety nets and government assistance in order to keep their families economically afloat; Wage theft is unfair competition since employers paying prevailing wages cannot successfully compete with businesses that reduce their costs by committing wage theft. We believe that you can take action to level the playing field for responsible businesses and bring economic justice to thousands of hard-working Houstonians. We urge you to work together to make Houston a Zero Tolerance city for wage theft.

While the Mayor and other politicians present a positive picture for corporations and small business, I think it would be a good idea to combine that with a pro-worker environment by taking a stand against wage theft.

The campaign is a coalition of organizations which represents the interests of ordinary folks–people who work for a living, provide for their families, and keep the economy running. Unfortunately, it is this very group of people that is easily targeted for wage theft by those companies who are more interested in profit than a good product.

The Coalition is asking the Mayor and City Council to draft a Wage Theft Ordinance that “expedites the process to resolve wage theft claims, includes a viable enforcement mechanism, and aims to prevent future wage theft cases.” And through a strong process, a message is sent that Houston will not tolerate such practices.

If you are part of an organization that represents community interests, become a part of the coalition. If you’re a concerned member of the community, sign the petition and even give a little.

On Nationwide Falling Crime Rates: A Surprise Hypothesis (Hint: Immigration)

by Dr. Reynaldo Guerra

First, let me say that this blog entry was motivated by an unfortunately too short conversation with Bill King and Greg Wythe on the set of Kim Davis’ Beyond the Headlines this past week.  This is my effort to keep the conversation going.

It has been in the news recently that despite widespread economic hardship, the nation’s crime rates have continued to fall….but nobody can figure out why.

Let’s frame the discussion.

It’s well known that the nation’s crime rate peaked around 1991 (Wiki “Crime in the United States” for a quick primer).  The crime rate has decreased steadily ever since. Now, what’s been drawing the notice of the press recently is that the pace of the decrease seems to be increasing; According to a recent FBI report violent crimes fell 0.7% in 2007, 1.9% in 2008, an impressive 5.3% in 2009, and 5.5% in 2010.

The nation is still in the throes of a dismal economy.  Conventional wisdom has held that our nation’s economy and crime rates are inversely proportional, i.e. if the economy goes down, crime rates go up, and vice versa.  At first glance, this line of reasoning seems rational.  If there are no jobs around, people may be more inclined to steal in the name of survival, or worse, be in a bad enough mood to commit a violent crime. Well, empirical data has disproven this line of reasoning over and over again throughout the years.  The very low crime rates during the Great Depression is a popular example.

So, why have crime rates fallen?  A couple of plausible, and very provocative, reasons have been formulated…and rejected.  The following outlines some of the rejected reasons and the rationale for their rejection.  I propose a hypothesis of my own toward the end of this article.  If you can’t contain your anticipation, feel free to skip to the A Surprise Hypothesis section of this article.

Law Enforcement Reform

As rising crime rates became a national epidemic in the early 90’s, reforms of local law enforcement strategies began to take place all around the country, beginning in New York City.  The Broken Windows Theory and various other reforms on local law enforcement strategies subsequently received deserved credit for the falling rates.  However, major crime rate drops that we are seeing today are occurring in cities that have not enacted major law enforcement reforms, suggesting other contributing factors.

Large Prison Populations

With an incarceration rate four times the world average, a record 2.3 million Americans were behind bars in 2009 (2009, US Bureau of Justice Statistics).  With respect to explaining falling crime rates, the idea behind incarcerating people is that most robberies and violent crimes are committed by a small number of criminals either repeating crimes or likely to repeat crimes; by incarcerating these types of people, crime rates should fall, or so the theory goes.  Again, it’s not that simple.  States with the largest rates of prison population growth in the 1990’s actually experienced lower crime rate drops than the rest of the country.

Now that we’ve ruled out the silly notion of law enforcement having anything to do with the recent crime-rate drops, some of the more viable explanations have proven to be the most scientifically investigated, and the most provocative.

Lead Poisoning

The government banned lead-based paint from housing in 1978 (Note: If your house was built pre-1978, you may want to look to the EPA for more information on the negative effects of lead, especially if you are considering remodeling: http://www.epa.gov/lead/).  Scientists have studied the psychological effects of lead on human behavior for some time now and the link between lead and aggressive/impulsive behavior is well established.  Two of the 20th century’s worst crime eras corresponded to peaks in children’s exposure to lead 20 years prior (first due to lead-based paint and then due to leaded gasoline).  The phasing out of lead therefore seemingly would justify a drastic reduction in crime.

Abortion

Steven Levitt famously makes the case, in his best-selling book, Freakanomics, for the legalization of abortion in 1973.  Levitt argues that Roe v Wade reduced the number of unwanted babies born into troubled homes and, subsequently, abortion deserves the lion’s share of the credit for the drastic crime-rate reduction 20 years later in the early 90’s.

While compelling, the effects of these policy changes in abortion and lead are inherently transient and don’t explain the sustained reduction in crime that we’ve been experiencing the last couple of years.

A Surprise Hypothesis

It is here where I propose we examine the effects of immigration.

Several scientific studies have monitored and analyzed crime rates among immigrant and non-immigrant populations in the United States.  The statistics have overwhelmingly shown, both recently and for the last 100 years, that crime rates among immigrants are drastically lower than non-immigrants.

Crunching some Bureau of Justice 2008 incarceration numbers, the rate of incarceration for non-native born persons 18-39 years of age (the typical crime-committing age range) is somewhere around 0.5%.  In contrast, the rate of incarceration of native-born persons in this age range is an order of magnitude higher at approximately 5%.

The undocumented immigrant population in the United States is currently held to be somewhere around 12 million, double the undocumented population in 1994.  Since 1994, again, the same time period in which the undocumented immigrant population has doubled, the violent crime rate in the US has declined 40%, with the whole country scratching their heads trying to figure out why.  This decline occurred during a time period when the purported effects of Roe v Wade and changing lead policies should have been ebbing.

It turns out that cities with higher immigrant populations are also some of the safest cities in the country.  The most notable of these cities is El Paso, TX.  Despite a poverty rate approaching 30% (twice the national average) and it’s close proximity to the city of Juarez (with more than 4,000 murders since 2008), El Paso regularly ranks as the safest city in the country (Congressional Quarterly, 2011).  El Paso tallied 5 murders in 2010.  Cities of similar size tallied up to two orders of magnitude higher: Milwaukee (72 total murders in 2009), Memphis (132 total murders in 2009).  New York, the largest city in the country and a historically large immigrant city, was the 3rd safest city in the country in 2010, followed by San Jose and San Diego.

The low crime rate data is jaw-dropping and all the more revealing considering that immigrants are much more likely to settle in poorer, disorganized communities, with a historical propensity for crime…and their presence drastically reduces the crime rate in these communities.  This seems reasonable.  Immigrants leave their home country and family in search of jobs and a better livelihood for themselves and for their families back home.  They have much to lose by committing a crime.

With recent immigration numbers dropping, I wouldn’t be surprised to see crime rates shoot back up in the next couple of years.

Justice Doesn’t Come Until Sentencing

Although I was as happy as everyone else in my political circle after Tom DeLay was convicted of Money Laundering and Conspiracy charges, I’ll wait until the sentencing on 12/20 to see how happy I will be.

Unfortunately, DeLay was allowed to remain free on his original $10,000 bond, although some may say he’s a flight risk and that bond should have been increased or that he should have been no-bonded given the severity of the charges (1st and 2nd degree felonies).

Still, even after sentencing, there will be an appeal and perhaps he will be allowed an appeal bond. So, something to keep in mind is what an attorney in Texas states about appeal bonds.

If it is less than ten years, you may be eligible for a bond. If it is more than ten years you cannot be released on bond.

Of course, since this is a first offense, probation is definitely on the table. Given the severity, though, anything really can happen when it comes down to sentencing. 1st and 2nd degree convictions are nothing to be scoffed at, particularly by appellate court judges–even if they are right-wing Republicans.

So, if an appeal to his buddies on the Court of Criminal Appeals causes an overturn, then there won’t be much to smile about. On the other hand, if all goes well, there will be varying degrees of satisfaction for some.

  1. Happy that he was convicted; or what I would prefer,
  2. Ecstatic to see his official photo in a TDCJ white uniform.

So, I’ll wait until 12/20 to see what happens next. Meanwhile, I’ll enjoy this outcome for what it’s worth.

Getting Rid of an Eyesore–1301

Court buildings are not usually my cup of tea, but Harris County boasts some nice towers for our courts that actually do grace the skyline.  Coming down Commerce Street, though, in front of those nice towers is an eyesore–the old 1301 Jail building.  The Harris County Commissioner’s Court seems to have made a good decision to demolish it.

Sheriff Garcia and other County officials had eyed 1301 for fixing and renovation, but a recommendation from consultants would have made its conversion to a mental health and offender reintegration center an expensive one at $36 million.

The discussion of the proposed center occurred as Commissioners Court accepted a consultant’s recommendation to demolish the old county jail at 1301 Franklin.

“There was a commitment by the Commissioners Court not only to explore, but to — in effect — establish such a center. It was absolutely all positive,” said Houston defense lawyer George Parnham. “It’s exciting, and it’s the right thing to do.”

Parnham, who chairs a mental health task force established by Sheriff Adrian Garcia, told the court that approximately 25 percent of the county jail population have mental health issues. In 2008, 92 percent of the inmates with mental problems had been in the jail before, the attorney said.

Parnham said the task force would come up with a proposal for the court to review in a few weeks, outlining services for the estimated 75 to 87 inmates with mental problems who are released from the jail each day. He said the proposed center would provide three to five days of temporary housing, include a small clinic to provide short-term medical care, and offer housing assistance and employ caseworkers to help former inmates re-apply for public benefits.

All I can say is:  It’s about time!  Reintegration of offenders, as well as mental health services for those who get arrested for crimes, are integral programs to ensuring a safer community.  Whether leaving from within the walls of TDCJ or the walls of our county facilities, Texas and Harris County could do a better job of combating recidivism, and I believe that this is a positive step toward that goal.  And to think that some on the court might actually be thinking outside of the box, while eerie, is definitely welcome–but still, we should remain watchful to ensure follow-thru.

From a aesthetic standpoint, that building is just plain ugly and could hardly provide a positive service-providing experience that doesn’t seem institutional.

A Hybrid Public Defender Office?

The Harris County Commissioner’s Court took a positive step toward justice.  Ensuring the accused are provided an adequate defense is not only a notion, it’s a right.  So, for the Court to vote unanimously on beginning the process of creating a public defender’s office shows that, at least in this case, they are seeking ways to alleviate overcrowding in the Harris County Jail.  Apparently, though, not all are very supportive, which is why this is called a “hybrid.”

The proposed system is called a hybrid because it would not be uniform through all state district courts. So far, only 11 of the 22 district courts have expressed interest in using the office for appellate cases, and five expressed interest in using it for adult felonies. However, two of the three juvenile court judges want to use a mix of public and private defenders, while all 15 county criminal courts-at-law favor a public defender for the disabled and those with mental health problems.

OK, so there seems to be a “here and there” attitude regarding its use.

Ultimately, I hope that all of these electeds have more than just overcrowding on the brain; or worse, that this be the only idea to serve as a possible fix.  The court system is still the court system, and many in our county jail are awaiting trial because of excessive bond amounts; so, I hope that more is done to decrease bond amounts as a means of alleviating overcrowding and the cost of jailing the accused and unconvicted.

Annise Parker: Ad #1

It’s what we’ve been waiting for!  The next candidate to release a TV ad is Annise Parker.  Unlike Peter Brown’s ads, Annise Parker truly is the star of the show, even going so far as taking a speaking role!

The ad is very professional, but what makes the ad really reach voters is the personal touch as Parker convinces voters of her abilities as a leader and as a current elected official.

The negative?  It’s an ad on public safety, and it seems all of the candidates are using this issue as a means of attracting voters.  Granted, public safety takes up 65% of the City budget, so it should be a priority.  As an idealist, I like to hear about plans beyond public safety, since I think safety is a given.  I want to hear about how creative the candidates will be in ensuring the rest of the city services aren’t affected.

There is also a nudge at one of the opponents:  “…or fund museums or stadiums we cannot afford.”

In these lean times, I agree with her about these lofty ideas, but we still need to ensure the existing services–libraries, after school programs, etc.–continue.  Here’s the Parker ad:

HPD Jail Fails

So, this is how you build new jails?  One thing hasn’t failed here in Houston and Harris County:  The Prison-Industrial complex is alive and well.  We are either housing too many non-criminals on civil violations, or we have too many pre-trial “residents” in our jails. Worse, we might be creating low-paid jail jobs in other counties by sending inmates to privately-run, non-union facilities.

What I really do not understand is, how can the administration be applying to become an Arpaio Jail (287(g)) when they know full-well the facilities just aren’t cutting it?

The problems are severe enough that the city may face serious challenges in its attempts to implement a federal program to screen those arrested for immigration status, since inmates detained as illegal immigrations for Immigration and Customs Enforcement agents might have to remain in custody longer than they would otherwise stay, according to the report.

I don’t know if it’s an error by the article’s author or not, but, “arrested for immigration status” sounds strangely like some of these folks are being arrested for being brown; in other words, profiling.  Is this why they are being arrested? I would like to know.

Of course, if Joe Arpaio is allowed to have a tent city in 110 degree weather, what is to stop the local folks?  How inhuman can Houston get?

Overcrowding can be solved quickly:  Stop 287(g) and allow pre-trial residents of the jail to reasonably bond-out, if the crime is not considered one that is major.

DC’s Favorite Quotes #1…

“Neither the expenditure of huge sums of money nor an increase in the personnel of all the law enforcement agencies throughout the county has diminished the decay inherent in our communities. On the contrary, history is replete with examples to prove that the privilege of bearing guns and their use under color of law has in all probability increased the incidence of violence. There can therefore be no justification for the continued waste of millions of taxpayers dollars in the maintenance of the militia within the confines of the county. Because the forces of oppression and suppression (the law enforcement agencies) continue to harass, brutalize, illegally confine and psychologically damage the Chicano, the black, the poor and the unrepresented, I hereby declare my candidacy for the office of Sheriff of Los Angeles County.”

Oscar Zeta Acosta
La Raza Unida Party candidate for L.A. County Sheriff, 1970.
(Got 100K votes!)
Author, Autobiography of a Brown Buffalo and The Revolt of the Cockroach People.
Also, the model for Hunter Thompson’s friend in Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas.