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More pre-trial diversion

DA Kim Ogg moves forward on more campaign promises.

Kim Ogg

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

[…]

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

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

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

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

Sandra Bland Act passes

Good.

Sandra Bland

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

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

[…]

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

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

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

(more…)

The Sandra Bland Act

Good.

Sandra Bland

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

New Sheriff not interested in defending current bail policies

Good.

Ed Gonzalez

Ed Gonzalez

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

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

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

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

[…]

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Who me?” he asks.

“Yeah, you,” she answers.

Then Wallace sends Goffney to jail.

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

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

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

Checking in with Ed Gonzalez

Also known as Harris County Sheriff-elect Ed Gonzalez.

Ed Gonzalez

Ed Gonzalez

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

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

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

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

[…]

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

More on the Sandra Bland settlement

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

Sandra Bland

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

[…]

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Family of Sandra Bland settles its lawsuit

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

Sandra Bland

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

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

[…]

Terms of the settlement:

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

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

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

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

Legislation to ban the jailing of rape victims proposed

Hard to argue with, I must say.

DA Devon Anderson

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

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

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

[…]

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

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

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

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

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

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

Jailed rape victim’s lawyer calls for special prosecutor

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

DA Devon Anderson

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

[…]

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Behind The Tower

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

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

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

We all know what happened, right?

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

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

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

But where are the historians?

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

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

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

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

More on the jailed rape victim

The Chron pens a harsh editorial.

DA Devon Anderson

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

[…]

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

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

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

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

and yes, this is a campaign issue.

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

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

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

[…]

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

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

Falkenberg talks to DA Anderson about jailed rape victim

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

DA Devon Anderson

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

I am outraged.

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

She hoped to put him behind bars for life.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

[…]

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

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

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

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

If we really cared about improving mental health in Texas

We would have expanded Medicaid at our first opportunity.

It's constitutional - deal with it

It’s constitutional – deal with it

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

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

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

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

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

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

What’s next for Adrian Garcia?

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

Adrian Garcia

Adrian Garcia

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

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

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

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

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

[…]

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Ground broken on the joint processing center

Good.

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

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

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

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

[…]

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

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

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

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

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

Council approves inmate processing center deal with Harris County

Very good news.

go_to_jail

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

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

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

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

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

[…]

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

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

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

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

Ballot order drawn

vote-button

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

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

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

What Dallas County can teach us about jail overcrowding

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

go_to_jail

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

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

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

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

[…]

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Outsourcing inmates again

We’ve been down this road before.

go_to_jail

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

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

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

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

[…]

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Minding Houston

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

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

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

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

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

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

Medicaid expansion: Still a great deal, especially for cities

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

It's constitutional - deal with it

It’s constitutional – deal with it

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Dewhurst admits he has no control over his campaign

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

So very sad

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

One thing I won’t criticize Dan Patrick for

This is just wrong.

“Oozing charm from every pore I oiled my way around the floor”

Sen. Dan Patrick issued a terse statement late Thursday about a period in his life 30 years ago during which he sought medical attention to cope with “mild depression and exhaustion.”

Patrick, who is in a runoff with David Dewhurst for the GOP nomination for lieutenant governor issued the statement late Thursday in response to various media reports that he once was on anti-depressants and admitted to a psychiatric hospital, according to court documents related to a slander suit Patrick filed against the Houston Post in the 1980s.

While Patrick accused Dewhurst of releasing the documents to the media, the documents were released to the San Antonio Express-News and other media by Jerry Patterson, the departing Commissioner for the General Land Office of Texas and a former candidate for lieutenant governor.

See the Trib and First Reading for all the details. Let me just say, there is nothing at all shameful about Patrick’s medical history. Depression is no more disqualifying for office than bunions or hemorrhoids or cataracts or any other medical condition. An ongoing undisclosed condition might be an issue, but this? This was a disgraceful attempt to shame someone for a common and unremarkable problem, and it reeks of desperation. Everyone involved in releasing this information needs to do some deep soul searching about their own decency and humanity. I’m particularly disappointed in Jerry Patterson, who is generally an honorable person. You’re better than this, Jerry.

So I condemn this attack wholeheartedly, and any Democrat that might be thinking about revisiting it after May 27 needs to drop that thought right now. There are tons of legitimate attack vectors on Dan Patrick. He’s a horrible person, a serial liar, a narcissistic egotist who puts his own interests before all others, and is exactly the sort of person that should never be put in a position of authority. There’s plenty of places to go other than this.

I want to be clear that while I deplore what happened to Dan Patrick, I feel no sympathy for him, nor do I share the outrage that his sycophants are currently spewing. One reason for this is that we’ve seen this movie before, and as the Observer reminds us, there was a lot less outrage from those folks that time.

It’s good to see Patrick supporters—and Republican state senators—speaking out about the stigma of mental illness, and the unfairness of this as an attack line in a campaign. But for those of us with memories that reach back to November, it’s a bit odd, because of what many conservatives in the state were saying about state Sen. Wendy Davis.

In 1996, Davis sued the Fort Worth Star-Telegram for defamation, after she lost an election. (It was ultimately dismissed.) As one frequently does when one seeks damages in the course of a civil lawsuit, she claimed to have suffered “emotional distress” and “continuing damages to her mental health.” That second phrase—the one that would get all the attention—was used once.

Compare this to Patrick’s situation: In 1987, Patrick sued a Houston Press gossip columnist for libel, after an altercation at a sports bar. (It was also ultimately dismissed, “with prejudice.”) In the course of this lawsuit it is revealed that Patrick has had to contend seriously with mental health issues for much of the decade, and was briefly, and voluntarily, committed to a psychiatric center.

So: both unsuccessfully sued the press, both endured revelations of mental anguish. The only real difference is that Patrick’s mental health troubles would seem, on the available evidence, to be much more substantial and long-lasting. Many conservatives in the state are rallying around Patrick: How did they treat Davis when her (very minor) admission was written up last November by noted slug pundit Eric Erickson?

Three guesses how that went. Go see for yourself if you can’t figure it out. Erica Greider has more.

Council approves hoarding ordinance

I think they’re on the right track.

HoardersOne

The Houston City Council unanimously approved an anti-hoarding ordinance Wednesday without a clear idea of how it will be enforced.

The ordinance, which does not apply to single-family homes, clarifies when police can seek a warrant to enter a home and prioritizes mental health treatment before turning to daily fines of up to $500.

The ordinance does not specify how deep piles of apparent junk must be, nor how long neighbors can be expected to battle insect or rodent infestations while city officials seek treatment of a suspected hoarder and a clean-up of the property.

To a large extent, Mayor Annise Parker said, enforcement will be at the discretion of responding police officers.

Internal policies outlining possible hoarding thresholds, how agencies will coordinate a response and who will have a final say in the decision still must be written.

[…]

Council members said they expect the ordinance to reinforce the existing relationship between HPD and the Mental Health and Mental Retardation Authority of Harris County, who often perform joint welfare checks.

MHMRA Executive Director Stephen Schnee said the agency would complete assessments and recommend treatment, but not be involved in enforcement decisions.

[…]

Despite the ordinance, Parker said enforcement by authorities is not her preferred first choice for dealing with hoarders.

“Having the ability to say to a family member, ‘This is against the law. If you don’t do this, if you don’t work on this issue, if you don’t seek the help you need, there will be a police intervention,’ is one more tool that can help resolve the issue,” she said. “The goal is never to write a citation for something like this because we understand it’s a mental health issue, but this gets us in the door.”

See here for the background. For what it’s worth, as someone who was a fan of Hoarders on A&E, in nearly every episode the hoarder in question had to be backed into a corner before agreeing to get help and do some cleanup. Often, this included some kind of threat from local authorities to impose fines or even condemn the property. One gets the impression that this kind of leverage can be very useful to help persuade someone who doesn’t believe he has a problem to do something about the situation at hand. As the story notes, in the past the only legal leverage the city had was if there was a credible complaint about animal abuse. This gives them another way to open the door and assess the condition of the residence, and hopefully connect the person inside with the resources they will need to help them address the problem. I’d like to see the city revisit this in a year or so, and if it’s getting results to see about extending the ordinance to include standalone houses. I think they are pointing in the right direction, and I hope this works. Texpatriate has more.

Council considers hoarding ordinance

I hadn’t realized Houston didn’t already have an ordinance to deal with hoarding. Apparently, we are not at all unique in this regard.

HoardersOne

A proposed ordinance would begin to expand the city’s options for resolving hoarding situations even when the hoarder owns the property. The measure, which would not apply to single-family homes, would create fines, clarify when police could enter a property with a warrant and refer violators to social services.

If City Council approves the proposal next week, Houston could be the first city in Texas to create a specific ordinance to address hoarding, said Bennett Sandlin, executive director of the Texas Municipal League. Other cities have discussed the hoarding issue when adopting building and fire codes, he said.

“In society it’s becoming more noticeable, probably because of the notoriety from TV shows,” Sandlin said.

The Greater Houston Chapter of the Community Associations Institute, a group for local homeowner associations, supports the proposed ordinance as a starting point, but called for the inclusion of single-family homes. The group also would like to see a mechanism to assist with cleanup since the bill often falls to neighbors, President-Elect Sipra Boyd said.

Sherri Carey, a board member of the group and a property manager who has dealt with three hoarding cases in the last two years, said she wants the ordinance to mandate mental health treatment or follow-up visits to ensure the problems do not resume.

“Just like parole,” she said. “Someone to make sure they’re not breaking the law still.”

[…]

The Mental Health and Mental Retardation Authority of Harris County consulted with the city on the development of the ordinance and its executive director, Stephen Schnee, submitted a letter of support to council.

I would support including single-family homes in this ordinance. Hoarding is both a mental health problem and a public health problem. The goal of this should be to better identify people who need help, to connect them with services that can help them, and to get their property cleaned up. That’s a win all around. Fines should be used as leverage rather than as actual punishment if possible. I look forward to the discussion on this. Texpatriate has more.

Inmates and Medicaid

Other states are doing what Texas has declined to do.

go_to_jail

Being arrested in Chicago for, say, drug possession or assault gets you sent to the Cook County Jail to be fingerprinted, photographed and X-rayed. You’ll also get help applying for health insurance.

At least six states and counties from Maryland to Oregon’s Multnomah are getting inmates coverage under Obamacare and its expansion of Medicaid, the federal and state health-care program for the poor. The fledgling movement would shift to the federal government some of the more than $6.5 billion in annual state costs for treating prisoners. Proponents say it also will make recidivism rarer, because inmates released with coverage are more likely to get treatment for mental illness, substance abuse and other conditions that can lead them to crime.

“When someone gets discharged from the jail and they don’t have insurance and they don’t have a plan, we can pretty much set our watch to when we’re going see them again,” said Ben Breit, a spokesman for the Cook County Sheriff’s Office.

The still-small programs could reach a vast population: At the end of 2012, almost 7 million people in the U.S. were on parole, probation, in prison or locked up in jail, according to the federal Bureau of Justice Statistics. About 13 million people are booked into county jails each year, according to the Washington-based National Association of Counties.

[…]

Medicaid expansion also enables more prisoners to have coverage when they are released. States that don’t expand it can help inmates get subsidized coverage in the insurance exchanges created under the law when they’re released.

Counties in about half the states are responsible for some level of indigent care at hospitals, so getting inmates enrolled can reduce costs, said Paul Beddoe, deputy legislative director for the National Association of Counties.

Cook County has been operating a pilot project to enroll prisoners in Medicaid since April under a federal waiver, while states including Connecticut, Illinois and Maryland and counties such as Multnomah, which includes Portland, have helped hundreds of prisoners apply for coverage under the Affordable Care Act since it took effect Jan. 1. California, Ohio, San Francisco and other jurisdictions are starting programs or considering them.

About 90 percent of inmates are uninsured, and many have never had treatment for their illness, Osher said. They have disproportionate rates of communicable and chronic diseases and behavioral disorders, he said. About 488,000 people in U.S. prisons and jails suffer from a mental illness, according to the National Alliance on Mental Illness in Arlington, Virginia.

[…]

The Ohio Department of Rehabilitation and Correction, which plans to start enrolling inmates during the next two months, expects that it will save $18 million a year on hospitalization alone, said Stu Hudson, managing director of health care and fiscal operations.

Ex-prisoners who have insurance will be more likely to get treatment that would help them avoid committing crimes that got them locked up in the first place, Hudson said.

“They’re provided good continuum of care from incarceration through their release into the community and onward,” Hudson said by phone.

We’ve discussed this before. Putting aside the considerable cost savings to the state, the potential impact on the many people that regularly intersect with the criminal justice system who have treatable mental illnesses could be huge. We could save a bunch more money just from the reduced rate of recidivism. There’s really no downside to this. Unfortunately, without a change in state leadership, there’s also no chance of it happening. I don’t really care about the day to day vicissitudes of the Governor’s race. This sort of thing is the prize I keep my eyes on.

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

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

go_to_jail

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

[…]

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

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

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

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

County jail diversion program moving forward

News like this is always welcome.

Harris County is moving forward with a much-anticipated jail diversion program aimed at reducing the soaring number – and the associated cost – of mentally ill residents who repeatedly cycle through the county lockup.

Harris County Judge Ed Emmett this week announced his pick to head the four-year pilot program, authorized by the Legislature this year. Regenia Hicks, former director of children’s mental health services at Mental Health & Mental Retardation Authority of Harris County, started as program director last week.

The Minneapolis native, 61, is “somebody that’s got a lot of background, experience and training in this,” Emmett said. “She’s familiar with the community here, so I was glad she was available.”

Hicks is tasked with creating a diversion model that state and local officials hope eventually will serve as a template for a statewide program aimed at reducing the jail recidivism rate among mentally ill populations.

[…]

“Our hope is that we’re going to be able to help pull together the existing services that we right now have here in Harris County, layer over some additional services and support that will really be able to stop that kind of revolving door,” said Hicks, who has lived in Houston for 19 years and previously worked as a research scientist for the American Institutes for Research, a Washington, D.C.-based nonprofit behavioral and social science research organization.

Harris County has done a commendable job on expanding mental health services and diverting folks who need treatment to the proper services and away from the jails. Commissioners Court, Judge Emmett, Sheriff Garcia, and a whole mess of non-elected people deserve kudos for it. Imagine how much more they could get done if Texas expanded Medicaid and took advantage of all the mental health and other services that come with it. Harris County would certainly benefit, but that’s out of their hands. We need new leadership at the top for that. Be that as it may, the county is doing what it can with what it’s got, and good on them for it.

More on Kim Ogg

Here’s the full Chron story about Kim Ogg’s declaration that she will run for Harris County DA as a Democrat in 2014.

Kim Ogg

“I have the varied experience in policy, in prevention and in prosecution that I think gives me a broad overview of the system,” Ogg told reporters on the steps of the historic 1910 Harris County Courthouse. “The problems we face are complex.”

Ogg, 54, is the first Democrat to announce a run against Devon Anderson, who was appointed last week to complete her recently deceased husband’s term and is expected to run in the Republican primary in March.

Ogg said she applauds Anderson, 47, for taking over the unexpired term, but said the widow is not yet the GOP nominee.

“I look forward to debating real issues with whoever the Republican nominee is,” she said.

Ogg said her first order of business would be to reverse the district attorney’s so-called “trace case” policy.

[…]

Ogg also said the district attorney’s office should be working harder to keep the mentally ill out of jail.

“I’m afraid we’ve got the jails full of low-level mentally ill people rather than the truly dangerous people who are running our streets.”

See here for the background. Ogg is right to focus on the causes of the uptick in the Harris County jail population, which definitely is something a DA can affect. Focusing on mental illness and the need to divert the mentally ill from jail to treatment is a good and productive thing to do, too. (Expanding Medicaid would also have a significant positive effect on this problem, but alas, that is something that the DA – and the Sheriff, and the County Judge – do not have any control over.) I’d like to see Ogg address the issue of personal recognizance bonds as well, but this is a good start.

One more point of interest from the story:

Among dozens of other supporters who watched Ogg announce, former First Assistant Jim Leitner said he is behind Ogg.

“I’m supporting her because she the right person for the job,” Leitner said. “I’ve been able to see firsthand how she works ‘outside the box’ to get the problem of crime solved in Harris County.”

Leitner ran unsuccessfully in the GOP primary in 2008 and became the top lieutenant for the eventual winner, Lykos.

This may be a suggestion that the Pat Lykos supporters will fight their battle in November rather than March, which if so would seem to be a wise choice given that the result last March was lopsided while the result last November was close. I don’t know if Leitner is representing a group or just speaking for himself, and either way that doesn’t mean Devon Anderson will have a clear path to the GOP nomination. Nonetheless, it’s worth noting. Murray Newman has more.

Less is more, local legislative edition

Harris County and the city of Houston generally play more defense than offense when the Legislature is in session, so as a rule the fewer bills that get passed that affect them, the better.

Mayor Annise Parker

Mayor Annise Parker

County and city lobbyists said their efforts to scuttle unfunded mandates and bills that would have handcuffed local governments’ powers largely had succeeded.

On a broader level, however, Mayor Annise Parker and County Judge Ed Emmett were disappointed that some of their top priorities stalled.

“When we go to Austin, our goal is generally to play defense to keep things from happening that would have major consequences for Houston taxpayers, but we also try to promote a limited city agenda,” Parker said. “We made progress on some small pieces of legislation. Would I characterize it as a horrible session? No. A horrible session is when they do something really stupid to you, and there were some really stupid bills that we jumped on.”

Most notably, bills to cap local government revenues did not succeed, said the Texas Municipal League’s Bennett Sandlin and Texas Association of Counties’ Lonnie Hunt.

“Our mantra, more or less, is local control,” Hunt said.

[…]

Judge Ed Emmett

Judge Ed Emmett

Emmett said he was disappointed, but not surprised, the Legislature failed to expand Medicaid under the federal Affordable Care Act. He also decried a lack of progress on transportation.

“That’s the biggest worry we have, because if we’re going to realize our economic potential and our growth potential, we’re going to have to have transportation, and right now it’s not there,” he said.

Emmett and [Rep. Garnet] Coleman cheered large increases in mental health funding compared to the last biennial budget, including a $10 million pilot program to divert the mentally ill from the Harris County jail.

Given the Legislature’s “disgraceful” failure to restrict payday lending, or to ban texting while driving, Parker said she will move forward with local ordinances.

Parker echoed Emmett’s disappointment at the Legislature’s progress on big issues, ticking off education, transportation, immigration and pensions as areas in which she said there had been insufficient progress.

“It’s always a success for a city when the Legislature doesn’t do anything to harm that city,” she said, “but in terms of the major issues confronting our state … you can’t say this was a successful Legislative session.”

Given that at one point, the payday lending bill would have done little more than nullify local ordinances, failure to do anything wasn’t as bad as it could have been. Mayor Parker wanted to wait and see what the Lege would do before acting locally on the issue, so I’m glad to see her bring it up again. We did get the bike trail bill, which was very nice, and there was something in there about a bill to allow county clerks to accept financial disclosure forms and campaign finance reports electronically, which would be awesome if it leads to a makeover for the crappy interface we have now. Death to scanned PDFs, I say! We didn’t get Medicaid expansion, but we did at least get that.

The next step to closing the city jail

The sobering center was Step 1. Step 2 is a joint processing center with the county, and that is now closer to happening.

With backing from the city of Houston, Harris County is reviving a long-discussed plan to build a facility to process inmates into the county jail, and to offer the mental health services that many of them need after they are released.

Commissioners Court on Tuesday authorized searching for an architect to draw up plans for the so-called joint processing center. The City Council is expected to follow suit by agreeing to pay half of the $250,000 needed for those plans in the coming weeks.

“The mayor’s office is ready to participate with us in the study and the evaluation, but the first assignment is to pick somebody to do it, and we’re taking the lead on that,” Art Storey, director of the county’s public infrastructure department, told commissioners on Tuesday.

The goal is to complete the proposal and cost estimate by June so that the facility could be financed through a bond referendum as early as this November. Other financing options also are being explored, said Bill Jackson, the county’s chief budget officer.

The county has been discussing the need for a new booking or processing center for years as its current one has been operating over capacity even as the jail population has fallen. The city is partnering in the effort as it hopes an expanded intake facility would allow it realize its longstanding goal of shuttering its two aging jails.

You may be thinking “Wasn’t there a bond referendum for this back in 2007, and didn’t we vote it down?” The answer is Yes on both counts. What’s different about it this time is that the county jail is no longer overcrowded, inmates are no longer being outsourced, and most importantly there’s a recognition that keeping the inmate population down is a good thing. The concern in 2007 was that we were simply being asked to build more jail space so we could hold more inmates. Whether that really was the plan or not back then, there’s no question that this is not the purpose of the joint processing center now. We’ve got our priorities in order now.

Commissioner Steve Radack said the center “needs to go a long way in keeping the mentally ill out of jail.”

“The last time this was really looked at, there wasn’t probably as much thought in it as there is today in reference to the mentally ill,” he said. “Today begins the new process.”

A recent county analysis showed 920 inmates cycled through the county jail more than five times in the past two years, 60 percent of whom were mentally ill and 63 percent of whom were homeless.

“A joint processing center, I think, will provide an opportunity for us to do a much improved job for potentially diverting certain low-level offenders who are not a threat to society with mental illness from incarceration,” said Steve Schnee, executive director of Mental Health and Mental Retardation Authority of Harris County.

That would be a huge step forward. There are still a lot of details to be worked out here, but all the indicators, from our attitude about how to deal with mentally ill offenders to city-county relations, are pointing in the right direction.

Treating rather than jailing the mentally ill

Very good news.

Harris County Sheriff Adrian Garcia and his medical staff wholeheartedly support a bill filed this week to reduce recidivism by the mentally ill who wind up in the county jail, a $5 million pilot program to transition them into community treatment facilities.

“These individuals are principally in our custody because they are sick, not because they are hardened criminals causing incredible danger to the general public,” Garcia noted. “Ultimately it diverts our law enforcement officers away from the gangsters and the thugs that are out there creating chaos and mayhem.”

The sheriff said he could use the millions his office spends on jailhouse mental health treatment to hire more frontline patrol deputies and investigators and beef up anti-gang, human smuggling and other units that combat major criminal enterprises operating in the county.

“We need to make sure those people who are sick are treated appropriately for their illness – that does not include bars, shackles, handcuffs and that their nurse looks more like a police officer than they do a nurse,” Garcia said.

The bill was filed by Sen. Joan Huffman, R-Houston, a former Harris County prosecutor and state district judge, who contends that moving the mentally ill out of jail is not only socially responsible, but will save Texas counties a lot of money.

“It costs around $137 per day to keep someone behind bars, as opposed to $12 per day for community mental health services,” Huffman said in a statement announcing the legislation. “The majority of the individuals in the Harris County jail never received the services they needed – services that would have kept them out of jail in the first place.”

The jail’s medical budget is $47 million a year, and half or more is used to provide mental health experts, purchase and dispense psychotropic medication, as well as train and pay salaries of jail staff who are assigned to work with the mentally ill. At any one time, 24 percent of the jail’s nearly 9,000 inmates are receiving medication for mental health reasons.

Via Your Houston News, I learn that the bill in question is SB1185. The key to this is that funds are being restored for mental health services.

“There’s no doubt this is getting much more attention this year — in large part, I think, because of Sandy Hook,” said Senate Criminal Justice Committee Chairman John Whitmire, D-Houston. “People are realizing you either pay now or you pay later, after there have been victims. People who have emotional issues, who get off their meds, who have mental illness that is not treated, will end up involved with the criminal justice system at some point. History shows us that.”

The policy shift includes adding an additional $195 million to the proposed budget for mental health care in the state’s health and human services programs and more than $5.9 million to expand mental health services for parolees to give them a better chance of succeeding after prison.

Suggestions of increased mental health funding have also cropped up in ongoing discussions over school discipline and providing proper treatment for military veterans. Lawmakers in both the Senate and the House also have proposed more money for community-based services and programs in local jails — including a proposed pilot program at the Harris County Jail in Houston, the state’s largest lockup, where mental health caseloads have been a growing issue for several years.

[…]

Senate Health and Human Services Chair Jane Nelson, R-Flower Mound, has made increased mental health funding a priority — in a state that currently ranks 49th in per capita spending for mental health services. Even as the state’s population grew in the past decade, mental health spending for all types of programs hasn’t kept pace.

“We want to see lawmakers make a sound investment in our state’s mental health system,” said Greg Hansch, a policy coordinator for the National Alliance on Mental Illness that held a rally last month at the Capitol for more funding. “People aren’t able to access services so they end up out on the streets, sleeping under bridges and exposed to the elements. … They end up in our emergency rooms and prisons, which cost a lot of money for our state.

“We could be using our dollars more effectively.”

We also could have been a lot less stingy about appropriating those dollars, and less willing to cut them, but this is where we are. It’s a step in the right direction, and I hope the Harris County pilot gets expanded as quickly as possible. Grits has more.

Yes, Ed Emmett supports Medicaid expansion

As I’m sure you’re aware, I’ve been banging the drum pretty much nonstop for Medicaid expansion. I see it not only as a state issue but a county issue as well, which is why I’ve made a big deal about what Harris County is or isn’t doing about it. I haven’t seen the subject come up in Chronicle reporting on health care issues relating to Harris County, nor have I seen a news story devoted to the matter. I finally got an answer to one of my biggest questions on Sunday in the form of this Chron editorial.

Judge Ed Emmett

Near the top of the to-do list is lessening burden of indigent health care, which costs county taxpayers close to $600 million in unreimbursed expenses annually.

Emmett, a mainstream conservative Republican, makes no bones about the solution. He says he is “full bore” for expansion of Medicaid, the federal program that addresses the health care needs of the poor and indigent. That means pressing the GOP majority in Austin to do what does not come naturally: Recognize the utter necessity of accepting federal dollars to pay for Medicaid expansion in Texas.

Emmett’s dollars-and-cents argument, borrowed from the Legislative Budget Board, is compelling: If Texas contributes $50.4 million in the next two years, he says, the state will receive $4 billion in funding from Washington in the coming biennium – and much of that is money Texans sent to the nation’s capital in the first place.

Getting relief for Harris County Jail as a dumping ground for our mentally ill is another priority. Making fuller use of the Harris County Psychiatric Center is one likely solution.

Well, that’s very good to see. I had not seen any clue about how Judge Emmett felt before that, and I think it’s fair to say that I’ve been paying close attention to the matter. Still, it’s certainly possible that there had been some reporting on it by the Chron that I’ve missed, or some reporting elsewhere. I did a search on “Emmett Medicaid expansion” in the Chron archives, both at the legacy chron.com site and the subscriber-only houstonchronicle.com site. I got three results – the editorial noted above, an unrelated story about Virginia, and this editorial from a couple of days earlier:

The problem of the uninsured in Texas is numerically daunting. More than 6 million of our fellow Texans go without insurance, including nearly 2.7 million whose incomes are between zero and 133 percent of the federal poverty level. About 800,000 are undocumented workers, but 5 million are citizens.

Community Health Choice is calling for what it describes as a “unique Texas solution” that would acknowledge the political reality in this state where federally administered registries are unacceptable.

Instead, it backs a system that would cut down on the complexity of Obamacare while matching up well with the needs of huge numbers of Texans all across the income strata.

Houston and Harris County property taxpayers have an enormous stake in the successful creation of such a program. Each year more than $500 million in county property taxes goes to fund health care expenses. This burden is dumped on local taxpayers by the refusal of the state to create a fair and equitable system.

Harris County Judge Ed Emmett, who is on the very front lines in this battle, supports the expansion of Medicaid, noting that “it doesn’t make any sense for the state not to take federal dollars.” Emmett is a mainstream Republican whose views should be heeded in Austin.

I also did a Google search on the same terms. I got the same Chron pieces, some of my own writing, a number of irrelevant matches, and on page two, this Guidry News story from last week, reporting from an H-GAC meeting:

Harris County Judge Ed Emmett discussed two issues, indigent health care and transportation funding.

“While it’s nice to say that the state’s going to stand up against Obamacare, the truth of the matter is indigents are going to get health care and it’s going to be paid for by somebody,” Emmett said. “So one of the issues – and we have no position on it yet, but something everybody needs to be aware of, particularly those at the county level – if we don’t go with Medicaid expansion then that means the local property tax(payers) are going to foot the bill for indigent health care. It’s that simple.”

I presume Judge Emmett was not using the royal “we” in that sentence but was speaking about Commissioners Court. Given all this, I think I can reasonably exonerate myself for my ignorance. And in case anyone else had been wondering about this, Judge Emmett addressed the matter directly in his State of the County 2013 speech, which he delivered yesterday. Here’s the crucial bit from the speech:

The second looming issue is health care. Harris County is home to the Texas Medical Center, arguably the greatest concentration of health care expertise in the entire world. Yet, almost with in the shadows of this institution exists a huge uninsured and underinsured population. The Harris County Hospital District has a legal and moral obligation to provide indigent health care. The best value for taxpayers and the best outcome for patients comes from establishing medical homes through neighborhood clinics. I believe we must do a better job of coordinating public and private resources to meet the health care needs of the entire county. This is not just about the health of individuals. It is critical to the health of our entire community.

With the advent of the Section 1115 waiver process, the State of Texas is taking a big step toward creating an indigent health care delivery system that crosses county lines and encourages innovative approaches.

In the debate about health care, it must be remembered that in any delivery system, someone has to pay. The Texas Hospital Association, the Texas Medical Association and even the Legislative Budget Board believe Texas should expand Medicaid coverage in order to take advantage of the federal matching funds. I agree with the health care professionals. While the political debate over the Affordable Care Act continues, poor people will continue to get sick and need care. Harris County taxpayers should not have to foot the bill while our federal tax dollars are sent to other states.

Of course, with the Legislature in session, there is one subject about which I am obsessed. Funding for mental health care must be increased at the state level, and a plan must be implemented to divert those with mental health issues from the criminal justice system. The Harris County Jail should not be the largest mental health facility in the state. The Harris County Psychiatric Center should be fully utilized, and Harris County should take the lead in developing a pilot project that will make the entire nation take notice. State Sen. Joan Huffman and members of the county legislative delegation are working on legislation to create just such a pilot project. It is shameful that Texas ranks 51st in spending for mental health. It is also wasteful of taxpayer dollars. By spending wisely on mental health, we can save much more in the criminal justice arena. Even more importantly, we can improve lives and do what is right.

I’m glad to hear it. It’s what I expected from Judge Emmett, who’s always been more about doing things than making political points. Obviously, Rick Perry doesn’t care about any of this, but I have some hope that what he’s saying here can sway a few people. It must be noted that doing the right thing carries some risk for Judge Emmett, as there’s already talk about a primary challenge to him. I rather doubt this stance will be an asset to him in such a campaign, if one materializes, but maybe it won’t be that much of a burden if the trend of Republicans coming to accept Obamacare and Medicaid expansion as the law of the land makes its way here. Maybe. In any event, I’m glad this has been cleared up. Now I hope that Commissioners Court follows the Judge’s lead and passes a resolution calling on the Lege to do its part.

UPDATE: Here’s the Chron story:

Emmett, using the bully pulpit of his sixth annual State of the County speech to the Greater Houston Partnership, drew widespread applause when he said he agrees with recommendations from the Texas Hospital Association, Texas Medical Association and Legislative Budget Board on expanding the federal health care program for the poor.

[…]

Ron Cookston, executive director of Gateway to Care, a health care education and outreach group, called Emmett’s announcement “oustanding.”

“Leaders in Fort Worth and Bexar County and other counties across Texas are beginning to step up and recognize the importance of moving forward with the expansion,” Cookston said. “That’s just huge in terms of the working poor that would have access to adequate health care resources.”

Emmett, like Perry, a Republican, said after his speech that his address was not meant as an appeal to political moderation, but to logic. No one has accused Republican governors Rick Scott of Florida, John Kasich of Ohio or Jan Brewer of Arizona of being liberals, he said, but each has decided to support Medicaid expansion.

“To me, it is conservative to spend $50 million to get $4 billion,” he said. “When things are going well, that’s when we need to spend money to make sure things keep going well in the future. If I got that across, then I accomplished my purpose.”

I’d use other words than “conservative” in that last paragraph – “sensible”, “smart”, “a no-brainer” – but whatever works for you is fine by me. It’s just unfortunate that none of these words have any meaning to Rick Perry.