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Safe passing law update

The city of Houston has an ordinance requiring vehicles to give bikes a three-foot buffer on the streets. How much of an effect has it had so far?

A law authorizing police to ticket drivers for encroaching on bicyclists and pedestrians has yielded fewer than a dozen citations in the 20 months it has been on the books, though law enforcement officials and biking advocates said they are reluctant to use enforcement as a measure of success.

“You don’t have to ride around Houston very long to know that this is a very low number of citations given the frequency of the occurrence,” said Michael Payne, executive director of BikeHouston, which is working with city officials on cycling improvements.

[…]

Officers didn’t write a citation for violating the ordinance until Dec. 11, 2013, more than seven months after it took effect and 10 days after a Montrose-area cyclist was struck and killed by a driver who fled the scene. The fatal collision led to criticism of officials for not doing enough to enforce the safe passing law. The driver involved recently received a 15-year sentence, which some in the cycling community believe sent a message that bike safety would be taken seriously.

Since that first ticket, 10 more have been written, including four during targeted enforcement initiatives in February and March 2014. Those tickets, [Lt. Michelle Chavez, who oversees some traffic safety operations] said, came from multiple enforcement efforts.

“What we found is we really weren’t seeing egregious violations,” Chavez said of the operations, where police rode on bikes and reported violators to waiting patrol cars ahead. “Still, we know the cycling community does face people who are violating the law.”

Payne said cyclists estimate, based on anecdotes and observation, that a vehicle gets too close about once every time someone rides.

“My staffer who rode in six miles this morning said he counted three cars in the zone,” Payne said Monday.

Throughout the law’s creation and implementation, cycling advocates said raising awareness among drivers was the critical benefit. It was never about punishing drivers, but a tool to educate them to share the road, cycling proponents said.

See here and here for the background. It’s the outreach and education about this that most people are interested in, and while there’s progress there, there’s room to do a lot more. The comprehensive bike plan the city is working on should help; at the least, it will spell out what the city will be doing to make biking safer. The continued expansion of the off-road bike trails will help as well, perhaps with an assist from Neighborhood Greenways. Of course, as good and useful as off-road trails are, you don’t want to make it seem like that’s the norm and that riding on the streets is somehow exceptional. We all need to learn how to coexist safely. The Highwayman has more.

A better way to cut taxes

Grits has a suggestion for the Legislature.

go_to_jail

Reduce local jail costs – which have been a big driver of tax increases in many Texas counties – by reducing penalty categories for low-level marijuana possession (currently a Class B misdemeanor for possession of two ounces or less) and driving with an invalid license (DWLI, currently a Class B misdemeanor on the second offense). Make those two offenses a Class C or even a civil violation and local governments, especially counties, would save money a) by writing tickets instead of jailing people, b) from the fact that attorneys aren’t appointed for the indigent in Class C cases, and c) by keeping more officers, both sheriffs deputies and municipal PDs, out on patrol instead of at the jail arresting pot smokers and drivers who couldn’t pay the Driver Responsibility surcharge.

Texas already started down this road, reducing first offense DWLI from a Class B to a Class C in 2007 after the Driver Responsibility surcharge flooded county courts in the first years after its passage. The same year, the Lege passed and Gov. Perry signed legislation to allow local police departments to write tickets instead of make arrests for DWLI, marijuana possession, and several other petty Class B offenses. Only a few agencies took the Lege up on that optional authority, though, and county jails and court dockets remain stuffed with these low-level, non-violent offenders. So reducing penalties for those two Class Bs is a logical next step, as the House County Affairs discussed during an interim committee hearing on the topic earlier this year.

Unlike the feds, Texas’ budget must balance. Any claim to cut taxes will prove a mare’s nest without a correspondent reduction in spending in a long-term sustainable way. That’s why property-tax relief through the school districts can’t be certain in light of the surely soon-to-be-coming court verdict on school finance. The state has little wiggle room to spend less on healthcare. And pols have promised to spend more, not less, on transportation. After baseline reductions in 2003 and 2011, there’s not a lot of fat left to cut, particularly that would impact property taxes.

By changing state policies to reduce county jail costs, the 84th Legislature could deliver real, not just temporary or superficial, local property-tax relief, cutting costs on a big-ticket item that affects every Texas county. I can’t think of a quicker, more certain way the Lege could reduce upward pressure on local property taxes given the practical constraints imposed by law and politics on the state budget.

See here for the context, and remember that “balancing” the budget is one part rhetoric, one part prestidigitation, and about five parts hot air. As sensible as this is, and as much as it would deliver benefits beyond a reduction in costs to counties, the main obstacle this would face is that it’s not immediate gratification. Lop ten points off the tax rate and you can say “See! I cut your taxes!” Do this and you have to wait and see what all the county commissioners do, and if/when they do cut taxes as a result of the savings, they’ll claim the credit for it themselves. I completely agree with Grits’ idea here, and I think in the abstract a lot of legislators would, too. What I don’t think they would do is see this as “tax relief” in any meaningful way. The people who are talking about that want something they can point to and take all the credit for.

Grits on the HPD staffing debate

Grits weighs in on the HPD no-investigations story with some suggestions for how to proceed.

Here’s how to boost the number of police officers available on patrol while freeing up officers to work as detectives in the burglary and other backlogged divisions:

  • Implement verified response for burglar alarm calls, requiring alarm companies to verify a crime was committed before dispatching police. These alarms are 98-99% false, almost never result in arrests, and account for 10-12% of most departments’ patrol calls. This one reform would be the equivalent of increasing patrol staffing by ten percent.
  • Begin to use discretion given police by the Legislature in 2007 to write citations instead of making arrests for driving with a suspended license and possession of marijuana.
  • Follow Texas’ other large cities by issuing paraphernalia citations for crack pipes instead of sending them to the crime lab to scrape traces off for state-jail felony possession prosecution. (See Harris County District Judge Mike McSpadden’s letter to the Legislature urging this reform.)

Those three changes would free up many thousands of police hours without costing the city a dime – certainly enough to allow HPD to adjust staffing levels to create a few dozen new detective slots. Indeed, the last couple of bulleted items would probably save the county money, too.

I agree with what he says, all of which has been said before but bears repeating. I hope everyone who wants more police at least asks about these things. They’re good ideas even if we didn’t have a debate about staffing levels going on.

Hall’s five point crimefighting plan

From the inbox:

Ben Hall

Ben Hall

Houstonians do not feel safe in their homes and their communities. Houston’s crime numbers remain dangerously high and criminals are victimizing us daily. The only thing we hear from the Mayor’s office on this issue is silence. It is unacceptable.

“As Mayor, I will make sure that criminals know this City belongs to the law-abiding, and not to criminals. Criminals are not welcome in this city! I intend to send a clear message that we will no longer sit by and allow criminals to hurt, kill and maim the innocent. Your time is up in Houston!” said mayoral candidate Ben Hall. “The current mayor has announced no effective plan to address the problem, instead believing this to be a designated function of just the police. Leadership is needed to set a tone of intolerance for criminal conduct in this city. The consequences of crime are too high for a mayor to remain silent.”

Houston has witnessed too much horror at the hands of criminals. A few days ago, armed robbers opened fire in a Denny’s fatally shooting a grandfather who was shielding children from flying bullets. Shortly thereafter, burglars broke into Sheriff Adrian Garcia’s home and stole his weapon. This must stop!

Contrary to what Ms. Parker claimed earlier this year, Houston has a growing problem with crime. According to FBI crime numbers, Houston murders, robberies, and theft went up between 2011 and 2012. In 2012, Houston experienced 26,630 burglaries, the highest number in the entire country. “It seems that the truth just does not matter to Mayor Parker,” continued Hall. “Crime is too important an issue to play politics with.”

As mayor, Hall is committed to making public safety a top priority and has set forth a five-point plan to tackle this epidemic. His plan includes:

  1. Increasing collaboration between all local law enforcement authorities and upgrading radio communications;
  2. Increasing crime deterrence initiatives in neighborhoods with the use of camera technology;
  3. Stabilizing pension challenges for law enforcement and first-responders and increasing the number of officers;
  4. Having non-violent criminals pay off their sentences by performing community services; and
  5. Expanding job creation programs for first-time offenders to prevent re-imprisonment.

This five-point policy proposal will be further detailed at www.BenHallforMayor.com.

I’ve been critical of Hall’s largely details-free campaign so far, and while this isn’t exactly a dissertation it is something specific to examine and critique. Kudos for that, and I hope that promise about further detailing is kept. Now let’s take a look at what is there.

Item 1 is something we’ve seen before. It was a campaign issue in 2009. In fact, Annise Parker, Gene Locke, and Peter Brown all made promises about better coordination with other agencies and upgraded communications equipment. It would be totally fair to examine Mayor Parker’s record and point out wherever she has fallen short.

Item 2 is also something we’ve seen before. The city of Houston already has an extensive network of surveillance cameras, in places like downtown, Westchase, the Medical Center, and on Metro buses and trains. There may be an argument for putting them in other parts of town. There’s also an argument that surveillance cameras generally have no effect on crime and raise legitimate concerns about privacy and government overreach (*cough* *cough* NSA *cough* *cough*). As with item 1, just having it as a bullet point on a campaign platform is not enough to tell us what your intentions are.

I have no idea what “stabilizing pension challenges” has to do with crimefighting, but then Hall has been deliberately vague about his pension plans all along. Unlike the firefighters’ pension plan, the police pension fund is already subject to meet and confer, and it has made numerous concessions to the city in recent years. As for hiring more officers, again this is something everyone promised in 2009. Mayor Parker also promised to shield the public safety budget from the axe in 2010. Far as I know, she kept that promise, as no police officers or firefighters were laid off, but again it would be totally fair to examine that in more detail.

It’s not clear what exactly a Mayor can do about Item Four. At the very least, one would need to have a conversation with the Harris County District Attorney, the various criminal court judges, and possibly the Legislature to make this happen. I favor the idea, but as always, it’s a question of how Hall plans to achieve it. One thing the Mayor could do is direct HPD to issue citations instead of arresting traffic violators and low level drug offenders, as that would help keep the jails from getting too crowded and would allow the cops to stay on the streets more instead of spending hours hauling these non-violent and mostly non-scary people downtown and processing them. Unlike some of these other issues, no one was proposing that back in 2009, and it would likely cause a fair amount of pushback from HPD, which would require spending some political capital to implement it.

Finally, on Item 5, a similar proposal was offered as an amendment to this year’s city budget. The amendment, made by CM Larry Green and backed by CM C.O. Bradford, was to allocate $3 million for a summer jobs program for youth. That’s not exactly the same thing, but it has the same goal.

That also highlights a point that is implicit in these proposals but is otherwise unmentioned, and that’s that most of them will cost money. Upgrading communications equipment costs money. So do surveillance cameras. Houston bought some of the latter with federal Homeland Security grants, and I believe they got some grants for the former as well, but those grants may be harder to come by in this day and age of sequestration and general Republican nihilism. (Good luck calling on either of our Senators to do some budget mojo on our behalf.) Public safety is already the single biggest piece of the budget, and hiring more officers would add to that. I generally support most of Hall’s proposals, and in the case of those that have been around for a few years I’ve supported them all along, but each of these things starts with the question of how Hall, or any Mayor, would pay for them. Not to keep beating a dead horse, but this is why the details matter. Having worthwhile goals is nice. Having worthwhile goals and a clear path to achieving them is necessary. We can’t properly evaluate Hall’s plan without knowing his plan to fund it.

UPDATE: Here’s the Chron story, which includes a point I hadn’t considered.

As for Hall’s plan to have inmates work off their sentences instead of sitting in their cells, Parker campaign spokeswoman Sue Davis said city inmates stay an average of 24 hours before being released or transferred to the county lockup, making it impractical to put them to work.

Hall said it is the same taxpayers footing the bill, regardless of the jail. He said he is interested in finding a way to put county or city inmates to work on behalf of the public.

“While we’d always want to work with the city to maximize that resource, there’s not a lot of room for expansion,” said Alan Bernstein, spokesman for Sheriff Adrian Garcia, who runs the county jail.

All low-level, nonviolent county jail inmates willing and eligible to participate in outside work already do so, Bernstein said. As of Monday, 196 inmates were approved for outside work, performing graffiti abatement, tree planting and beautification along bayous and other public rights of way, Bernstein said. That number is difficult to increase because more inmates – 793, on Monday – are needed inside the jail for chores the county otherwise would have to pay for, he said.

I was thinking about the legalities of the proposal, but the practicalities need to be considered as well.

Jefferson pushes for judicial reforms

Most of what Texas Supreme Court Chief Justice Wallace Jefferson had to say to the Lege during his biennial address was good stuff that I hope the Lege will heed.

Wallace Jefferson

Presenting his State of the Judiciary speech to Texas lawmakers, Jefferson said that “wrongful convictions leave our citizens vulnerable, as actual perpetrators remain free” and recommended the Legislature create a commission “to investigate each instance of exoneration, to assess the likelihood of wrongful convictions in future cases, and to establish statewide reforms.” He cited the recent exoneration of Michael Morton, who spent nearly 25 years in prison for murder.

The creation of such a commission nearly passed in 2011, but failed at the last minute. Part of the opposition has come from Jeff Blackburn, chief legal counsel of the Innocence Project of Texas, a nonprofit organization that attempts to overturn wrongful convictions and investigate why they happen in the first place. He said recently that such a commission would have to be “extremely well-funded,” and would more likely become “a paper commission that would give a lot of people an excuse to turn away from a lot of the real issues we face in the criminal justice system.”

But the bill creating such a commission, House Bill 166, by state Rep. Ruth Jones McClendon, D-San Antonio, got a favorable review from the House Criminal Jurisprudence Committee on Tuesday.

Jefferson also pushed for indigent defense and more money for civil legal aid. “We must do more,” he said, “to keep the courthouse doors open for all of our neighbors.” He called on lawmakers to increase the amount of funding dedicated to organizations that provide indigent civil legal aid and criminal defense.

Jefferson touted reforms in creating an electronic filing system to lessen the use of paper in courts statewide. “Our courts operate much like they did in 1891,” he said, “with paper, stamps on paper, cabinets for paper, staples, storage, shredding of paper.” He backed Senate Bill 1146, by state Sens. Royce West, D-Dallas, and Robert Duncan, R-Lubbock, to decrease the cost of electronic filing, which he called “a key to ensuring access to our judicial system.

“The era of big paper is over,” he said, prompting laughs and applause from lawmakers.

Finally, Jefferson announced the creation of a special committee of the Texas Judicial Council to look at reforming the state’s guardianship system, in which court appointees make decisions and manage the interests of incapacitated individuals. “An exploding elderly population will stress the guardianship system,” he said. “We must begin to address these issues and prepare.” Currently, he said, Texas has 368 state-certified guardians handling 5,000 guardianships. The number of individuals needing guardianship, he said, is 40,000.

The Statesman has more:

Jefferson also criticized the practice of writing Class C misdemeanor tickets for disruptive conduct in Texas schools, forcing children to answer the charge in court and leaving some, particularly those who cannot afford a lawyer, vulnerable to arrest and a criminal record.

About 300,000 such tickets are written each year, he said.

“We are criminalizing our children for nonviolent offenses,” Jefferson said. “We must keep our children in school, and out of our courts, to give them the opportunity to follow a path of success, not a path toward prison.”

Bills that have been filed to address these concerns are SBs 393, 394, and 395, all by Sen. Royce West. Everything mentioned here by Justice Jefferson is something I support. My only complaint is this:

Another regular feature of these speeches is a call for lawmakers to revisit the way judges are selected. Currently, the judges are elected in partisan contests. “A justice system based on Democratic or Republican judging is a system that cannot be trusted,” Jefferson said during his last speech before the Legislature.

This session, several bills aim to address this issue. State Sen. Dan Patrick, R-Houston, has filed SB 103, which would end straight-ticket voting in judicial elections, where a single selection of Democrat or Republican at the top of the ballot carries through elections for all offices, including judges. Two years ago, Jefferson explicitly called for this policy change, saying straight-ticket voting led to “hordes of judges replaced for no good reason.”

*sigh* You know how I feel about this, so I’ll spare you another rant. Let’s just say I hope the rest of Justice Jefferson’s agenda gets a higher priority from the Lege than this does. Grits and EoW have more.

Speeding tickets and vehicle registration

I confess, I’m puzzled by this.

Municipal Court Presiding Judge Barbara Hartle has a proposal on Wednesday’s City Council agenda to sign an agreement with the Texas Department of Motor Vehicles that would have the state refuse to issue vehicle registrations to people who have outstanding traffic fines.

As proposed by Hartle, by investing about $20,000 a year into compiling lists of scofflaws and coordinating with the state, the city could reap a windfall of $432,000 a year in higher collections.

Two years ago, a similar proposal involving red-light camera runners was rebuffed by the county. City officials had proposed registration holds on red-light runners caught on camera. It required the buy-in of the county tax assessor-collector, who issues license plates and stickers. Leo Vasquez, then the tax collector, agreed to the deal and made the pitch to Commissioners Court. Because the county gets a cut of the fee when it issues a registration and would, essentially, be forfeiting revenue for cracking down on city scofflaws, Commissioners Court rejected the deal.

This time, the tax collector who would be in charge of placing the holds sits on the council, and he does not like Hartle’s plan. District E Councilman Mike Sullivan was elected tax assessor-collector this month and will leave the council in January when he is sworn in at the county.

“In my mind, it’s nothing more than an attempt to have the county collect fees and fines that the city should collect on their own,” Sullivan said. “It looks like the mayor wants to push this over to the county as another layer of enforcement to collect money for the city.”

Sullivan said he opposes the arrangement as he intends to fulfill campaign promises to shorten the lines at the tax office windows. In addition, he said he is worried that holds could mistakenly be placed on people who do not owe fines.

I understood the county not wanting to help with enforcing the collection of red light camera fines. This I have a harder time with. There’s no policy dispute about the legitimacy of the fines being imposed as there was with red light cameras. I appreciate Sullivan’s concerns about possibly ensnaring someone who doesn’t owe a fine, but surely this is a less intrusive approach than involving a collection agency or filing a lawsuit, which would be the options left to the city. This would also be by far the least expensive way to collect outstanding fines, which makes it the most efficient use of taxpayer money. I don’t get the reluctance to get involved. I note that the last time this issue came up, the ultimate decision rested with Commissioners Court, who overruled then-Tax Assessor Leo Vasquez on red light camera fine enforcement. Tax Assessor-Elect Sullivan’s disapproval may therefore not be the final word on this.

UPDATE: Today’s story, from after Council approved the plan on a 14-1 vote, adds some more detail and shows a possible path forward.

Council’s action essentially means scofflaws will not be able to renew their registrations on the DMV website. Instead, they will have to go to the window at the tax office, where tax assessor Don Sumners said he will continue to issue registrations even if the state prints the word “scofflaw” on their renewal forms.

“I don’t think they (the city) could pay us enough for the services it would cause.We don’t have enough people as it is,” Sumners said.

[…]

Sullivan said he also believes the city should not offload its collections operations onto county government. He left the door open to a deal after he is sworn in as tax assessor in January, though, if City Attorney David Feldman is the city’s broker.

“He’s apolitical,” Sullivan said. “This administration is nothing but political and has not been honest and direct and transparent with me as a council member. However, Mr. Feldman has always been fair with me in all of my dealings.”

So there you have it.

On tickets and plea bargains

Interesting story about the municipal courts, but I’m a bit puzzled by the numbers cited.

About 22,000 traffic tickets were dismissed in a single month in Houston this summer – nearly half the number issued during that span, according to state data.

The substantial number of dismissals, which costs the city millions in lost revenue, is a result of an overburdened court system reliant on plea bargaining, according to police union officials and attorneys.

Traffic tickets are rarely dismissed because of problems caused by Houston police officers who write up the infractions, said Houston Police Officers’ Union president Ray Hunt. Instead, cases are dismissed by prosecutors who offer deals to violators, Hunt noted.

“The courts do not have the manpower, or the prosecutors, or the jurors to handle the dockets over there,” Hunt said. “The prosecutors are forced to make deals with the citizens, and dismiss some of the tickets and only charge them for others. If anybody questions the dismissals, it’s not an issue of the officers writing bad tickets or officers not showing up. It’s the prosecutors dismissing them because they have to dismiss them.”

[…]

Tickets filed in Houston municipal courts have declined from more than 1 million in 2006 to 735,841 in 2011. Budget cuts at the Houston Police Department have resulted in reduced overtime for traffic enforcement, contributing to the decline in tickets.

I wrote about the decline of non-parking citations issued by the city of Houston back in March. You can see all the raw data here. The numbers that I see there do not match what’s in that story. One possible reason for that is that the Office of Court Administration reports are for the period of September 1 to August 31, whereas the Chron story makes it sound like they’re talking calendar year. Also, the OCA report breaks down citations into different categories, while the Chron story does not specify what kind of tickets it’s talking about. While the Chron compares 2006 to 2011, I noted that the number of non-parking citations written between 2006 and 2010 was roughly the same each year, but from 2010 to 2011 there was a big drop. The story makes it sound like there was a steady decline, but that’s not what the numbers I looked at say. Finally, and perhaps more importantly, the city reported more revenue earned from citations in 2011 than it did in 2010, by a fairly significant amount – $57 million in 2006, $73 million in 2011. There’s some good discussion of this at that earlier post.

As far as the emphasis on plea bargains goes, I’m not sure why this is news. The justice system in general couldn’t operate if most cases weren’t pleaded out before ever going to trial. As HPOU’s Hunt notes, this is an efficient way for the municipal courts to operate, and neither of the defense attorneys quoted in the story – Randall Kallinen and Paul Kubosh, no shrinking violets when it comes to criticizing the city – had anything particularly negative to say about the system. I’m curious where the Chron got their numbers, but beyond that I don’t see anything remarkable here. Grits has more.

Maybe we need more tickets

Grits reads a story about the decline of traffic tickets in Dallas and does some figuring.

What’s remarkable is not just this year’s drop but the overall 39% decline since ’06-’07. Wondering if the same trend is occurring statewide, Grits pulled the total number of new, non-parking traffic cases filed in municipal courts in recent years from the Office of Court Administration’s annual reports. I was surprised to find that FY 2011 numbers reported represented a remarkable drop of more than 600,000 traffic tickets per year, more than 10%, compared to FY 2008:

Total new non-parking traffic cases filed statewide in Texas municipal courts:

2006: 5,711,966
2007: 5,581,607
2008: 5,749,780
2009: 5,684,813
2010: 5,521,029
2011: 5,148,510

Some police departments – notably Austin’s – view traffic stops as their primary anti-crime strategy, particularly in so-called “hotspots,” so I was surprised to notice that trend. It has budget implications, certainly, but more importantly, what is causing it? Are police deployment patterns changing, and if so, how and why? Perhaps the price of gas and a depressed economy are just making people drive less, which could make the trend meaningless if the economy picks back up. Perhaps Dallas’ remarkable drop explains a disproportionate share of the total. OTOH, perhaps other cities, like Big D, are scaling back traffic enforcement in tight budget times because of limited resources. Or maybe there’s something bigger going on, just as we’ve witnessed a steady drop in index crime rates over the last two decades.

Why are Texas cops writing fewer traffic tickets? What do you think is going on?

Seeing that got me to wondering about Houston, since we’re so focused on revenue these days. I went to the report table of contents and looked at the Municipal Courts summary by city for fiscal years 2004 through 2011. This is what I found.

Year Cases filed Revenue Per case ========================================== 2011 724,009 73,018,272 100.85 2010 926,110 81,460,943 87.96 2009 910,788 80,922,590 88.85 2008 909,555 82,958,342 91.20 2007 925,926 78,967,588 85.28 2006 893,563 57,302,268 64.13 2005 866,520 48,531,695 56.01 2004 785,795 48,870,197 62.19

“Cases filed” are the non-parking traffic cases, same as what Grits checked for the state as a whole. “Revenue” is for all cases, including parking and non-traffic, and “Per Case” is revenue per non-parking case, which is technically misleading since it doesn’t break revenue down by source, but it’s the best I can do. As you can see, fewer non-parking cases were filed in Houston last year than in any previous year going back to at least FY2004. As with Grits, I have no idea why that may be. (No, I’m pretty sure that the cessation of red light camera tickets has nothing to do with this. For one, those tickets were generally not adjudicated in the municipal courts, and for two the city didn’t have them for the first three fiscal years on this chart.) Clearly, some amount of revenue that could have been collected if FY2011 had been more typical was not collected. If you trust the “per case” metric, by my calculation the city could have collected about $20 million more had the 2011 case load been like the 2010 case load. That’s probably a reach – among other things, I don’t know what caused the jump in revenue from 2006 to 2007, or the jump in revenue per case from 2010 to 2011 – but I think it’s fair to say that there was some money left on the table. Let me throw this out to you guys. Any thoughts about this?

Cancelling constables

Like Grits, I see this as an opportunity, not a loss.

Budget cuts have led two Harris County constables to cancel their security contracts with several area school districts, leaving the districts scrambling for a fix to cover the end of this school year and beyond.

[…]

Cy-Fair is facing the loss of a 38-deputy contract with Precinct 4 Constable Ron Hickman. Galena Park will lose its existing 11-deputy contract with Precinct 2 Constable Gary Freeman.

In both cases, the districts reimburse the county for 80 percent of the $91,000 cost of a deputy’s salary, benefits and equipment. The full cost of the deputies come out of the constables’ budgets, and the reimbursements from the school districts go into the county coffers.

Hickman’s contract with Cy-Fair, for example, represented a nearly $3.3 million expense on his $29 million budget this year; the district’s cost would have been about $2.7 million.

Harris County Budget Director Dick Raycraft, whose office has worked with constables to implement the county’s deepest spending cuts in years, said the school contracts were the first to go because districts can levy taxes to hire police, unlike, for example, civic clubs.

Or they can say to themselves “That’s a lot of money we could spend on teachers instead”, which would be my preference. Some amount of security is needed, but surely the districts can figure out a way to do it for less. And if along the way that means fewer tickets are written, that’s all to the good.

Walle files bills to address school ticketing

A couple of weeks ago I noted a Texas Appleseed report that discussed an increase in “Class C misdemeanor ticketing and arrest of students for low-level, non-violent behavior that historically has been handled at the school level”, which it believes is a contributing factor in our state’s high dropout rate, and which called for “Chapter 37 of the Education Code be amended to eliminate Disruption of Class and Disruption of Transportation as penal code offenses for which students can be ticketed, and to clarify that arrest of students be a last resort reserved for behavioral incidents involving weapons and threatening safety”. Now State Rep. Armando Walle has filed a series of bills to address these concerns.

HB 350 would allow juveniles charged with Class C misdemeanors (the mildest category of misdemeanors) to fulfill their sentences through community service or tutoring hours, instead of paying a fine, which can run between $60 and $500. HB 408 creates minimum standards for the training of juvenile case managers, who help students navigate the courts. HB 409 places juvenile case managers under the supervision of a judge.

“Disciplinary problems are a red flag that tell us a child is at risk of dropping out of school,” Walle said in a statement. “Since many of these young people end up in our municipal and [justice of the peace] courts, it’s important for our courts to offer consequences, like community service and tutoring hours, that appropriately address the discipline problems while helping these students to stay in school.”

He’s also filed HB 348, which would require specialized training for school district peace officers, school resource officers, and school security personnel employed by a school district; and HB 349, which would require that school districts keep track of tickets and arrests of students. I think all of them are appropriate and I support their passage. You can see Rep. Walle’s full statement about these bills here.

Too many tickets

From Texas Appleseed, via Grits.

Class C Ticketing, Arrest of Youth at School is Introducing Thousands to Justice System, Says New Appleseed Report

Schools Should Follow Lead of Juvenile Justice Agencies: Restrict Pepper Spray, Taser Use

Austin, TX. – A growing police presence in Texas public schools is coinciding with increased Class C misdemeanor ticketing and arrest of students for low-level, non-violent behavior that historically has been handled at the school level – sending more youth to court and increasing their chances of academic failure and future justice system involvement, according to the third in a series of reports on Texas’ “school-to-prison pipeline” released today by the public interest law center Texas Appleseed. [Link: Report , see Executive Summary for findings/recommendations.]

“We are strongly recommending that Chapter 37 of the Education Code be amended to eliminate Disruption of Class and Disruption of Transportation as penal code offenses for which students can be ticketed, and to clarify that arrest of students be a last resort reserved for behavioral incidents involving weapons and threatening safety. This would go a long way toward helping check the move of student discipline from schools to the courthouse,” said Texas Appleseed Deputy Director Deborah Fowler. The increase in ticketing comes at a time when overall juvenile crime rates are low, she said.

Also of major concern is the broad discretion given to school police officers to use pepper spray, Tasers and other types of force – and the lack of transparency around some schools’ “use of force” policies, Fowler said. “These types of force have been shown to cause physical and psychological harm to adults, and the impact on children can be even more devastating,” she said. While many school districts make their use of force policies publicly available, others have sought and used an Attorney General’s decision to keep such policies from parents and the public. Texas Appleseed filed suit last year against San Antonio ISD and Spring Branch ISD to compel full disclosure.

“School-based policing is one of the fastest growing areas of law enforcement,” Fowler said, “yet school police officers receive little training specific to child development or working in school environments, and there is little to no review of ticketing and arrest practices at the school level to determine their impact and effectiveness in improving student behavior and no required reporting of this data to the Texas Education Agency.” A body of research across the country indicates that Positive Behavioral Support programs in schools are much more effective in improving behavior, school climate and campus safety, she said. Last month, New York City became the latest to require its school police department to provide data on student arrest and ticketing in response to growing concern about using this approach to address low-level student misbehavior.

Based on 2009 data from the Texas Office of Court Administration, it appears that at least 275,000 Class C tickets were issued that year for offenses most commonly associated with school-based misbehavior, but poor record keeping and reporting makes it impossible to point to a definitive number,” Fowler said. In response to Texas Appleseed’s open records request to the 167 Texas school districts with stand-alone police departments, only 22 districts and four court jurisdictions provided 2006-07 ticketing data – representing almost a quarter of Texas’ students. These districts issued close to 32,000 tickets that year, with the greatest number reported in Houston ISD, 4,828; Dallas ISD, 4,402; San Antonio ISD, 3,760; Brownsville ISD, 2,856; and Austin ISD, 2,653. Districts with the highest ticketing rate (per student population) that year were Galveston ISD, 11%; San Antonio, Somerville and Waco ISDs, 7%; and Brownsville and East Central ISD, 6%.

Juvenile justice officials told Texas Appleseed that a large percentage of their referrals result from school-based arrests, Fowler said. In the 17 districts providing 2006-07 arrest data to Texas Appleseed (accounting for 13 percent of the state’s total enrollment that year), 7,100 students were arrested. The state’s two largest districts with stand-alone police departments, Dallas and Houston ISDs, could not provide any requested student arrest data.

The data that Texas Appleseed collected reflects these important trends:

  • Most Class C misdemeanor tickets written by school police officers are for low-level, non-violent misbehavior that do not involve weapons, yet ticketing can have far-reaching financial and legal impacts. Fines and costs associated with Class C tickets, reported to Texas Appleseed by municipal courts, range from less than $60 to more than $500 per ticket. Failure to pay the fine, complete court-ordered community service or comply with a notice to appear in court can result in the youth’s arrest at age 17. African American and Hispanic youth are disproportionately affected by this practice, and the ACLU of Texas recently filed suit against Hidalgo County after discovering hundreds of teens had been jailed for unpaid truancy tickets issued years earlier. While a new state law (SB 1056, 2009) mandates criminal courts (including municipal and justice courts handling Class C tickets) immediately issue a nondisclosure order upon the conviction of a child for a misdemeanor offense punishable by fine only, the large volume of these cases has created a huge backlog, resulting in Class C misdemeanors remaining on a youth’s “criminal record” accessible by future employers and others.
  • Ticketing has increased substantially over a two- to five-year period, and where the child attends school – and not the nature of the offense – is the greater predictor of whether a child will be ticketed at school. Twenty-two of the 26 school districts or jurisdictions supplying ticketing data reported an increase in the number of tickets issued at school.
  • African American and (to a lesser extent) Hispanic students are disproportionately represented in Class C misdemeanor ticketing in Texas schools. Of the 15 districts that could disaggregate ticketing data by race and ethnicity, 11 disproportionately ticketed African American students compared to their percentage of the total student population in 2006-07. In the most recent year for which ticketing data is available, these districts reported ticketing African American students at a rate double their representation in the student body: Austin ISD, Dallas ISD, Humble ISD, Katy ISD, and San Antonio ISD.
  • It is not unusual for elementary school-age children, including students 10 years old and younger, to receive Class C tickets at school—and data indicates students as young as six have been ticketed. More than 1,000 tickets were issued to elementary school children for a six-year period in those districts for which we have data.

The full report is quite long, but the executive summary is enough to give you a good picture of it; this Texas Trib story is also a good summary. I was curious as to how much HISD spent on its police force, so I sent an email to Trustee Anna Eastman to inquire. She responded that the budget allocates $13.5 million to HISD police, of which 95% is personnel. Speaking for myself, I’d prefer that HISD look at cutbacks in this area when forced to do so by the legislative budget before it looks at things that would affect classroom instruction. If nothing else, I’d like to see more scrutiny of their practices, and I hope this report offers a starting point for the discussion.