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Ed Gonzalez

July 2019 campaign finance reports: Harris County

Before we get to the numbers, please read this.

El Franco Lee

The widow of former Harris County Precinct 1 Commissioner El Franco Lee has emptied most of her late husband’s $3.8 million campaign account by donating to community groups and charities.

Ethel Kaye Lee, the campaign treasurer, said Thursday she chose the recipients based on the intentions of her husband’s donors.

“The campaign monies were given for two reasons, for support of existing Precinct 1 programs and keeping him elected, so that’s the formula,” she said.

The account donated $3.01 million to 12 groups, including $500,000 to the Precinct 1 Aquatics Program, $200,000 to the St. Paul Scholarship Foundation and $150,000 to the Julia C. Hester House in Houston’s Fifth Ward, according to the campaign’s July finance report. The report covers the period from Jan. 1 to June 30.

The largest expenditure was $1.5 million to the Precinct 1 Street Olympics, a program Lee founded in 1986. The summer event serves thousands of children annually and includes swim lessons, a basketball tournament and career fair. It also supports the North East Adolescent Program, created by Lee in 1989, which seeks to lower rates of teen pregnancy, birth defects and sexually transmitted diseases in poor Houston neighborhoods.

[…]

The Lee campaign also donated to $200,000 to the Baylor College of Medicine’s teen health clinic and $50,000 to St. Jude Children’s Research Hospital. Two Catholic groups, the Dominican Sisters of Houston and Dominican Friars, Province of St. Martin De Porres, received $50,000 each.

According to the finance report, the campaign had $791,140 remaining on hand as of June 30, which Ethel Kaye Lee has been allocated. Under state law, the campaign has until 2022 to close the account.

See here for the last update, from April. I had noticed all of the activity when I looked at Lee’s report. I’m glad to see this money going to good uses.

Now, on with the show…

Lina Hidalgo, County Judge
Diane Trautman, County Clerk
Dylan Osborne, County Treasurer
Marilyn Burgess, District Clerk

Kim Ogg, District Attorney
Ed Gonzalez, Sheriff
Vince Ryan, County Attorney
Ann Harris Bennett, Tax Assessor

Lloyd Oliver, District Attorney
Audia Jones, District Attorney
Curtis Todd Overstreet, District Attorney

Harry Zamora, Sheriff
Joe Danna, Sheriff

Ben Rose, County Attorney
Christian Menefee, County Attorney

Rodney Ellis, Precinct 1
Adrian Garcia, Precinct 2
Steve Radack, Precinct 3
Jack Cagle PAC, Precinct 4

El Franco Lee
Diana Alexander, Precinct 3

George Moore, HCDE Position 1, Precinct 2
Eric Dick, HCDE Position 2, Precinct 4
Richard Cantu, HCDE Position 3, At Large
Josh Flynn, HCDE Position 4, Precinct 3
Michael Wolfe, HCDE Position 5, At Large
Danny Norris, HCDE Position 6, Precinct 1
Don Sumners, HCDE Position 7, At Large

Andrea Duhon, HCDE Position 5, At Large
David Brown, HCDE Position 7, At Large


Candidate     Raised     Spent     Loan     On Hand
===================================================
Hidalgo      318,967   162,328    1,400     192,572
Trautman      11,325     5,778        0      22,450
Osborne        1,000       155        0       1,201
Burgess        9,626     9,681        0       7,263

Ogg          135,860    22,773   68,489     330,425
Gonzalez     178,024    14,344        0     276,714
Ryan          41,925    15,417        0      85,318
Bennett       21,925    19,205        0      37,313

Oliver
Jones         23,669    11,234        0       9,967
Overstreet
Zamora             0     3,026        0           0
Danna        111,268    66,442    3,500      38,338
Rose          22,345     2,257        0      11,605
Menefee       34,869       326        0      34,542

Ellis        715,266   240,145        0   3,823,509
Garcia       552,590   289,169        0     810,149
Radack         5,000    96,250        0   1,634,106
Cagle        398,900   240,512        0     361,787

Lee                0 3,095,767        0     791,139
Alexander      4,210       445        0       1,982

Moore
Dick               0         0        0           0
Cantu          1,250     1,132        0         337
Flynn
Wolfe              0         0        0           0
Norris
Sumners

Duhon            155       262        0         389
Brown            700       406        0         313

County Judge Lina Hidalgo isn’t taking money from vendors, but that hasn’t stopped her from doing well in the fundraising department. At this rate, she’ll be well funded for her first re-election campaign. On the other end of the spectrum…what’s up with Steve Radack? He knows he’s up for election next year, right? I mean, he does have plenty of money, so one low-activity reporting period is no big deal. It still looks weird.

More aware of their ballot status next year are DA Kim Ogg and Sheriff Ed Gonzalez, and both responded as you’d expect. I’ll get to their situations in a minute, but the person I’ve got my eye on at this time is County Attorney Vince Ryan. He’s never been a big fundraiser, but he brings in a few bucks. If there’s a cycle where he’s going to need them, it’s this one.

And that’s because Ryan now has two primary opponents, Ben Rose and Christian Menefee, and while he has a cash on hand lead, it’s hardly insurmountable. In this high-turnout environment that the 2020 primary will be, Ryan’s biggest advantage will be the name recognition he has after 12 years in office. With a half million people or so likely to vote, it will take a pile of money to reach enough of them to make an impression. In a more typical year, you could hit the club and CEC meetings and hope to interact with enough of the old reliables to have a shot. In 2020, you’re going to have to do much broader outreach. That takes money, and it’s not clear that kind of money exists in the County Attorney race. We’ll see.

And speaking of opponents, we have them in the DA and Sheriff races. If your reaction to seeing Lloyd Oliver’s name wasn’t basically this, I don’t know what to say to you. Audia Jones we know about; she doesn’t appear to have gotten much traction yet, but there’s still time. I can’t tell from the limited information I have seen about Curtis Todd Overstreet to discern whether he’s running as a D or an R. I’m sure that will be clear enough soon. I can say the same about Harry Zamora running for Sheriff, I can’t tell his party just yet. Joe Danna is a Republican who has run for Constable in Precinct 1 a couple of times. His amount raised is not as impressive as it looks – about half of the total is in-kind donations for a fundraiser, and nearly half of the actual cash he got was a single $25K donation from Janice McNair.

Beyond that, not much we didn’t already know. I’m sure there will be a lot more raised in Commissioners Court Precinct 3, and for sure there will be more candidates. At some point I need to take a closer look at the Constable and JP races, because those are another good source of Dem takeover opportunities. For now, this is where we are.

The local response (so far) to the ICE raids

This is good.

Houston’s top elected and law-enforcement officials sharply criticized federal authorities’ plans to arrest large numbers of immigrant families living without legal permission in major U.S. cities, contending that the raids targeting groups of recent arrivals would harm public safety and risk separating children from their parents.

Mayor Sylvester Turner and Police Chief Art Acevedo took to nationally broadcast programs to weigh in against the raids, which are set to begin as early as Sunday in at least 10 cities, including Houston. Officials from Immigration and Customs Enforcement appear likely to target immigrants who recently crossed the border and have been issued a final order of deportation.

“It’s one thing if the focus of these raids is on people with criminal records, people who have committed violent crimes, people who are part of gangs,” Turner said earlier this week on NPR’s All Things Considered.

The raids should not aim to deport people “who have been here for quite some time,” Turner continued, if “their crime is only coming here to seek a better way of living or to provide a better opportunity for their families.”

[…]

Harris County Sheriff Ed Gonzalez said his office would not participate in the raids, arguing that local involvement would “drive undocumented families further into the shadows” and damage community safety.

“It silences witnesses & victims & (would) further worsen the challenges law enforcement officials face,” Gonzalez, a Democrat, said in a tweet.

Harris County Judge Lina Hidalgo issued a statement containing information about the legal rights that people retain when interacting with ICE agents, such as their right to not answer the door if the agents do not present a warrant.

“These raids seek to subvert our sense of community by putting the very heart of Harris County, our diversity, in the cross-hairs of a shameful political maneuver,” said Hidalgo, a Democrat elected last year.

Turner issued a fresh statement Saturday saying the city would continue to offer services to all residents “regardless of who they are, where they are from, or their documentation status.” ICE had yet to contact the city about the raids, the mayor added.

“The president’s order for concentrated ICE raids against immigrant families in Houston and elsewhere stands against everything we represent as a welcoming city,” Turner said.

This is also good.

U.S. Rep. Sheila Jackson Lee met with faith leaders in Houston on Saturday to invite undocumented immigrants to seek refuge in churches, mosques and synagogues and call on religious organizations to open their doors ahead of Sunday’s anticipated deportation roundup by Immigration and Customs Enforcement officers.

“It is to my dismay that I have to come home to find many of those who live in my jurisdiction, my constituency, are panicked, frightened and in fear of their lives,” said Jackson Lee, a Houston Democrat. “I say to the federal authorities: that you are well aware and on notice that you are not able to come into a church and demand anyone that is a representative of the faith to give anyone to anyone.”

Jackson Lee gathered with faith and local leaders Saturday afternoon at the Living Water International Apolistic Ministries in Houston. The ministry, along with half a dozen other churches, announced it would shelter undocumented immigrants on Sunday who fear they are in danger of being taken by ICE.

“We want to be a beacon of light for those who may be in fear. So when I got the call, I couldn’t do anything but accept,” said Apostle Robert Stearns, leader of Living Water. “There is nothing strange to us in doing this. This is our heart and our passion.”

It’s a good start. Now we need to be ready for whatever the response to this is.

Joint processing center opens

This was a long time coming, but it should be worth the wait.

More than a decade after city voters approved a bond measure to fund it, Houston and Harris County opened a joint inmate processing center Thursday that officials say will eliminate the redundant practice of booking inmates at the city jail before transferring them to the county lockup.

The downtown center, replete with a digital processing system, open booking areas and dormitory-style units, was designed to be more efficient and to square with the city and county’s evolving attitude on criminal justice, officials said.

“This streamlined, expedited booking process is a true game-changer for Harris County law enforcement families,” Sheriff Ed Gonzalez told a roomful of elected officials and law enforcement officers at the new facility Thursday. “Every minute an officer spends escorting a prisoner through the intake process is another minute that they’re off the street keeping our neighborhood safe.”

For years, Houston police have booked suspects at one of two city jails, before transferring them to the Harris County Jail and booking them again. Eliminating the excess work is anticipated to free up about 100 police officers assigned to jail duty.

The city is set to cover 30 percent of the facility’s annual operating costs, amounting to about $14.5 million, said Andy Icken, Houston’s chief development officer.

[…]

The facility’s new digital booking system means officers will be freed from much of the paperwork that typically bogs them down. Officers also no longer will have to escort suspects across public streets, Gonzalez said, because they will be able to park in a sallyport attached to the building. He estimated officers would be in and out of the center within 20 minutes.

The facility, located across from the Baker Street Jail on San Jacinto Street, covers 246,000 square feet and will begin processing detainees Saturday.

See here for the previous update, which was in 2015 when ground was broken following the successful 2013 bond referendum. A 2007 county referendum that would have built more jail space had been voted down, and boy howdy does that look like a good decision in retrospect. This will get people processed through faster, and will cost less to operate. I just hope it won’t be prone to flooding. Kudos all around for finally getting this done.

More road safety, please

Seems like a good idea.

Sheriff Ed Gonzalez

Harris County Sheriff Ed Gonzalez [last] Tuesday called on local law enforcement agencies to devote more resources to improving road safety and to create a new region-wide task force dedicated to reducing the Houston area’s alarming number of road fatalities.

Gonzalez said past efforts have been too isolated, allowing problems to go unchecked despite individual efforts from local departments. The proposed task force would meet monthly.

“Everybody is doing something, but we lacked a coordinated effort to tackle this in a sustainable way,” Gonzalez said at a summit on road safety that brought together law enforcement officials, engineers, medical professionals and other traffic-safety advocates.

The formation of the task force follows a 2018 Houston Chronicle investigation, “Out of Control,” which found that the Houston region has the nation’s most dangerous roads. Harris County leads the nation in impaired driving, and the region has more than 600 fatal crashes a year, the Chronicle found.

Gonzalez asked local departments to try to assign three employees to targeted traffic-enforcement initiatives every month for a year — focusing on areas with a high frequency of speeding or crashes; issuing more warnings to motorists driving dangerously; and trying to deter impaired driving.

The impact of those efforts would be re-evaluated after a year, Gonzalez said.

“This is just kind of a starting point, to get stakeholders in the room,” Gonzalez said, noting after the meeting that similar collaborations usually only occur on high-traffic weekends. “We want to make sure we’re visible, and not just performing spot enforcement — and make it more sustainable.”

See here for some background. We really need to think of road safety as a public health issue. If you live in Houston for any length of time, you’ve either been involved in a serious collision or you know someone who has. We can only do so much about traffic, but we can definitely do more about the insane levels of speeding on the highways, and I say that as someone who usually takes highway speed limit signs as suggestions. Let’s check back in a year and see how this effort has gone.

Bail lawsuit 2.0

This one will be tougher to tackle, but the principle remains the same.

A hard-fought battle to reform Harris County’s bail system has prompted a second civil rights action.

The legal team that successfully challenged the county’s bail practices for low level offenses on the grounds they unfairly detained indigents, filed a new federal class action suit this week tackling money bail for felonies, which results in thousands of poor defendants being locked up before trial or entering guilty pleas to avoid lengthy incarceration.

This new lawsuit, which hit the docket during the Martin Luther King Jr. Day holiday, claims the county is holding people unjustly, simply because they cannot afford to pay a cash bail. Currently, people arrested who can post a cash bond or hire a commercial bonding company can simply resume their lives as their cases proceed through the criminal docket.

The lawyers argue that pretrial release should not be contingent on how much money a person has. Its one of a number of lawsuits around the country, including one before a district judge in Galveston, attempting to topple bail systems that treat people differently based on their income.

“This mass detention caused by arrestees’ inability to access money has devastating consequences for arrested individuals, for their families, and for the community,” the lawsuit argues. “Pretrial detention of presumptively innocent individuals causes them to lose their jobs and shelter, interrupts vital medication cycles, worsens mental health conditions, makes people working to remain sober more likely to relapse, and separates parents and children.”

[…]

The lawsuit noted there are human costs to keeping people in jail. Since 2009, the complaint stated, 125 people have died while awaiting trial in the county lockup, including a woman who committed suicide this month after she could not pay her original bail of $3,000.

“Now is the time for a new vision and a new era of collaboration and innovation,” the lawyers said in a joint statement to the Houston Chronicle. “We are confident that with the leadership of the county judge, the sheriff, the district attorney, the public defender, and the felony judges, all of whom have expressed their commitment to bail reform, we will be able to resolve this case without wasting millions of dollars of taxpayer money as happened in the prior case.”

Most of the key stakeholders struck a similar note in responding to the new lawsuit.

Tom Berg, first assistant to District Attorney Kim Ogg,said the office is glad to work with the parties toward “a fair, just and speedy resolution” and at the same time “responsibly conserve the county’s resources so that they go for the staffing needed for bail reform implementation and not litigation costs.”

County Judge Lina Hidalgo said the county aims to support public safety, fairness and a cost-effective, fiscally responsible system. She acknowledged that there’s a long way to go.

“We’ve got a system that in a way fails on all three fronts,” she said Tuesday. Hidalgo said the crop of newly elected officials seem dedicated to enacting these types of change.

The sheriff also mentioned safety concerns, saying felony bail improvements require careful examination. However, he lauded the idea of reforming what he has referred to as a “broken system.”

“I support all efforts to improve our criminal justice system that strike a smart balance between our duty to ensure public safety and upholding our American ideal that everyone is presumed innocent until proven guilty in court,” Gonzalez said. “I support equipping judges with the data they need to accurately measure each defendant’s unique risk of failing to appear in court and committing additional crimes before they stand trial.”

Of the three plaintiffs in this lawsuit, two were busted for drug possession and the other for DUI. There’s still a lot of non-violent inmates in the jail awaiting disposition of their case because they couldn’t scrape up a bond payment. As with misdemeanants, the ability to write a check to a bail bond agency has no correlation with whether you will show up for your court date or if you are likely to commit further crimes while out. Again, Robert Durst was out on bail. It makes sense to separate the genuine risks from the harmless shlubs. Will such a system be perfect? No, of course not. Some people who get out on a personal recognizance bond are going to turn out to have been bad risks. But again – I can’t say this often enough – people do that right now, under the current system. We just accept it as the way things are. Well, the way things are is capricious, unjust, and almost certainly unconstitutional, as the system for misdemeanors was as well. We’ll never have a better chance to design a better system. Let’s get to it.

We really are about to do away with the old cash bail system

I have four things to say about this.

The new slate of Democratic judges has approved a drastic revision to Harris County’s bail system that could serve as a model for a settlement in the historic lawsuit in which a federal judge found the county’s judicial rulings unjustly relegated poor people arrested on minor offenses to jail because they couldn’t afford costly bonds.

The 15 new court-at-law judges and new presiding Democrat who was not up for election voted Wednesday on the new bail protocol that will affect thousands. They have spent weeks hammering out a plan with the sheriff, the district attorney and county leadership and will ask the federal court this week to implement it as a foundation for a settlement.

County Court at Law Judge Darrell Jordan, the presiding judge, estimates that 85 percent of people arrested on misdemeanors will now qualify to be released after arrest on no-cash bonds, with a few exceptions for people who must await a hearing – for up to 48 hours – for bond violations, repeat drunken driving offenses and domestic violence charges. At that point, they may also qualify for personal recognizance bonds.

“What it means is that no one will be in jail because they cannot afford to get out,” Jordan said. “The only people who will be detained and have to speak to a judge are a very small subset who will be processed through the Harris County Jail and those carve outs are aligned with best practices from around the country.”

The change was widely celebrated.

“It’s a big day for Harris County,” said attorney Allan Van Fleet, who represents the judges in the federal lawsuit. “It will make Harris County safer and more equal and provide more efficient processing of people accused of misdemeanors.”

1. Elections have consequences. I almost can’t believe this is actually about to happen.

2. Just a reminder, many of the people now in the jail are there awaiting trial. They have not been convicted of anything. Many others like them in the past never were convicted of anything, and many more pled guilty to something so they could get out. This will ensure there are far, far fewer people like them in the future.

3. The question of who was in jail awaiting trial and who was not was always largely about financial wherewithal, not about risk and danger to society. Remember, Robert Durst was granted bail.

4. One hopes that having far fewer inmates, many of whom don’t need to be there, will allow us to do a better job of ensuring the safety of those inmates, and enabling the jail to meet state standards. No more inmate suicides, please. We really need to do better than that.

You know, there is a cheaper way to do this

Why are we still outsourcing inmates?

County commissioners next week will consider a proposal to outsource inmates to the Fort Bend County Jail, which would allow Harris County Sheriff Ed Gonzalez to slow — but not stop — the flow of inmates to a private prison in Louisiana.

The deal would bring as many as several hundred inmates closer to their families and attorneys, but would cost Harris County more than twice as much as shipping prisoners to Jackson Parish, La. It would also fail to address the root causes of overcrowding at the Harris County Jail, one of the nation’s largest, and prolong an elaborate game of musical chairs as the sheriff searches for jails to take his inmates.

Harris County’s 10,162 inmates are already spread across five facilities in Texas and Louisiana. It currently outsources 724 inmates, more than twice as many as any other Texas county.

[…]

“If there’s a desire to bring inmates closer to Harris County, this is the best deal we’ve been able to find so far,” said Harris County Sheriff’s Office spokesman Jason Spencer. “It doesn’t fully address the outsourcing issue, but it chips away at it.”

Harris County pays $29.33 per inmate, per day at Jackson Parish Correctional Center, with transport included. Fort Bend’s per diem is $55.00, and Harris County would also have to pay for transport. Spencer said the additional costs would push the county’s total monthly inmate outsourcing bill to around $1 million.

The jail had stopped farming out inmates in 2017 but a backlog in the courts following Harvey led to a surplus of people in the jail, and so here we are today. The monthly cost of doing so now is more than $500K, which will go up to about $1 million with the more expensive Fort Bend option. That may not be a choice as defense attorneys in Harris County have asked the Court of Criminal Appeals to bar sending inmates out of state. I know you know but I’m going to say anyway that if we had fewer inmates in the jail – and remember, the lion’s share of these inmates have not been convicted of any crime – we wouldn’t need to spend this money. It’s a choice we’re making, one we’ve been making for way too many years. At least we get to make another choice this November.

If I had a boat…

I wouldn’t have used it to go Harvey-watching. Where does he get this crap?

President Donald Trump praised the Coast Guard for its heroics during Hurricane Harvey Wednesday, but credited the high number of water rescues to people taking their boats out to watch the storm roll in, baffling first responders.

Trump was on a conference call with state and federal leaders in preparation for another dreadful hurricane season. During the call, Trump thanked the Coast Guard for their service in helping save 16,000 people after Harvey, Hurricane Maria and other storms. The Coast Guard doesn’t “get enough credit,” Trump said.

“Sixteen thousand people, many of them in Texas, for whatever reason that is. People went out in their boats to watch the hurricane,” Trump said. “That didn’t work out too well.”

Harris County Sheriff Ed Gonzalez took umbrage with the president’s remarks, crediting civilians with making an “extraordinary effort” with their own boats to rescue neighbors, relatives and pets as Hurricane Harvey flooded the Texas coast with 52 inches of rain last year.

“I didn’t see anyone taking the approach that would reflect his comments,” Gonzalez said. “I’ll be sure to invite the president to ride out the next hurricane in a jon boat in Galveston Bay the next time one approaches,” he added.

No one could explain the president’s comment.

When asked by the Houston Chronicle to confirm if Texans were out on boats gawking at the storm, Texas Gov. Greg Abbott said he had “no information one way or another about that.”

Coast Guard Petty Officer Edward Wargo said: “I don’t know how we would go about confirming that,” when asked for evidence.

“I don’t even know how to respond to that,” said Marty Lancton, president of the Houston Professional Fire Fighters Association.

In another reality, I’d just assume Donald Trump is stoned. In this world, there’s no point in trying to explain anything he says or does. He lies and he makes shit up, and that’s all there is to it. The Associated Press has more, but I can’t leave it like this. I need something to cleanse my palate.

There. Much better now.

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.

Project Orange

This is a good thing.

Still the only voter ID anyone should need

This past Friday, January 12th, Harris County Sheriff Ed Gonzalez held a press conference along with Houston Justice representative Charnelle Thompson and Harris County Tax Office Communication and Media Relations Director Tracy Baskin, to announce what many are calling the most ambitious effort ever undertaken to help qualified incarcerated citizens register to vote who are currently in the Harris County Jail. That initiative is called Project Orange.

Project Orange is the brainchild of Houston Justice co-founder and Executive Director Durrel Douglas, whose first job out of high school was as a prison guard at a Texas prison. Douglas was moved to start this initiative after seeing how incarcerated individuals, who happened to make a mistake in their lives, were treated before and after being behind those prison bars.

“When we sat down to plan Project Orange, our goal was to reach out to eligible voters who are often ignored,” said Douglas. “When people have paid their debt to society, they should be able to rebuild their lives. Point blank…we want as many eligible voters to register, and vote. I don’t care what party they prefer, or which candidates or issues drive them. Our goal was, and continues to be to engage as many citizens as possible.”

As part of the Project Orange initiative, for four consecutive Sundays, beginning this past weekend, volunteers from Houston Justice will be escorted through the jail with voter registration cards that qualified inmates will be able to fill out. In addition, Houston Justice is staffing voter registration booths in the visitation waiting areas at the 1200 Baker Street and at the 701 San Jacinto locations.

“In our first Sunday, we registered 100 new voters,” said Douglas. “We have three more Sundays to go for our inaugural push. In the future, we plan to do this in other cities across the state as well.”

“Qualified” means just what it says – people who are legally eligible to register to vote. As the story notes, some 70% of people in the Harris County jail have not yet been convicted of anything. Many of them will not be convicted of anything, and many of the rest will plead to or be convicted of a misdemeanor. All of them have as much right to vote as you and I do. And if you still don’t like the idea of a dedicated effort to register a bunch of mostly low-level inmates at the jail, I have good news for you: You can support bail reform, so that there are far fewer of those inmates in one convenient place at a time to be registered. It’s a win-win.

Still a few bugs in the system

A continuing story.

While Harris County officials are complaining that a federal judge’s bail order threatens public safety, the county has failed to provide more than 100 low-level defendants with pretrial services aimed at ensuring they make their court dates.

The latest revelations come amid criticism from District Attorney Kim Ogg, who accused county officials of trying to deliberately undermine the success of defendants released on personal bonds to bolster the county’s argument.

“Clearly the hope is that the reformed bail process fails,” Ogg said in a June 30 email obtained by the Chronicle. “This is necessarily a violation of their ethical duty and certainly not in the best interest of ordinary Harris County citizens.”

Ogg’s email did not identify which officials she believed might be responsible, and her office referred a request for additional comment to a court filing in which she supported changes to the county’s cash-bail system for misdemeanor offenses.

[…]

By missing court, the defendants also miss out on the assistance provided by the county’s Pre-Trial Services Division, such as text reminders about upcoming court dates that other defendants get seven days in advance and again on the day of the hearing.

Kelvin Banks, director of pretrial services, said a vendor, Voice4Net, manages the text messages for the county. He said his office is working with the vendor to set up reminders for those who are released by the sheriff, and is moving forward with plans for an additional staff member and training at the jail.

He said Monday he was reviewing resumes.

“We want to make sure we’re doing everything we can do to give defendants the best opportunity to be succesful on pretrial release,” Banks said.

Another vendor, called Uptrust, met with county officials on June 28, two days before Ogg sent her email, proposing a two-way messaging system that allows defendants to respond and provides information on childcare options and transportation.

It’s a little hard to say what is going on here, based on this story. There’s a lot of he-said/she-said in there. My basic premise all along is that the county has very little credibility on this issue, so I generally discount the complaints from Commissioners and judges about how hard this all is and how they’re Doing Their Very Best and Just Need A Little More Time and so on and so forth. Every action by the county – specifically, by those who continue to fight to support the status quo – is one of foot-dragging and reluctance to make changes, even small ones. I’ve yet to see a show of good faith. If we ever get to that point, then maybe I’ll take their complaints seriously. Until then, I say quit whining and do what the judge ordered you to do.

SCOTUS will not hear Harris County bail appeal

Let this please be the end of the line.

U.S. Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas has denied Harris County’s request to stop the release of misdemeanor inmates who can’t afford to post cash bail.

The county had appealed late Tuesday to halt Chief U.S. District Judge Lee H. Rosenthal’s directive that it begin releasing some inmates accused of misdemeanor crimes who cannot afford bail. That order had gone into effect Tuesday, and continued Wednesday, while Thomas considered the county’s application.

Thomas’s denial means some inmates will continue to be released on personal recognizance ahead of their trials if they cannot afford bail. The county still has the option to ask another justice or the full Supreme Court to reconsider Thomas’s denial. Often follow-up requests to other justices are referred to the full court, according to the public information office for the Supreme Court.

Meanwhile, an appeals court is also considering the county’s appeal of Rosenthal’s full order.

See here for the background. The full Chron story has more details.

Chief U.S. District Judge Lee Rosenthal in Houston issued a 193-page ruling in April that the county’s bail system was unconstitutional and ordered the release of indigent misdemeanor defendants using personal bonds.

The 5th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals on Tuesday morning rejected the county’s efforts to halt Rosenthal’s injunction while they challenged the full ruling in court. The county filed the same day for emergency consideration before the U.S. Supreme Court.

The latest legal blow left county officials weighing their options and refocusing efforts on challenging the larger order from Rosenthal, said First Assistant County Attorney Robert Soard.

The county still has the option to ask another justice or the full Supreme Court to reconsider Thomas’ ruling. Follow-up requests to other justices often are referred to the full court, according to the high court’s public information office.

Harris County District Attorney Kim Ogg – whose office has already begun supporting personal bonds for misdemeanors – praised the court’s decision.

“There is no longer any legal reason why the county cannot comply with Judge Lee Rosenthal’s order,” she said, in a written statement. “Holding people in jail solely because they are poor violates due process, and the courts at every level of our federal judiciary have clearly spoken.”

[…]

Precinct 3 County Commissioner Steve Radack said the county wants a chance to complete its reforms without federal intervention.

“I want the end result to be fairness, and that’s what we have been striving for,” Radack said. “I don’t think you can always get court-ordered fairness.”

The bail bond industry has also opposed the order, which will release thousands of potential clients without requiring them to post bond.

Veteran bondsman Carlos Manzano, of Americas Bail Bonds, said he and many of his colleagues believe the overuse of personal bonds will create a dangerous situation for the community.

“It’s kind of like just like giving everybody a slap on the hand,” he said. “It’s going to blow up in the county’s face. It’s just a ticking time bomb.”

[…]

Legal experts said the county has just about used up all its options in challenging Rosenthal’s order.

“There’s no question that Justice Thomas has concluded that there isn’t clear and obvious irreparable harm to the state if the stay isn’t granted,” said Lonny Hoffman, a professor at the University of Houston Law Center who specializes in federal procedure.

Sarah R. Guidry, executive director of the Earl Carl Institute for Legal and Social Policy at the Thurgood Marshall School of Law at Texas Southern University, said Thomas’ rejection of the county’s appeal will force local changes.

“This is going to put a fire under the county to figure out how to implement this,” she said. “It’s also going to have a huge impact on the bail bonds industry. They’re going to have to figure out a different way to make a living. They’re not going the get the bulk of their income off of poor people who are charged with low-level crimes.”

You know where I stand on this, so you know what I think of those BS fearmongering arguments from Steve Radack and the bail bond people. But hey, if I’m wrong then we’ll find out, because the county now has no choice but to comply. And when we find out that they’re the ones that are wrong and that nothing too bad happens, then what exactly will be the point of continuing to appeal? Settle now and save whatever dignity and lawyers’ fees we still can. It’s the only rational option. Lisa Falkenberg has more.

Fifth Circuit reinstates bail order

Good.

Harris County took the fight over its controversial bail system to the U.S. Supreme Court on Tuesday, even as county officials scrambled to plan the imminent release of dozens of misdemeanor defendants held behind bars who cannot afford to post cash bail.

A federal appeals court ruling earlier Tuesday had greenlighted the release of hundreds of poor inmates held in the Harris County Jail on misdemeanor charges ahead of their trials, and Sheriff Ed Gonzalez prepared for the release of as many as 177 people starting Wednesday morning.

But in an emergency filing late Tuesday with the nation’s highest court, Harris County asked for another halt to the ruling by Chief U.S. District Judge Lee H. Rosenthal.

The county’s request went to Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas, who handles appeals requests from the 5th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals. Thomas can either rule on the matter himself or take it to the full court, according to the county attorney’s office.

“In the absence of a stay, the district court’s order that Harris County — the third-largest jurisdiction in the nation — immediately release without sufficient surety untold numbers of potentially dangerous arrestees is certain to cause irreparable harm,” the county’s appeal states.

[…]

The appeal to the Supreme Court came at the end of a whirlwind day for the county in a closely watched case targeting a bail system in which poor people accused of low-level misdemeanors frequently are kept in jail because they can’t afford to post cash bail while awaiting trial.

On Tuesday morning, a three-judge panel from the 5th Circuit Court determined that Rosenthal’s ruling would remain in effect until the case goes to trial. The ruling set in motion the release of up to 177 misdemeanor detainees, who do not have money to pay cash bail and who do not have other restrictions such as mental health evaluations or federal detainers.

The inmates affected by the ruling account for about 2 percent of the total jail population of 8,800, sheriff’s officials said.

The county will comply with Rosenthal’s order until the U.S. Supreme Court weighs in.

“We know we all have to follow the order of a federal district court,” said Robert Soard, the first assistant county attorney. “We’re working with both the sheriff and pretrial services, and we’re going to try to accomplish that as seamlessly as we can.”

The sheriff’s office expected to begin releasing qualified inmates early Wednesday.

“It doesn’t mean that 177 people will walk out,” said Jason Spencer, spokesman for the sheriff. “That would be the absolute highest number. In all likelihood it will be less than that.”

See here for the background. I’m a little short on time, but you know where I stand on this. I’m rooting for Justice Thomas to decline to take up the county’s appeal, and I look forward to the county having to comply with the order. Maybe then we can finally bring this matter to a close. A statement from the Texas Organizing Project is beneath the fold.

(more…)

Harris County bail order halted

Very late in the day on Friday.

A federal appeals court granted Harris County a last-minute reprieve Friday in a contentious civil rights lawsuit, calling a temporary halt to a judge’s order that would have altered the way cash bail is handled for hundreds of people jailed on misdemeanor charges.

In an order posted after the courthouse closed Friday, the 5th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals granted the request of the county’s teams of lawyers to stop the order – set to take effect Monday – until the appeals court can further review the matter.

A three-judge panel of the court notes the temporary halt to the order was issued “in light of the lack of time before the district court’s injunction will take effect and in order to allow full consideration of the following motions and any responses thereto.”

First Assistant County Attorney Robert Soard said the ruling will give the court time to fully consider the issues.

“The county attorney is pleased that the 5th Circuit has granted the stay to give us more time to work toward a settlement that is in the interest of all the people of Harris County,” he said late Friday. “They said, ‘Let’s just stop a minute.'”

Neal Manne, who is among the lawyers representing the inmates, said he respects the temporary ruling.

“We have great confidence that Judge Rosenthal’s decision and injunction will eventually be upheld,” he said.

Criminal Court at Law Judge Darrell Jordan – who was the only judge who did not want to appeal the decision – was disappointed with the appeals court decision.

“I don’t know why we’re still fighting this,” he said. “Millions of dollars of Harris County money is going to be wasted.”

As you know, I agree entirely with that sentiment. I had also drafted and prepared a longer post on Friday on the assumption that the Fifth Circuit would not halt Judge Rosenthal’s order. I saw this story before I went to bed and took this post off the schedule for yesterday, swearing under my breath about the late change. In the interest of not throwing away what I had already written, I’ve got that post beneath the fold. This is what I would have run if the Fifth Circuit hadn’t intervened. I have faith that once they do have a hearing they will reverse themselves, but until then we wait.

(more…)

Harris County will continue to fight bail lawsuit

Stupid. Stupid, stupid, stupid.

Harris County has appealed a federal civil rights lawsuit that challenged the county’s bail system, despite rising legal costs that have neared $3 million.

After a heated discussion and a closed-door meeting Tuesday, Harris County Commissioners Court voted 4-1 to appeal the suit and to ask for a delay to a May 15 start date that would require the county to consider an inmate’s ability to pay when setting bail.

The stay was filed after the meeting and Chief U.S. District Judge Lee H. Rosenthal promptly issued an order giving all parties until 5 p.m. Wednesday to respond to the defendants’ request for a stay.

Elizabeth Rossi, an attorney from Civil Rights Corps, who represents indigent defendants held in jail because they cannot afford their bail rates said her clients “are disappointed to learn that the county and the judges are appealing Chief Judge Rosenthal’s thorough and comprehensive decision but we are confident that every judge to review it will agree with her and uphold it.” Rossi said her team would “vigorously” oppose a motion for a stay.

County leaders also urged their legal representatives to continue trying to settle the lawsuit, which had led to an order from Rosenthal declaring the county’s system unconstitutional.

“We believe the system she wants to implement is arguably not legal,” County Attorney Vince Ryan said.

Precinct 1 Commissioner Rodney Ellis, who has pushed for settlement, cast the the lone vote against the decision to appeal.

“This is really asking the court to give you the funds to appeal,” he said.

Sheriff Ed Gonzalez, who is a named defendant in the lawsuit, also opposes the appeal. He declined to join the other defendants Tuesday in appealing the order, explaining after the Commissioners Court meeting, “We’re just going to move forward to implement it the best way possible and see what all these other proceedings lead to.”

I’m angry about this. It is a huge waste of time and money in pursuit of an unjust resolution. Everyone who supports this needs to be voted out. I don’t know what else to say.

County considers its bail options

I can think of one, if they need some help.

With just two weeks until the 193-page order from Chief U.S. District Judge Lee H. Rosenthal kicks in May 15, county officials are working to draft a plan to deal with the hundreds of misdemeanor offenders now behind bars and the new cases filed each day.

County officials and more than a dozen lawyers spent Monday in meetings deciding whether to appeal the order, said Robert Soard, first assistant at the Harris County Attorney’s Office. He said he anticipates the legal team will have a recommendation about whether to appeal before the next Commissioners Court session May 9.

Jason Spencer, spokesman for Sheriff Ed Gonzalez, said the changes will require collaboration among multiple agencies to comply with the ruling so quickly.

“It’s not just a flipping of a switch and now we can do these things,” he said. “It takes time and planning to put new systems in place that weren’t there before.”

Paula Goodhart, administrative judge for the misdemeanor courts, was also among those in the meetings.

“Like everyone else, we’re still trying to process it,” Goodhart said.

Goodhart declined to answer questions specific to the lawsuit, because she is one of the defendants. Instead, she spoke about changes that have been in the works for the past two years to reform the county bail system.

“We do recognize that low- and moderate-risk people should be out pending trial,” she said. “We just want to balance public safety with individual liberty interests.”

On any given day, between 350 and 500 people-about 5.5 percent-of the jail population are awaiting trial on misdemeanors. But about 50,000 people are arrested in Harris County on misdemeanors each year, so the number of people who would not have to pay a bondsman or plead guilty to get out of jail could be in the tens of thousands.

County budget officer Bill Jackson said his office is working to understand how many people may be released by the judge’s order and how much that could reduce the cost of incarceration at the overcrowded jail.

“This is such a moving target,” Jackson said. “There’s just way too many ‘what-ifs’ and variables.”

See here for the background. I can’t help with the what-ifs and the variables, but I can give them one solid piece of advice: Don’t appeal. Save your money on the high-priced lawyers and start implementing what the judge ordered. The county will save a bunch of money by not having so many people in jail, and with that there will be fewer deaths, fewer rapes, fewer allegations of brutality against the guards, and so on. There will also be a higher general level of justice in the county, with fewer people forced out of work and fewer people spending money they don’t have on bail bondsmen and court costs. Less cost, less death, more justice. Someone help me out here, what is it we have to think about here?

Some officials, however, bristled Monday at the judge’s opinion,which was handed down late Friday.

Precinct 4 Commissioner Jack Cagle said the ruling was an example of a federal judge changing Texas law. Precinct 3 Commissioner Steve Radack wondered whether the release of inmates could impact public safety.

“Just because somebody has been charged with a Class B or A misdemeanor doesn’t mean that’s a person that’s a real nice person, that’s real trustworthy and hasn’t been involved in an active assault,” Radack said.

Take your two-bit scare tactics and tell it to Judges Hecht and Keller, guys. And settle the damn lawsuit.

Harris County bail system ruled unconstitutional

Damn right.

A federal judge in Houston Friday issued a scathing denouncement of Harris County’s cash bail system, saying it is fundamentally unfair to detain indigent people arrested for low-level offenses simply because they can’t afford to pay bail.

In a 193-page ruling released Friday, Chief U.S. District Judge Lee H. Rosenthal ordered the county to begin releasing indigent inmates May 15 while they await trial on misdemeanor offenses.

Rosenthal concluded the county’s bail policy violates the due process and equal protection clauses of the Constitution.

“Liberty is precious to Americans and any deprivation must be scrutinized,” the order states, citing a comment from Texas Supreme Court Chief Justice Nathan Hecht.

The judge also granted “class-action” status to the case, meaning that her findings will apply to all misdemeanor defendants taken into custody.

The ruling – a temporary injunction that will remain in place until the lawsuit is resolved pending appeal – will not apply to those charged with felonies, or those who are being detained on other charges or holds.

First Assistant County Attorney Robert Soard said late Friday officials are reviewing the orders.

“No decision has been made at this time concerning an appeal of the preliminary injunction,” he said.

See here for the background, and here for a copy of the ruling. Grits highlights a key aspect of it.

Judge Rosenthal heard testimony from the Hearing Officers setting bail amounts on the front lines and poignantly found them non-credible: “The Hearing Officers’ testimony that they do not ‘know’ whether imposing secured money bail will have the effect of detention in any given case … and their testimony that they do not intend that secured money bail have that effect, is not credible.” In fact, she attributed “little to no credibility in the Hearing Officers’ claims of careful case-by-case consideration.” In the hearings she watched, they “treat the bail schedule, if not binding, then as a nearly irrebuttable presumption in favor of applying secured money bail at the prescheduled amount.”

If Judge Rosenthal were Politfact columnist, she’d be giving the Hearing Officers a “Pants on Fire” rating. To the extent that appellate courts must rely on her credibility assessments, and on many topics, they must, those lines may well preclude quite a few appellate paths for the defendants.

Her critique extended beyond the Hearing Officers, though to elected judges acting as “policymakers” overseeing Harris’ County pretrial-detention mill, whom she found to be willfully and conveniently ignorant about the human impact of they system they’re running:

policymakers are apparently unaware of important facts about the bail-bond system in Harris County, yet they have devised and implemented bail practices and customs, having the force of policy, with no inquiry into whether the bail policy is a reasonable way to achieve the goals of assuring appearance at trial or law-abiding behavior before trial. In addition to the absence of any information about the relative performance of secured and unsecured conditions of release to achieve these goals, the policymakers have testified under oath that their policy would not change despite evidence showing that release on unsecured personal bonds or with no financial conditions is no less effective than release on secured money bail at achieving the goals of appearance at trial or avoidance of new criminal activity during pretrial release.

That’s exactly right – they’re not going to change unless somebody makes them, and Judge Rosenthal clearly has decided she’s that somebody.

I would note that all of those elected judges are Republicans (*), and they are all up for re-election next year, so there is another way to force a change here. In the meantime, I have to ask again, why are we even still fighting this? What principle are we defending? Why are we writing checks to fat cat Washington DC Republican lawyers to “advise” on whether or not to appeal? Stop the madness and stop wasting my tax dollars on this crap, and settle the damn lawsuit already. It’s the right thing to do on every level. District Attorney Kim Ogg wants to settle. Sheriff Ed Gonzalez wants to settle. Commissioner Rodney Ellis wants to settle. Everyone else needs to get in line.

(*) The judges in question preside over the County Courts, where misdemeanors are heard. County Court Judge Darrell Jordan, who was elected in 2016 to fill a newly-created bench, is the lone Democrat. He also is the lone judge to favor settling.

Commissioners get testy over bail practices lawsuit

Let’s hash it all out.

Sen. Rodney Ellis

Tensions flared at Harris County Commissioners Court Tuesday after new Commissioner Rodney Ellis filed legal papers supporting civil rights groups in their high-profile federal lawsuit against the county and its bail system.

In a rare public argument before dozens of onlookers at the meeting Tuesday, Ellis’ colleagues — all Republicans — took issue with his action, with some calling the move unprecedented and insinuating that the county attorney should consider whether Ellis could be excluded from private discussions about the lawsuit in the future.

“I’m concerned about how this impacts commissioners court, impacts executive sessions,” said Precinct 3 Commissioner Steve Radack, who represents western and northwestern portions of the county, including Katy and Cypress. “I’ve never been through something like this before.”

The exchange shows how the lawsuit has exposed new fissures in county government. Ellis, a former state senator, says he is making good on a promise to shake up the traditionally quiet, non-combative style of the governing board of the country’s third-largest county, with strategies he says have successfully helped him in a Republican-dominated state Legislature.

After the meeting, Ellis defended his actions, saying he would be prepared to take legal action if he were excluded from executive sessions. Without the lawsuit, he said, the system would not have changed.

“If it were not for politics and pressure, the administrators here in the county would still be administering for decades,” he said.

[…]

Ellis’ brief offers to help Chief U.S. District Judge Lee H. Rosenthal assess the collateral impact that cash bail has for poor, mentally ill and homeless people and African-Americans — who are jailed at disproportionately greater rates and suffer extreme economic harms when they spend time behind bars.

In addition, the brief says, lengthy jail time impacts their legal prospects and their health. It mentions the example of Sandra Bland, a black motorist arrested in Waller County after a traffic stop, who committed suicide after spending a weekend in jail on a bond she could not afford.

The civil rights groups’ remedy for Harris County is “eminently feasible, cost-efficient, and narrowly-tailored,” and is consistent with the county’s ongoing aims to improve bail practices, the brief says.

See here for the most recent update; we are still waiting for a ruling on an injunction. I get the concerns expressed by Commissioners Radack and Cagle and Judge Emmett. It is undoubtedly a weird place for Commissioners Court to be to not be all rowing in the same direction. Of course, the Sheriff and District Attorney are also in favor of settling the lawsuit and implementing the reforms the plaintiffs are seeking. It’s true that Harris County has been moving in the direction of some of these reforms and that some good has already been done, but it’s also true that the problems have been there for decades, and none of these reforms were put in place before the lawsuit was filed. Given the amount of money that has already been spent by the county defending against the lawsuit and the likelihood of losing, seeking to settle and get to the real work sooner rather than later sure seems like a viable strategy to me. What exactly is it the county is fighting for at this point?

Bail practices lawsuit wraps up

It’s up to the judge now.

The call by two civil rights groups for an immediate fix to Harris County’s bail system is now in the hands of a federal judge after high-stakes arguments over whether poor people should remain in jail on misdemeanor offenses because they can’t afford to post bail.

Key criminal justice leaders in the county – including the sheriff, district attorney, public defender, misdemeanor judges and hearing officers – have weighed in on a lawsuit filed last year challenging the local system as unconstitutional.

Now Chief U.S. District Judge Lee H. Rosenthal will decide if the current bail system should be suspended temporarily until the lawsuit goes to trial, despite efforts already under way to alter the local system.

The county’s bail schedule punishes “working poor” people like Maranda ODonnell, a single mother who filed the lawsuit after spending two days in jail for driving without a valid license, attorney Alec Karakatsanis said during closing arguments Thursday.

The county’s lawyers argued changes already made to the system have brought an increase in defendants released on no-cash bonds.

“The present system is not perfect, it’s a compromise,” said John O’Neill, who represented the county judges. “It’s as imperfect as democracy.”

See here and here for some background. What’s at stake here is a preliminary injunction against the current system, with a full trial on the merits of the lawsuit to follow, if there is no settlement in the interim. I’m not sure what an injunction would look like in practice, but I’m sure Judge Rosenthal will have some ideas if she grants it. I get the sense that ruling will come sooner rather than later, but we’ll see. The Press has more.

“Sanctuary cities” bill modified by House committee

It’s less bad than the Senate version, but it’s still not good.

A Texas House committee on Wednesday began debate on the lower chamber’s version of the controversial proposal to outlaw “sanctuary” jurisdictions, making few but significant changes to the bill the Senate passed out last month.

Outlawing “sanctuary” entities, the common term for state and local governments and college campuses that don’t enforce federal immigration laws, has been deemed must-pass legislation by Gov. Greg Abbott. It’s likely a bill will make it to his desk before lawmakers gavel out in late May.

But members of the House State Affairs Committee also told witnesses and other lawmakers that Senate Bill 4 by state Sen. Charles Perry, R-Lubbock, will likely be revised several more times before it’s presented to the full House for a vote.

“It’s not perfect, it’s not complete and we will continue to work on it,” Fort Worth Republican state Rep. Charlie Geren, the bill’s House sponsor, said during the hearing.

One major change to the proposal is that the House version makes inquiring into the status of an undocumented immigrant allowable only if that person is arrested. The Senate version is broader in that it applies to immigrants that are arrested or detained. Perry said during the Senate debate that meant a police officer could question a person’s status during even routine traffic stops.

Rep. René Oliveira, D-Brownsville, said he appreciated Geren listening to his concerns and working with the members, but added that a person could still be turned over to Immigration and Customs Enforcement agents for a class C misdemeanor, which normally would only require them to pay a fine.

[…]

After a suggestion by state Rep. Oscar Longoria, D-Mission, the House committee is also working on a change that would prevent bail bond agents from charging a large amount of cash up front to bond out an undocumented immigrant. Geren said that currently, bondsmen can take advantage of an arrested person by knowingly accepting their money up front even though that person will likely be transferred to ICE agents for subsequent deportation.

See here and here for the background. A lot of people showed up to testify against this bill.

As the lawmakers debated the language, hundreds pleaded with them to scrap the proposal altogether.

In all, 638 people registered to speak about the bill. Of those, 619 registered to voice opposition to the legislation, while just 11 registered in support. Eight were neutral.

The opponents included the Houston Police Department, which called the plan “short-sighted” and Harris County Sheriff Ed Gonzalez, who said it would strain relations with immigrant communities and make minorities less likely to report crimes. Despite the fierce opposition, neither Houston nor Harris County has adopted “sanctuary city” policies.

Others spoke of the impact on the lives of immigrants.

Sergio Govea, a 9-year-old, choked back tears as he told a reporter before the hearing about the constant fear that plagued him that his parents won’t return “every time they leave the house.”

“I haven’t lost my parents physically but they are not the same as they were before this,” he said. “They are scared to go to H-E-B to get food, a basic necessity. … I don’t even know if they will be there today when I get back home.”

The bill was left pending in committee, but it will come back (possibly with more changes) and when it gets voted on it will get sent to the full House. How long that will take is unclear at this time.

Rep. Byron Cook, R-Corsicana, the chairman of the House State Affairs committee, said he is in no hurry to rush through the process.

“We’ve got a long ways to go to get this right,” Cook said at the Capitol the morning after a marathon hearing on the current measure, Senate bill 4 by state Sen. Charles Perry, R-Lubbock. The legislative session ends on May 29.

[…]

Abbott called banning sanctuary jurisdictions a priority after Travis County Sheriff Sally Hernandez, a Democrat, announced following her 2016 election victory that she would only honor detainer requests on a very limited basis. As punishment, Abbott yanked state-grant funding for all county programs.

Cook said Thursday he thinks the bill could be consolidated to only include the detainer provision. Testimony from hundreds of witnesses at Wednesday’s hearing reflected a sentiment that allowing officers to question a person’s immigration status without arresting them would create a chilling effect that would erode the public’s confidence in law enforcement.

Cook took note of those concerns, he said.

“If you look at this on the big picture [level], all we’re really needing to do, all that’s really been said is that local jurisdictions need to honor federal detainer requests,” he said, noting Hernandez was the only outlier. “And what the testimony indicated once again last night is that though one sheriff deviated for a short period of time, all our law enforcement agencies across the state are in fact honoring detainer requests, as they’re supposed to.”

Rep. Cook also indicated that the state should pay for detainer costs, not the counties. I appreciate the effort that Cook has made to make the bill less bad, but it’s still a bad bill that serves no good purpose.

State Rep. Eddie Rodriguez, D-Austin, said he’s on board with Cook’s desire to limit the scope of the bill and said the issue has become a political football more than anything else.

“If it was just dealing with detainers in the jails, it addresses [the Republicans’] issue, which is really just to get a vote on an immigration issue,” he said. “Because this is all politics, as far as I’m concerned. We’ll still vote against it but at least it’s not as bad as it can be.”

Indeed. The danger here is that when the House version passes, the modifications made by the House could get gutted by the conference committee, with something close to the original Senate version passing. The only right answer is to keep opposing this bill.

Two unsatisfying articles about the 2016 Democratic sweep in Harris County

The Democratic sweep in Harris County has drawn some national attention, as writers from the left and right try to analyze what happened here last year and why Hillary Clinton carried the county by such a large margin. Unfortunately, as is often the case with stories about Texas by people not from Texas, the results are not quite recognizable to those of us who are here. Let’s begin with this story in Harper’s, which focuses on the efforts of the Texas Organizing Project.

Amid the happy lawyers, journalists, and other movers and shakers at the victory parties, one group of seventy-five men and women, who had arrived on a chartered bus, stood out. Most of them were Latinos, like Petra Vargas, a Mexican-born hotel worker who had spent the day walking her fellow immigrants to the polls. Others were African Americans, such as Rosie McCutcheon, who had campaigned relentlessly for the ticket while raising six grandchildren on a tiny income. All of them wore turquoise T-shirts bearing the logo top. Not only had they made a key contribution to the day’s results — they represented a new and entirely promising way of doing politics in Texas.

The Texas Organizing Project was launched in 2009 by a small group of veteran community organizers. Michelle Tremillo, a fourth-generation Tejana (a Texan of Mexican descent), grew up in public housing in San Antonio, where her single mother worked as a janitor. Making it to Stanford on a scholarship, she was quickly drawn into politics, beginning with a student walkout in protest of Proposition 187, California’s infamous anti-immigrant ballot measure. By the time she graduated, the elite university had changed her view of the world. “I always knew I was poor growing up, and I even understood that I was poorer than some of my peers that I went to school with,” Tremillo told me. What she eventually came to understand was the sheer accumulation of wealth in America and its leveling effect on the rest of the population: “We were all poor.”

Both Tremillo and her TOP cofounder Ginny Goldman, a Long Island native, had worked for ACORN, the progressive national community organization that enjoyed considerable success — registering, for example, half a million minority voters in 2008 — before becoming a target of calculated assaults by right-wing operatives. By 2009, the group was foundering, and it was dissolved a year later.

In response, the activists came up with TOP. Goldman, who was its first executive director, told me that TOP was designed to focus on specific Texan needs and realities and thereby avoid the “national cookie-cutter approach.” The organization would work on three levels: doorstep canvassing, intense research on policy and strategy, and mobilizing voter turnout among people customarily neglected by the powers that be.

[…]

The TOP founders and their colleagues, including another Stanford graduate, Crystal Zermeno, a Tejana math whiz whose mother grew up sleeping on the floor, began to ponder ways to change that. Might it be possible to mobilize enough voters to elect progressives to statewide office? For non-Republicans in Texas and elsewhere, the most galling aspect of recurrent electoral defeat has been the persistent failure of supposedly natural allies, specifically Latinos and African Americans, to show up at the polls. For years, Democratic officials and commentators had cherished the notion that natural growth in the minority population, which rose from 20 percent to nearly 40 percent of the U.S. population between 1985 and 2015, would inevitably put the party back in power. Yet these designated agents of change seemed reluctant to play their part. As I was incessantly reminded in Houston, “Demographics are not destiny.”

The problem has been especially acute in Texas, which produced the lowest overall turnout of any state in the 2010 midterm elections. Three million registered African-American and Latino voters stayed home that year, not to mention the 2 million who were unregistered. The result was a state government subservient to the demands and prejudices of Republican primary voters, and unrepresentative of the majority in a state where almost one in four children lived in poverty, 60 percent of public-school students qualified for free or subsidized lunches, and the overall poverty rate was growing faster than the national average. Following the crushing Republican victory in 2010, TOP launched an ambitious project to discover, as Zermeno put it, “who was not voting, and why.”

Digging deep into voter files and other databases, Zermeno confirmed that Texas contained a “wealth of non-voting people of color.” Most of them were registered, but seldom (if ever) turned up at the polls. The problem, she noted, was especially acute with Latinos, only 15 percent of whom were regular voters. In her detailed report, she calculated precisely how many extra voters needed to turn out to elect someone who would represent the interests of all Texans: a minimum of 1.1 million. Fortuitously, these reluctant voters were concentrated in just nine big urban counties, led by Harris.

Ever since the era of Ann Richards, Democrats had been focusing their efforts (without success) on winning back white swing voters outside the big cities. But Zermeno realized that there was no reason “to beat our heads against the wall for that group of people anymore, not when we’ve got a million-voter gap and as many as four million non-voting people of color in the big cities, who are likely Democrats.” By relentlessly appealing to that shadow electorate, and gradually turning them into habitual voters, TOP could whittle down and eliminate the Republican advantage in elections for statewide offices such as governor and lieutenant governor, not to mention the state’s thirty-eight votes in the presidential Electoral College. In other words, since the existing Texas electorate was never going to generate a satisfactory result, TOP was going to have to grow a new one.

There was, however, still another question to answer. Why were those 4 million people declining to vote? TOP embarked on a series of intensive focus groups, which were largely financed by Amber and Steve Mostyn, a pair of progressive Houston claims attorneys. (Their string of lucrative settlements included some with insurance companies who had balked at paying claims for Ike-related house damage.) Year after year, the Mostyns had loyally stumped up hefty donations to middle-of-the-road Democrats who doggedly pursued existing voters while ignoring the multitude who sat out elections all or most of the time. When TOP asked these reluctant voters about their abstention, the answer was almost always the same: “When I have voted for Democrats in the past, nothing has changed, so it’s not worth my time.” There was one telling exception: in San Antonio, voters said that the only Texas Democrat they trusted was Julián Castro, who ran for mayor in 2009 on a platform of bringing universal pre-K to the city, and delivered on his promise when he won.

“There’s this misunderstanding that people don’t care, that people are apathetic,” Goldman told me. “It’s so not true. People are mad and they want to do something about it. People want fighters that will deliver real change for them. That’s why year-round community organizing is so critical. People see that you can deliver real impact, and that you need the right candidates in office to do it, and connect it back to the importance of voting. It’s the ongoing cycle. We see winning the election as only the first step toward the real win, which is changing the policies that are going to make people’s lives better.”

Beginning with the 2012 election, TOP canvassers — volunteers and paid employees working their own neighborhoods — were trained to open a doorstep interview not with statements about a candidate but with a question: “What issue do you care about?” The answer, whether it was the minimum wage or schools or potholes, shaped the conversation as the canvasser explained that TOP had endorsed a particular candidate (after an intensive screening) because of his or her position on those very issues. These were not hit-and-run encounters. Potential voters were talked to “pretty much nonstop for about eight to ten weeks leading to the election,” according to Goldman. “They got their doors knocked three to five times. They got called five to seven times. They signed a postcard saying, ‘I pledge to vote.’ They circled which day they were going to vote on a little calendar on the postcard, and we mailed those postcards back to them. We offered them free rides to the polls. We answered all of their questions, gave them all the information they needed, until they cast a ballot. And what we saw was that the Latino vote grew by five percentage points in Harris County in 2012.”

Link via Political Animal. I love TOP and I think they do great work, but this article leaves a lot of questions unasked as well as unanswered. When Ginny Goldman says that the Latino vote grew by five percent in Harris County in 2012, I need more context for that. How does that compare to the growth of Latino registered voters in the same time period (which I presume is since 2008)? What was the growth rate in areas where TOP was doing its outreach versus areas where it was not? Do we have the same data for 2016? I want to be impressed by that number, but I need this information before I can say how impressed I am.

For all that TOP should be rightly proud of their efforts, it should be clear from the description that it’s labor intensive. If the goal is to close a 1.1 million voter gap at the state level, how well does the TOP model scale up? What’s the vision for taking this out of Harris County (and parts of Dallas; the story also includes a bit about the Democratic win in HD107, which as we know was less Dem-friendly than HD105, which remained Republican) and into other places where it can do some good?

I mean, with all due respect, the TOP model of identifying low-propensity Dem-likely voters and pushing them to the polls with frequent neighbor-driven contact sounds a lot like the model that Battleground Texas was talking about when they first showed up. One of the complaints I heard from a dedicated BGTX volunteer was that both the people doing the contact and the people being contacted grew frustrated by it over time. That gets back to my earlier question about how well this might scale, since one size seldom fits all. To the extent that it does work I say great! Let’s raise some money and put all the necessary resources into making it work. I just have a hard time believing that it’s the One Thing that will turn the tide. It’s necessary – very necessary – to be sure. I doubt that it is sufficient.

Also, too, in an article that praises the local grassroots effort of a TOP while denigrating top-down campaigns, I find it fascinating that the one political consultant quoted is a guy based in Washington, DC. Could the author not find a single local consultant to talk about TOP’s work?

Again, I love TOP and I’m glad that they’re getting some national attention. I just wish the author of this story had paid more of that attention to the details. With all that said, the TOP story is a masterpiece compared to this Weekly Standard article about how things looked from the Republican perspective.

Gary Polland, a three-time Harris County Republican party chairman, can’t remember a time the GOP has done so poorly. “It could be back to the 60’s.” Jared Woodfill, who lost the chairmanship in 2014, does remember. “This is the worst defeat for Republicans in the 71-year history of Republican party of Harris County,” he said.

But crushing Republicans in a county of 4.5 million people doesn’t mean Democrats are on the verge of capturing Texas. In fact, Democratic leaders were as surprised as Republicans by the Harris sweep. But it does show there’s a political tide running in their direction.

Democratic strategists are relying on a one-word political panacea to boost the party in overtaking Republicans: Hispanics. They’re already a plurality—42 percent—in Harris County. Whites are 31 percent, blacks 20 percent, and Asians 7 percent. And the Hispanic population continues to grow. Democrats control the big Texas cities—Dallas, San Antonio, El Paso, to name three—thanks to Hispanic voters.

But in Houston, at least, Democrats have another factor in their favor: Republican incompetence. It was in full bloom in 2016. Though it was the year of a change election, GOP leaders chose a status quo slogan, “Harris County Works.” Whatever that was supposed to signal, it wasn’t change.

“It doesn’t exactly have the aspirational ring of ‘Make America Great Again’ or even Hillary’s ‘Stronger Together,'” Woodfill said. “It is very much a message of ‘everything is okay here, let’s maintain the status quo.’ People were confused and uninspired.”

A separate decision was just as ruinous. GOP leaders, led by chairman Paul Simpson, panicked at the thought of Trump at the top of the ticket. So they decided to pretend Trump was not on the ticket. They kept his name off campaign literature. They didn’t talk about him. And Trump, assured of winning Texas, didn’t spend a nickel in the Houston media market. It became an “invisible campaign,” Polland said. “There were votes to be had,” Polland told me. They were Trump votes. They weren’t sought.

This strategy defied reason and history. Disunited parties usually do poorly. GOP leaders gambled that their candidates would do better if the Trump connection were minimized. That may have eased the qualms of some about voting Republican. But it’s bound to have prompted others to stay at home on Election Day. We know one thing about the gamble: It didn’t work. Republicans were slaughtered, and it wasn’t because the candidates were bad.

“Our overall ticket was of high quality, but no casual voter would know it since the campaign focus was on ‘Harris County Works,’ and Houston doesn’t,” Polland insisted. “Did we read about any of the high-quality women running? Not much. Did we read about issues raised by Donald Trump that were resonating with voters? Nope. Did the Simpson-led party even mention Trump? Nope.”

[…]

Republican Rep. Kevin Brady, the chairman of the House Ways and Means Committee, said the “holy grail” for Democrats, both in Texas and nationally, is winning the Hispanic vote. “They did that somewhat successfully” in 2016, he said in an interview. Unless Democrats attract significantly more Hispanic voters in 2018, Brady thinks Republicans should recover. His district north of Houston lies partly in Harris County.

For this to happen, they will need to attract more Hispanic voters themselves. They recruited a number of Hispanics to run in 2016, several of them impressive candidates. All were defeated in the Democratic landslide.

I have no idea what the author means by “a number of Hispanics” being recruited, because by my count of the countywide candidates, there were exactly two – Debra Ibarra Mayfield and Linda Garcia, both judges who had been appointed to the benches on which they sat. Now I agree that two is a number, but come on.

Like the first story, this one talks about the increase in Latino voting in Harris County in 2016 as well. Usually, in this kind of article, some Republican will talk about how Latinos aren’t automatically Democrats, how it’s different in Texas, and so on. In this one, the turnout increase is met with a resigned shrug and some vague assurances that things will be better for them in 2018. Maybe no one had anything more insightful than that to say – it’s not like Jared Woodfill is a deep thinker – but it sure seems to me like that might have been a worthwhile subject to explore.

As for the griping about the county GOP’s strategy of not mentioning Trump, a lot of that is the two previous GOP chairs dumping on the current chair, which is fine by me. But honestly, what was the local GOP supposed to do? Not only was their Presidential candidate singularly unappealing, their two main incumbents, Devon Anderson and Ron Hickman, weren’t exactly easy to rally behind, either. Focusing on the judges seems to me to have been the least bad of a bunch of rotten options. Be that as it may, no one in this story appeared to notice or care that some thirty thousand people who otherwise voted Republican crossed over for Hillary Clinton, with a few thousand more voting Libertarian or write-in. Does anyone think that may be a problem for them in 2018? A better writer might have examined that a bit, as well as pushed back on the assertion that more Trump was the best plan. It may be that, as suggested by the recent Trib poll, some of these non-Trumpers are warming up to the guy now that he’s been elected. That would suggest at least some return to normalcy for the GOP, but the alternate possibility is that they’re just as disgusted with him and might be open to staying home or voting against some other Republicans next year as a protest. That would be a problem, but not one that anyone in this story is thinking about.

So there you have it. At least with the first story, I learned something about TOP. In the second one, I mostly learned that Gary Polland and Jared Woodfill don’t like Paul Simpson and have him in their sights for next year. That will provide a little mindless entertainment for the rest of us, which I think we’ll all appreciate. It still would have been nice to have gotten something more of substance.

Sheriff Gonzalez testifies in bail practices trial

He says on the stand what he has been saying elsewhere.

Sheriff Ed Gonzalez

Harris County Sheriff Ed Gonzalez took the witness stand for an hour Wednesday afternoon in a closely watched federal civil rights case that is challenging whether it is constitutional to impose monetary bail on people arrested for minor offenses if they cannot afford to pay it.

Gonzalez confirmed his opinion that the money bail system is arbitrary, unfair to poor defendants and undermines public safety.

“I personally do not believe it’s a rational system,” he said. “It should be equal protection for everyone.”

When an attorney representing Harris County judges asked him about the death rate at the jail being lower than outside the jail, the federal judge interrupted and asked if he was suggesting jail was a better place to be. The attorney, John O’Neill reframed the question.

[…]

Gonzalez sat in court at the defense table for three hours Wednesday morning, listening as another opponent of the bail system testified about a system he said “doesn’t pass the laugh test.”

See here and here for some background. Sheriff Gonzalez was not the only elected official to take the stand.

Harris County Criminal Court at Law Judge Darrell Jordan, on the bench since January, also testified Wednesday before Rosenthal about his experience as a defense attorney and now as judge who must make dozens of bail decisions each day. He has begun releasing misdemeanor defendants on personal bonds if they have no holds. If they have risk factors or holds he has a conversation to see what they can afford.

Jordan said he’s seen in other courts that innocent defendants often plead guilty if they can’t make bail, just so they can get out and maintain their livelihoods.

The county is in the process of reforming its system of assessing defendants’ flight risk and setting bail. In the meantime, plaintiffs are asking Rosenthal to impose a temporary injunction, making immediate fixes so that bail is made easier for nonviolent defendants. Rosenthal asked Jordan if he believed the county would stop running a system in which people plead guilty because they are poor without an injunction.

His answer: “No.”

I think the fact that we’re having a trial over this is pretty good evidence to that effect as well. I can’t wait to see what the defense’s case looks like. The Press has more.

Bail practices lawsuit gets going

The first day in court for this lawsuit was Monday.

Neal S. Manne, a managing partner at Susman Godfrey, told Chief U.S. District Judge Lee H. Rosenthal in his opening statement Monday that ODonnell and hundreds of other poor people charged with minor crimes do not get a fair chance to win pretrial release here if they can’t afford to pay a bondsman.

He lauded the recent bail reforms the county has begun and those it plans to install, but he said none address the basic constitutional questions of equal protection under the law.

“If you have money, you can get out. If you don’t, you can’t,” Manne said. “That’s what we’re here about.”

The opening statements took on a question-and-answer format as Rosenthal peppered the lawyers with dozens of sharp questions and hypothetical arrest scenarios trying to get at the truth of how bail works here.

Melissa Lynn Spinks, who is heading the defense team on behalf of the Harris County Attorney’s Office, said the premise that Harris County has a wealth-based bail system is “a woefully simplistic argument.”

“The defense believes there is a category of high-risk defendants that we simply can’t ignore,” she said, explaining that hearing judges weigh several factors in setting bail.

Four other attorneys representing the judges, the sheriff and the county presented a preview of their arguments, interrupted by lively questioning from the judge.

Plaintiffs are seeking an injunction against the county to force immediate changes in the bail process. There’s no monetary award being sought, just changes to the system. It’s not clear to me what the timeline is, so we’ll just have to follow along and see. In the meantime, as we know there have been some changes made that will address some of these issues, but there’s more that needs to be done. Grits for Breakfast quotes an email from UH law professor Sandra Guerra Thompson that begins with a discussion of two bail reform bills that have been filed in the Lege and then moves on to this lawsuit as a case in point.

Ending Pretrial Punishment. If your loved one is arrested tomorrow in Texas, he or she will almost certainly be required to pay money to get out of jail. For most people who cannot pay the entire amount of the bail set, the only viable way to get out of jail is by making a non-refundable payment to a bondsman. This amounts to punishment, a fine, without proof of guilt. As someone who has paid bail money to get a cousin out of jail in Houston, I will tell you that it feels very much like pretrial punishment. The same troubled cousin was later arrested in Austin where judges have implemented a risk-based system, and he was released on a PR bond within a few hours. This use of PR bonds, based on a validated risk assessment, is what the bail bill would implement. The vast majority of people arrested are low-level, low-risk people who should be promptly released on PR bonds upon a finding that they are safe to be released. Rather than pay for a bail bond, they can use their money to pay for an attorney so the county doesn’t have to appoint one at taxpayer expense.

[…]

Meanwhile, back at the ranch . . . Houston officials defend the indefensible. Litigants have challenged the money bail system in Harris County, the state’s largest and deeply intransigent jurisdiction. The trial started today, March 6th. The litigation shake-up, combined with the election of reform-minded officials, has already brought some progress. Remarkably, the District Attorney Kim Ogg, following the lead of the Sheriff Ed Gonzalez, recently filed an amicus brief siding with the plaintiffs who are suing the county’s misdemeanor judges (see attached brief). So far, the county refuses to budge from its stance supporting the use of money bail, even though the system has been shown to be arbitrary, wasteful, cruel, and dangerous. The county’s lawyers went so far as to make the ludicrous statement that some people are in jail because they prefer to be there!

Holding tight to the Bail Schedule. To deflect the criticisms, Harris County officials have agreed to do everything short of getting rid of the bail schedule. Last month, they touted the implementation of the Arnold Foundation risk assessment instrument, which would be important if the judges were actually planning to make decisions based on risk assessments rather than simply following bail schedules. They have no plans to do away with money bail, and that is why the county has been unable to settle the lawsuit.

Here are other “baby steps” that Harris County has made, while desperately clinging to the money bail system. After years of feet-dragging, county officials have finally agreed to provide people with public defenders at bail hearings as part of a pilot project. (I will never understand why a “pilot project” is necessary. By what measure will they evaluate whether it is a good idea to give people access to a fair defense at bail hearings? Keep in mind that prosecutors have participated at these hearings for many years. That’s right—the county has held one-sided hearings with a prosecutor and magistrate, but no one to speak for the jailed person!)

To its credit, the county has started several programs to reduce the number of people in jail: the District Attorney’s policy to“legalize” of small amounts of pot, a “reintegration court” to get minor offenders out of the jail quickly, and very modest efforts to get the seriously mentally ill out of the jail and into treatment facilities. All of these programs are welcome and long-overdue, but they are not bail reform.

And that is what this lawsuit is about, for Harris County. For the state of Texas, that action is in the Legislature, and you should click over to Grits to learn more. I’ll be keeping an eye on the trial.

Ogg sides with bail reformers

As well she should.

Kim Ogg

District Attorney Kim Ogg on Friday filed a brief supporting bail reform in the lawsuit brought against Harris County’s misdemeanor judges to change the bail system.

The civil rights lawsuit, filed in federal court, is expected to begin a three-day hearing on Monday about whether the judge should issue an injunction.

Ogg, whose office is not a party to the litigation, filed a four-page amicus brief saying bail reform is necessary and long overdue.

“It makes no sense to spend public funds to house misdemeanor offenders in a high-security penal facility when the crimes themselves may not merit jail time,” she wrote in the brief. “These secure beds and expensive resources should be prioritized for the truly dangerous offenders and ‘flight risks’ who need to be separated from the community.”

[…]

Ogg said the issue is whether defendants charged with minor offenses are being held in the Harris County jail solely because of their inability to pay bondsmen’s fees, not because of legitimate concerns about their willingness to appear in court.

“Our primary concern is public safety. We do that by being smart on crime,” Ogg said. “When people are charged with minor offenses and do not present significant risks of flight or danger to the community, releasing them on their own recognizance – or with minimal restrictions – is called for by both the Texas and U.S. constitutions.”

Tom Berg, Ogg’s First Assistant, said the office is not “taking sides” but just explaining that they want to see change.

“These are major changes that we believe are long overdue,” he said. Berg noted that the office is also supporting county-funded defense attorneys at magistrate courts that run 24 hours a day with a prosecutor and a judge but no lawyer at that initial appearance. That issue has run into hurdles because of several issues but mostly because of the cost of staffing the initiative.

Ogg joins Sheriff Ed Gonzalez, whose office is party to the lawsuit, in siding with the reformers. I presume an amicus brief coming from the District Attorney in this matter would carry some weight. The next round of hearings begins today, so we should know soon enough what the effect of Ogg’s intervention will be.

Cutting ICE

Another campaign promise gets fulfilled.

Sheriff Ed Gonzalez

Harris County Sheriff Ed Gonzalez has ended a controversial partnership with federal immigration authorities that trained a team of county deputies to determine the immigration status of jailed suspects and hold those selected for deportation.

Gonzalez, a Democrat who took office in January, said he will reassign 10 deputies trained under a U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement program known as 287(g) that cost at least $675,000 in salaries and deploy them to other law enforcement duties.

The withdrawal of sheriff’s deputies still will allow ICE officials to come to the jail and screen jail inmates to determine their immigration status, and the county will hold them for deportation if requested, Gonzalez said.

The sheriff said overcrowding in the county jail complex, where staff shortages have hiked overtime costs to $1 million every two weeks, has forced him to deploy his ICE-trained deputies elsewhere. He said his decision was not political “but an issue of resources,” explaining the deputies may be assigned to help improve clearance rates of major crimes or bolster the patrol division.

“After thoughtful consideration, I’ve decided to opt out of the voluntary 287(g) program,” said Gonzalez, who sent ICE officials notification of his decision Tuesday. “We’ll still be cooperating with local, state and federal authorities as we always have, we just won’t have our manpower resources inside the jail doing that.”

In addition to the annual cost-savings, he said, “We’ll be able to release that personnel to offset some of our overtime costs inside the jail and local public safety priorities we have.”

[…]

The exit from the ICE program could put Harris County in the crosshairs of Gov. Greg Abbott and local GOP senators, who are working to pass a “sanctuary city” law that would withhold funding from law agencies that do not cooperate with federal requests to hold inmates. The term sanctuary city has been used to criticize the refusal by certain cities and counties to cooperate with the enforcement of federal immigration law.

Gonzalez, however, said Harris County will hold anyone at ICE’s request no matter what criminal charge the inmate may be facing. The jail will hold the inmate until ICE agents can take custody and move them to a federal detention facility, which Gonzalez said in the past has been done quickly.

“It’s my understanding that I need to comply with the law,” Gonzalez said. “If ICE makes a determination there is someone they have identified and they make a request (for detention), then I plan to honor that request.”

I’d have preferred to go a little farther along the Sally Hernandez path, but Sheriff Gonzalez will not have the backing of Commissioners Court the way Sheriff Hernandez does, so it’s hard to argue with the path he has chosen. The Texas Organizing Project and the ACLU of Texas both applauded the Sheriff’s announcement, with neither of them bringing up my nitpicky point, so I’d say that he hit his target here, and as the TOP statement points out, reminded us that local elections matter, too. Stace and Campos have more.

UPDATE: More from the Press.

Ogg launches her pot prosecution reform program

We’ve been waiting for this.

Kim Ogg

The Harris County district attorney’s plan to decriminalize small amounts of marijuana drew reactions swift and strong Thursday from both sides of the debate.

District Attorney Kim Ogg made the announced Thursday backed by a bevy of local officials, including Houston Mayor Sylvester Turner, Houston Police Chief Art Acevedo, Sheriff Ed Gonzalez and Harris County Commissioner Rodney Ellis.

“The sky will not fall,” Acevedo said as he voiced his support. “There are already critics out there. We’ve been down this path before with my old department. Rather than see an uptick in crime, in the city of Austin we reduced violent crime between 2007 and 2014 by 40 percent.”

Bellaire Police Chief Byron Holloway, however, said the program seems similar to a program former District Attorney Devon Anderson put into place.

“At first blush, I’m not seeing a difference,” he said. “This is basically giving deferred adjudication up front.”

Yes, that’s my impression as well. This earlier story gives the details.

The policy, set to begin March 1, means that misdemeanor offenders with less than four ounces of marijuana will not be arrested, ticketed or required to appear in court if they agree to take a four-hour drug education class, officials said.

Ogg said the county has spent $25 million a year for the past 10 years locking up people for having less than 4 ounces of marijuana. She said those resources would be better spent arresting serious criminals such as burglars, robbers and rapists.

“We have spent in excess of $250 million, over a quarter-billion dollars, prosecuting a crime that has produced no tangible evidence of improved public safety,” she said. “We have disqualified, unnecessarily, thousands of people from greater job, housing and educational opportunities by giving them a criminal record for what is, in effect, a minor law violation.”

Officials have said it could divert an estimated 12,000 people a year out of the criminal justice system and would save officers hours of processing time now spent on low-level cases. More than 107,000 cases of misdemeanor marijuana cases have been handled in the past 10 years, officials said.

Since there is no arrest, there is no arrest record. Since there is no court date, there are no court documents connected to the encounter. The plan calls for officers to seize the marijuana and drop it off at a police station at the end of their shift, along with a record of the encounter in case the suspect does not take the class.

“You do not get charged with anything,” Assistant District Attorney David Mitcham, who heads the DA’s trial bureau, said Wednesday. “You have a pathway where you can avoid going to court.”

[…]

At the sheriff’s office, the new policy will save up to 12 hours of processing time per month for as many as 1,000 suspects, a move that will ease the workload on administrators and jailers who transfer and process inmates, officials said.

“We’re really encouraged by these swift actions by the district attorney,” said sheriff’s spokesman Ryan Sullivan. “And we are looking forward to working with Harris County’s criminal justice leadership identifying common-sense solutions to our broken criminal justice system.”

Sullivan said the move would likely not affect the jail population significantly, since most misdemeanor marijuana offenders move quickly in and out of jail. On Wednesday, just 12 people were jailed on misdemeanor marijuana offenses and unable to make bail, he said.

Elected district attorneys are given wide latitude in their discretion about how to enforce laws in their jurisdictions. Diversion programs, such as drug courts, have been widely used across Texas, and Austin has launched a “cite and release” program in which low-level drug offenders are given tickets and required to appear in court.

Under the new local program, police would identify a suspect to make sure they do not have warrants or other legal issues, then would offer them the option of taking the drug education class. If the suspect takes the class, the drugs are destroyed and the agreement is filed away.

A suspect would be able to take the class over and over again regardless of past criminal history, officials said.

The new program will keep police on the streets longer each day and reduce costs for lab testing of the drugs, Mitcham said.

If the suspect does not take the class, the contraband will be tested, and prosecutors will file charges and issue an arrest warrant. Offenders could then face up to one year in jail if convicted of the Class A misdemeanor.

The model to think about here is traffic tickets – speeding, running a stop sign, that sort of thing. You get a ticket instead of getting arrested (generally speaking, of course), and you have various options for disposing of the ticket without it appearing on your record. As with speeding tickets but unlike the program put in place by former DA Devon Anderson, you can get a do-over if you get cited again. Given all the strains on the jail lately, keeping some number of mostly harmless potheads out of jail, while keeping cops on the street instead of hauling said potheads downtown for booking, sure seems like a win to me.

As for Montgomery County DA Brett Ligon, whose press release is here, last I checked Montgomery County was not part of Harris County. State law allows for police departments to write citations for low-level drug busts instead of making arrests, and prosecutors have a lot of discretion in how they handle criminal charges. He’s as free to do his thing as Kim Ogg is to do hers, as long as the voters approve. Well, as long as the Lege approves as well, which given that Dan Patrick is having the vapors over this, could change. As we are seeing with many things, the Dan Patricks are out of step with the mainstream. It may take awhile, but that will catch up to them eventually. The Press and Grits for Breakfast have more.

Sheriff Hernandez not backing down

Good for her.

Sheriff Sally Hernandez

Travis County Sheriff Sally Hernandez indicated Thursday she is not backing away from her recently introduced “sanctuary” policy.

Her comments came a day after Gov. Greg Abbott proposed the removal of Hernandez, who announced Friday she would reduce her department’s cooperation with federal immigration authorities when they request an inmate be flagged for possible deportation.

“Our community is safer when people can report crimes without fear of deportation,” Hernandez, whose jurisdiction includes Austin, said in a statement. “I trust the court system and our judges to assess the risks and set appropriate bonds and conditions for all who are incarcerated.”

Hernandez, who was elected in November, has said her department would honor requests from federal immigration officials only if they obtain a warrant from a judge ordering the confinement.

See here and here for the background. Sheriff Hernandez clearly has the moral high ground here – people shouldn’t be held without a warrant, minor offenses should not result in deportation, law enforcement needs the cooperation of the people they police in order to be effective, etc etc etc. Abbott, meanwhile, keeps ratcheting up the pressure. Something is going to have to give here. It’s one thing to pick on Travis County, which is a traditional punching bag for Texas Republicans, but will they go after Harris County, too?

Sheriff Ed Gonzalez appeared at this morning’s rally against 287(g), a flawed immigrant removal program.

Gonzalez reiterated his support of immigrant rights and his promise to rid Harris County of the controversial program. He did, however, ask for patience and time to study and navigate its ending because of its ties to federal and state funding, and because he wants to ensure that such a program targets violent and serious criminals. During the press conference, he also reiterated that the program is run within the jail and not out in the field and that his deputies will not be targeting individual suspects because of immigration status.

Local immigrant rights activists are seeking policy changes and strong statements of support to undo programs that target immigrants and have run amok of their stated intents. Programs which basically federalize local law enforcement are flawed and have been a cause for racial profiling, wasted resources, family separation, and downgraded local economies.

Houston Mayor Sylvester Turner, also sought out by immigrant rights activists recently responded with his strongest statement yet.

I certainly wouldn’t put it past Abbott et al to lash out at anyone and everyone who defies him, but at some point it’s not a good luck for him to be fighting with so many big cities and counties. I don’t know how this plays out, but I suspect it will get messy. And kudos to Mayor Turner for standing up and doing the right thing, as numerous Mayors around the country are doing. We’re going to be in for a lot more of this from Trump, so we’d better be ready for it.

Abbott goes authoritarian

I suppose this shouldn’t surprise me, but it is still shocking, even in the world we now inhabit.

Gov. Greg Abbott said Wednesday that he and state lawmakers will pursue legislation that would “remove from office any officeholder who promotes sanctuary cities,” raising a new consequence as Republicans crack down on local officials who do not fully cooperate with federal immigration officials.

Abbott is threatening to cut off state funding to Travis County Sheriff Sally Hernandez after she announced Friday she would reduce her department’s cooperation with federal immigration authorities when they request an inmate be flagged for possible deportation. If she continues with the policy, Abbott suggested a more serious punishment.

“We will remove her from office,” Abbott said in an interview on Fox News.

It was not immediately clear how legislation would remove Hernandez from office. She won her election last year. Sanctuary cities opponents view such officials’ immigration policies as a violation of their oaths of office.

The Fox News interview appears to be the first time Abbott has suggested officials like Hernandez could lose their jobs under sanctuary cities legislation. Abbott is expected to prioritize the legislation in his State of the State address on Tuesday.

[…]

Hernandez’s office did not have an immediate comment on Abbott’s remarks. The governor’s comments, however, quickly drew ire from other Democrats, with the state party saying in a statement that Abbott was “launching a new assault on the will of Texans.”

“I don’t know how the governor would suggest to do that,” state Rep. Rafael Anchia, D-Dallas, said at a news conference that was called to push back on sanctuary cities legislation. “Unless the governor wants to be king and remove people from office unilaterally, then I think the people of Travis County will have an opportunity to speak on the sheriff, the governor and all other elected officials when they stand for re-election.”

U.S. Rep. Lloyd Doggett, D-Austin, suggested another remedy. “How about removing those from office who make up the law to suit their own political needs!” he said in a statement.

See here for some background. It’s abundantly clear by now that Abbott and his cohort have no respect for the will of local voters and that the only authority they recognize is their own, so it’s a small step from stomping down on local control to overruling an election. I think back on some of the things that people said about President Obama when he lawfully exercised executive power and I wonder, was it fear or longing in their words? The latter seems much more likely. I suppose it’s possible Abbott was just preening for the Fox News cameras, but we have been advised to take authoritarians at their word, and Lord knows Dear Leader Trump has lived up to that. So yeah, I expect to see a bill come out of this. After that, we’ll see.

(All this was happening, by the way, as Harris County residents were being urged to call Sheriff Ed Gonzalez’s office to ask about when he plans to end 287(g) as promised during the campaign. Like it or not, people are going to have to pick a side on this.)

Speaking of Il Duce, a federal crackdown on “sanctuary cities” is coming as well. Again, one can only wonder at the thought of President Obama making similar threats to Texas cities – just how quickly could Abbott or Paxton file a lawsuit in a friendly court? We may soon see how the shoe fits on the other foot. A statement from the Travis County legislative delegation is here, a statement from the El Paso delegation is here, and the Current and the Observer have more.

Abbott versus Travis County

This could get ugly.

Sheriff Sally Hernandez

Texas Gov. Greg Abbott is formally demanding that Travis County Sheriff Sally Hernandez reverse her new policy on cooperation with federal immigration authorities or lose state dollars, further escalating a showdown over “sanctuary cities” that have been in the crosshairs of Republican officials.

“This is not a pronouncement of sound public policy; it is a dangerous game of political Russian roulette — with the lives of Texans at stake,” Abbott wrote to Hernandez — whose jurisdiction includes Austin — in a letter dated Monday.

The newly elected sheriff, who campaigned on the issue, announced Friday that her department would reduce its cooperation with federal immigration authorities when they request an inmate be flagged for possible deportation. Her office said it would continue to hold people charged with very serious crimes, such as capital murder.

But that was not enough for Abbott, whose letter calls the policy, which is set to go into effect Feb. 1, “shortsighted” and backed by “frivolous” justifications. He quickly reacted Friday on Twitter, saying that his office “will cut funding for Travis County adopting sanctuary. Stiffer penalties coming.”

Abbott’s threat targets Criminal Justice Division grant money that is administered by his office. Travis County got almost $1.8 million from the division over the past year “based upon the commitment that federal immigration law would be enforced,” according to the letter.

“Your policy is in violation of that commitment,” Abbott told Hernandez. “Unless you reverse your policy prior to its effective date, your unilateral decision will cost the people of Travis County money that was meant to be used to protect them.”

In the letter, Abbott also made clear that he intends to make an example out of Hernandez during the 85th Legislative Session that started earlier this month. Abbott is set to lay out his priorities in his State of the State address, which is scheduled for Jan. 31.

Let’s pause for a moment to marvel at the glory of Greg Abbott – Greg Abbott! – demanding that federal law be obeyed and enforced. It’s almost as if all of his previous blathering about “states rights” and “federal overreach” was based not on principle but crass partisan politics. I know, I’m as shocked as you are.

While basically everyone agrees that violent criminals who are undocumented should be deported, they represent a tiny fraction of the people who have been expelled from the country. The vast overwhelming majority are just ordinary people, including a lot of children who get swept up with their parents; many others get left behind without one or both parents. The Chron goes into some of the issues.

Though Travis County could be the first jurisdiction in Texas to lose funding over its immigration detainer policy, it’s not the first time Abbott has threatened to cut money over the issue. After Dallas County Sheriff Lupe Valdez made minor changes to her county’s policy last year, he also promised to slash funding. It ultimately stayed in place because the county never declined an immigration detainer.

Harris County Sheriff-elect Ed Gonzalez has said that he is also concerned about holding inmates without pending charges for immigration enforcement, but will continue working with the federal government while he studies the issue.

Political fighting over so-called sanctuary cities has waged for years.

Though it is strictly the federal government who enforces immigration law, Washington and local entities began cooperating on the issue in 2008. The program matches the fingerprints of every person booked into jail against a sweeping law enforcement database, including immigration information from the Department of Homeland Security.

After they determined someone was here illegally, federal officials could request that local authorities detain those immigrants even if they were otherwise eligible for release, say by posting bond or having their criminal charges dropped.

Roughly one-sixth of the record 2.5 million immigrants President Barack Obama deported between 2008 and 2015 were removed through this program, many of them after being booked into jail on misdemeanor crimes.

Critics said it encouraged racial profiling and deported immigrants accused of minor crimes such as traffic offenses rather than focusing the government’s limited resources on violent immigrants. Several federal courts, none in Texas, also found that it could violate the Fourth Amendment protection against unreasonable search and seizure.

Five states and more than 500 counties have scaled back on cooperating with the federal government on the issue, according to a tally by the National Immigration Law Center, an advocacy group in Los Angeles.

Though the Obama administration overhauled the program in 2015 to try to address constitutional concerns, they remain. Last summer, the Bexar County Sheriff’s Office was sued for holding a man for more than two months after officials dismissed the misdemeanor assault charge that had him flagged by immigration officials to begin with.

Lena Graber, an attorney for the Immigrant Legal Resource Center, a national immigrant advocacy group in San Francisco, said federal detainer requests are civil orders, not arrest warrants meeting Fourth Amendment requirements.

You know all those arguments we’ve been having about why bail reform is needed to ensure our county jail isn’t stuffed full of people who aren’t a threat to anyone and who in many cases have never been (and never will be) convicted of a crime? The same is true for immigrant detention centers, and the stakes are a lot higher. That doesn’t even get into the whole sordid private prison industry, which has been the driving force behind the construction of many of those detention centers. Requiring local police to enforce federal immigration law is a huge drain on their resources, and has been devastating to a lot of people who have done nothing harmful. And as Sheriff Hernandez fights this battle in Travis County, Harris County Sheriff Ed Gonzalez made his own promises about 287(g), which he says he is still working on. People are going to expect an answer soon. Campos and Stace have more.

Sheriff Gonzalez’s staff

Sheriff Ed Gonzalez combines diversity with experience in his braintrust.

Sheriff Ed Gonzalez

New Harris County Sheriff Ed Gonzalez has tapped a diverse wave of law enforcement veterans to fill his top command staff, sharply increasing the number of minority leaders and naming the first female assistant chief ever in the sheriff’s office.

In his first week as sheriff, Gonzalez named three Latinos, three African-Americans and two Asians to leadership positions, and promoted Debra Schmidt to assistant chief. Another woman, who is African-American, is also among the new leadership.

Ten of those selected for the 15 top command posts are longtime members of the sheriff’s office, a sharp break with the actions of the two previous administrations. One major’s position is not yet filled.

“There are a lot of wonderful, highly skilled, quality individuals within the sheriff’s office,” Gonzalez said. “Part of being a leader is doing that – identifying bright people that can really help, that are smart and capable.”

Before Gonzalez took office Jan. 1, four of the top command staff retired and nine were asked to leave, according to Ryan Sullivan, a sheriff’s office spokesman. Two officers have been retained.

The appointments are the first indication of how Gonzalez will approach the county’s top law enforcement job. His decision to pick department insiders with knowledge about the operations drew immediate praise for boosting morale.

“By selecting a diverse staff internally he has shown he recognizes the experience and cultural knowledge of those deputies within his own office while also understanding the expectations of the diverse community the department serves,” said Lawrence Karson, assistant professor of criminal justice at the University of Houston-Downtown.

David Cuevas, president of the Harris County Deputies Organization, likewise praised the decision to promote from within.

“Morale has instantly skyrocketed,” Cuevas said. “The consensus around the department is we finally have upward mobility and institutional knowledge in place to move the sheriff’s office forward and into the future. … The rank-and-file see that if they are on a promotional list and take their time, their hard work and leadership is not going to be stifled because people outside are brought into command positions.”

[…]

Harris County Precinct 3 Commissioner Steve Radack, a Republican, said the moves should help Gonzalez get up to speed quickly on operations at the state’s largest sheriff’s office.

“He is certainly showing he has figured out a way to make up for the fact he hasn’t worked in the sheriff’s office,” he said. “It’s very intelligent of him to take advantage of the vast amount of experience within the department that he doesn’t have yet.”

I presume Steve Radack plays tennis, because that’s quite the backhand he’s got there. Back when Ron Hickman was installing an all white-guy command staff, he responded to criticism about it by saying “Diversity for diversity’s sake is not always effective”, and pointed to his team’s “vast education, experience and devotion to police work”. Turns out, you can have both diversity and experience. Who knew?

Chron favors a jail administrator

I remain unconvinced.

Next month, we’ll have a new sheriff in town. Ed Gonzalez will take command of the largest sheriff’s office in Texas, the third-largest in the nation, with more than 4,600 employees responsible for serving and protecting the estimated 4.5 million people who call Harris County home.

It would be nice if our new sheriff and the law-enforcement professionals under his command could focus all of their attention upon making our homes, streets and neighborhoods safer. Unfortunately, the biggest headache Gonzalez will face is running the perpetually troubled county jail.

On an average day, the jail houses more than 9,400 inmates, about 80 percent of whom are locked up while awaiting trial. More than a quarter suffer from some sort of mental illness, essentially making the Harris County Jail the largest de facto mental health facility in Texas. It’s already so overcrowded, outgoing Sheriff Ron Hickman recently asked the state jail commission for permission to let nearly 200 inmates sleep in plastic cots on the floor. Other prisoners have been shipped to private, for-profit jails at a cost of up to $1 million a month. Meanwhile, the county has spent close to $15 million on overtime pay this year to cover staff shortages, adding to the tab of more than $10 million paying for temporary medical help in the clinic and mental health wards.

[…]

Texas law assigns the task of running county jails to county sheriffs. But Commissioner Steve Radack, who’s spent years beating the drum for a jail boss answering directly to commissioners court instead of the sheriff, plans to lobby for state legislation requiring a licensed administrator to take over the jail. Even if the proposal dies in Austin, Radack plans to press Gonzalez to hire a professional jail executive, advice the new sheriff would be wise to follow.

Our state’s requirement that sheriffs run county jails is a 19th-century concept that doesn’t necessarily fit in the 21st century. Maybe it still makes sense in small Texas counties with comparatively few inmates, but it’s not the best way to administer the complex of jails in Harris County.

This idea has been kicked around before, coming up again last year a bit after Ron Hickman was installed as Sheriff. As noted, the Legislature would have to authorize this, and so the first step would be to identify someone to author and carry the needed bills. I’ve always been skeptical, but I could be persuaded that this is a better idea. I do have to wonder how you can make it through this entire editorial without discussing the bail issue and how so much of the crowding problem is directly related to that. Maybe administering the jail would be less onerous if it weren’t always bursting at the seams. Also, it’s not clear to me why Commissioners Court would provide better oversight than the Sheriff, whether the Sheriff remains in charge of the jail or not. Again, I could be persuaded, but you’re going to have to give me reasons rather than assertions.

Here come the Dems

All the newly-elected county officials have now been sworn in.

The new Harris County officials sworn in New Year’s Day had something in common: They were all Democrats.

The swearing-in ceremony at 2 p.m. Sunday followed the Democratic Party’s sweep of every countywide office in November’s general election, including closely watched contests against incumbent Republicans for DA and sheriff.

The blue wave in a normally purple county where President Barack Obama won by just one-tenth of a percent in 2012 was driven largely by the unpopularity of Republican presidential nominee Donald Trump, who polled just 42 percent in Harris County compared to Democrat Hillary Clinton’s 54 percent, according to the county clerk’s official election results. Trump’s unpopularity here helped spur the Democrats’ 11-point advantage in straight-ticket voting.

[…]

County Judge Ed Emmett, Harris County’s top elected official, addressed the officials and their families.

“Don’t let your ego get in your way,” he told them. “The election is over and none of us is really that important. We are part of a governmental machine that’s been going a long, long time. … The ego of the campaign goes away. You’re not the office. You just occupy the office.”

Though Emmett mostly repeated his remarks from the 2015 swearing-in, he added a few comments this time around.

“This has been a heck of a year. … There’s been a lot of talk of divisiveness, ‘us’ versus ‘them,’ ” he said, citing partisan echo chambers and the dangers of fake news. “Everyone should be ‘us,’ ” he said.

Here’s a slightly different version of the story that mentions Fort Bend and Montgomery Counties as well. I appreciate Judge Emmett’s words about unity, but it will be interesting to see how that plays out in practice on Commissioners Court, which is still 3-1 Republican. Steve Radack had no qualms about slapping around Adrian Garcia while he was Sheriff, and he was already mixing it up with his now-colleague Commissioner Rodney Ellis even before Ellis was formally nominated to the office. Neither Ellis nor Kim Ogg will shy away from a fight, and the county is going to have to deal with both the Legislature and likely the Congress working to make things more difficult. It’s going to be an interesting year, let’s just leave it at that.

Motion to dismiss county bail practices lawsuit denied

Onward.

In a sweeping 78-page opinion issued late last week, a federal judge has denied Harris County’s motion to dismiss the lawsuit that accuses it of operating an unconstitutional bail system.

District Judge Lee H. Rosenthal dismissed the sheriff and county judges from the lawsuit in their personal, but not official, capacities; and the five county bail hearing officers remain sued in their personal capacities, but not official capacities.

[…]

While the county had tried to argue county officials were immune from this suit under various policymaking grounds, Judge Rosenthal rejected the argument outright.

“Multiple and overlapping authorities may contribute to a policy of denying freedom from pretrial detention to those accused in misdemeanor cases solely because they are too poor to pay a bail bond,” Rosenthal wrote. “Or [authorities may contribute to] a policy of releasing wealthier misdemeanor defendants while detaining the indigent for days without a hearing on their inability to pay or eligibility for release on nonfinancial conditions. But the existence of multiple and overlapping authorities cannot, on its own, shield officers or official bodies from liability.”

[…]

In explaining why the plaintiffs have reason to bring the suit, Rosenthal wrote that the lawsuit had raised important questions about why the government would have any legitimate interest in detaining people charged with low-level crimes, who are not a threat to public safety and could otherwise be released. Quoting a Supreme Court case, Rosenthal wrote: “Liberty is the norm, and detention prior to trial or without trial is the carefully limited exception.” That exception, she went on, would include people charged with violent crimes who would threaten public safety.

See here for previous coverage, and here for a copy of Judge Rosenthal’s ruling. Courthouse News adds some details.

Asserting civil rights and equal protection claims, [lead plaintiff Maranda Lynn] ODonnell’s original complaint named only five magistrate judges as defendants. She added the county’s 16 misdemeanor court judges as defendants in an amended version. State judges, called district judges in Texas, handle the county’s felony cases.

In an attempt to head off the lawsuit, the 16 judges changed the “County Rules of Court” on Aug. 12 to state that no-fee bonds are “favored” for 12 misdemeanor charges, including public intoxication, prostitution and possession of small amounts of marijuana.

Harris County also recently hired two more magistrate hearing officers and revamped its pretrial-services form to collect more financial data about misdemeanor defendants earlier in the post-arrest process.

But ODonnell claims in court filings that the judges’ customs are too ingrained, and that even after the August policy change they continued to force magistrates to set predetermined bond amounts for people arrested on those 12 charges.

In refusing to dismiss, Rosenthal said there are unresolved disputes of fact, including whether ODonnell and one of her co-plaintiffs have standing.

The county argued that ODonnell lacks standing because she posted bond a few days after she was arrested and filed the lawsuit, and that it had the right to detain her because she has outstanding warrants in Harris and Galveston Counties for failing to appear for misdemeanor court hearings.

However, Rosenthal wrote: “Even taking the defendants’ factual allegations on these points as true, Ms. ODonnell would have standing to bring her claim. Ms. ODonnell alleges that no judicial officer timely considered her inability to pay or her eligibility for release despite her criminal history, and that this outcome is typical for misdemeanor defendants in Harris County. The defendants’ allegations do not resolve Ms. ODonnell’s claims.”

Co-plaintiff Loetha McGruder was arrested in May, charged with giving a false name to a police officer, a misdemeanor. A magistrate set her bond at the preset $5,000. She couldn’t pay it. Four days later a state district judge reduced her bail to a personal bond and she was released.

The county argued in dismissal motions that McGruder “is the prime example of the system functioning as it should,” because she was released the first business day after her probable cause hearing.

But Rosenthal found McGruder has standing to bring due process and equal protection claims because she was detained over a weekend, though the county acknowledges her poverty made her eligible for an immediate personal bond.

[…]

Attorneys for both sides said they are working to settle the case.

Harris County assistant attorney Robert Soard said Rosenthal is aware the county has teamed up with Luminosity, a nonprofit St. Petersburg, Fla. criminal justice consulting firm, to develop a “public safety assessment” and “decision making framework” to guide decisions on whether to release misdemeanor defendants on personal bonds without pretrial services having to interview them.

The system is expected to launch in March 2017.

“We would like the case to resolve quickly for the benefit of the people being arrested on misdemeanors in Harris County, to decrease the number of people staying in jail,” plaintiffs’ attorney Rebecca Bernhardt with the Texas Fair Defense Project said.

I’m very glad to hear that settlement talks are happening, as that’s what I have wanted all along. As we know, Sheriff-elect Ed Gonzalez has filed an affidavit in support of the plaintiffs, which ought to help move that along. A class certification hearing has been set for Feb. 21, 2017. We’ll see how it goes from there.

The new Sheriff in town

Sheriff-elect Ed Gonzalez has his work cut out for him.

Ed Gonzalez

When newly elected Sheriff Ed Gonzalez takes office on Jan. 1, he will face a tangle of budget, staffing and jail inmate safety issues inherited from more than a decade of struggles at the nation’s third-largest sheriff’s department.

Staff shortages at the troubled jail operation alone have resulted in overtime expenditures of $14.8 million so far this year, adding to a current tab of $10.4 million to pay for temporary medical help in the jail clinic and mental health wards, county budget records show.

The burgeoning jail population – which soared to more than 9,400 inmates in September – has forced officials to put some inmates on temporary cots and ship others to private, for-profit jails for up to an additional $1 million a month.

And on the law enforcement side, critics point to low clearance rates for nearly all crime categories and a need for additional investigators and patrol deputies.

Gonzalez, a longtime Houston homicide detective who served on the City Council before being elected sheriff in November, told the Chronicle he is apprehensive about the fiscal condition of a department responsible for public safety in a large swath of unincorporated Harris County.

“My main priority will be dealing with the budget, the need to improve the situation at the jail, the overtime issues that are killing the budget, and morale that is really low right now,” Gonzalez said recently, as he prepares to take office.

Gonzales said he is committed to hiring an experienced, certified jail administrator to help oversee operations in the county’s sprawling jail complex and will work with the patrol and investigative divisions to improve clearance rates of crime.

He’ll also have to develop a new leadership team. The sheriff-elect said he expects only a few of the 25 high-ranking members of outgoing Sheriff Ron Hickman’s command staff to remain.

[…]

Jail safety expert Michele Deitch urged Gonzalez to create an independent group, or an ombudsman, to closely monitor jail conditions in what is largely a closed system.

“Prisons and jails around the country are the least transparent organizations that exist, yet they are the places where there is more urgency to make sure there is public transparency about what goes on and accountability for insuring the safe treatment of inmates,” said Deitch, a senior lecturer at the LBJ School of Public Affairs at the University of Texas at Austin. “What Harris County needs is a local system of external and independent oversight over the jail, in the same way we have created police accountability systems.”

Recent reports ranked Harris County with the highest per-capita rate of jail deaths of any other jail in the nation, as well as continued attempts at suicide by inmates and violent assaults on inmates and guards, Dietch said.

In April, Patrick Joseph Brown, 46, was jailed for allegedly stealing a guitar and then beaten to death in a crowded holding cell by two other inmates. The cell was equipped with surveillance cameras, but due to a lack of staffing, no officers were watching the monitors. At least two other deaths in the jail came after assaults on inmates by other prisoners, according to state in-custody death reports.

“The key to a safe jail is the staff,” Deitch said, “and you need to make sure staff are there in sufficient numbers, well-trained, alert and engaged and their morale is high.”

I’ve covered some of this before. I’ll say again, I believe the single most effective thing our new Sheriff can do to relieve both his budget and personnel issues is work to reduce the number of inmates in the jail. You know the song I’m singing, and it really is that simple. All of the problems discussed in this story are related to the locking up of too many people who have not been and in many cases will never be convicted of a crime. Gonzalez has less power to affect this problem than some others – he will be very dependent on the magistrates and misdemeanor judges who treat jail space as infinitely renewable – but he can at least order his deputies to issue citations to low-level non-violent offenders instead of arresting them, and he should have an ally in DA-elect Kim Ogg. He can also help force a settlement in the bail practices lawsuit against the county. He will still have plenty of other things to deal with, but getting this solved will make the totality of his task a lot less daunting.