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Texas Appleseed

The problem with more cops in schools

I haven’t had anything to say so far about Greg Abbott’s proposed responses to the Santa Fe school shooting. There isn’t much to say about it – these are a bunch of small changes around the margins, all while scrupulously avoiding any mention of ways to understand the causes of gun violence or strategies to actually try to reduce it. It basically takes it as a given that hey, people are gonna get shot, so we may want to try to make it a little harder on the shooters. RG Ratcliffe has a critique that’s worth reading, but Mimi Swartz really gets at an issue that has not gotten the attention it deserves.

But overall, the governor’s plan to address school safety is profoundly regressive in ways that go far beyond the gun control debate. His call for more police and more military style security raises crucial questions about what kind of places schools should be. Specifically, his plans for more armed guards, armed teachers, and armed staffers will erase a decade or so of progress in making schools more welcoming—and Texas’ kids better educated.

Maybe few Texans recall the Zero Tolerance era, which started with the Pre-Columbine U.S. Congress’ Gun Free Schools Act in 1994 that required a one year automatic expulsion for any kid who brought a gun to school. The Clinton Administration encouraged schools receiving federal funding to adopt the tenets of gun free schools, which became the basis of zero tolerance policies in other areas. There were many unexpected consequences, especially punishments for minor infractions that could be looped in with the War on Drugs—along with entering a classroom without permission, or roughhousing on a school bus, kids could be expelled for bringing asthma inhalers and Sudafed to school. It probably wasn’t a coincidence that the Zero Tolerance Era coincided with the Tough on Crime Era of the Bush and Clinton administrations which led to exponential increases in prison sentences for minor offenses, particularly for men of color. The so-called school to prison pipeline was born.

Over the ensuing years, groups like Texas Appleseed worked overtime to issue reports and lobby the legislature to reduce school suspensions (some of which started in kindergarten) and dire punishments for, say, talking back to teachers. Their reports also showed that so-called Juvenile Justice Alternative Education Programs were basically low cost jails for kids and profit centers for private companies that did nothing but put good kids in with bad and offered no educational value to either. Studies also showed that putting more police in schools had a detrimental effect on learning, especially among poor and minority kids who were now the target of police abuse both on the street and in schools. It wasn’t surprising that dropout rates increased.

Over time, it became clear that Zero Tolerance just didn’t work. Newer programs like Restorative Justice, which allow kids to have their say and teach them to take responsibility for their actions, have won the support of liberal and conservative groups largely because they do. Even though they can be more labor intensive, they have been shown in numerous studies to keep kids in school and violence down. “What we have shown in our research and what we know experts have documented across the U.S. is that an increase in law enforcement doesn’t lead to a safer school and often results in real harm, particularly for students of color and students with disabilities,” explained Deborah Fowler, Executive Director of Texas Appleseed.

Abbott’s report, then, has the musty whiff of a darker time, despite protestations that more protections—offering gun training to nearly everyone who isn’t a student—are needed to keep kids safe. This despite an FBI report, among others, that shows no statistical evidence that putting more armed people in schools reduces school violence.

There’s more, so read the rest. It’s hard to know how much support there will be for these proposals, even with both chambers getting a head start on studying them. I just hope there are some voices expressing these concerns while that is happening.

More reasons not to put people in jail

We shouldn’t put people in jail for owing fines.

In January, state Rep. James White, R-Hillister, filed House Bill 1125, which would ban Texas judges from jailing people for an offense that is punishable only by a fine. State Rep. Diego Bernal, D-San Antonio, soon signed on as a joint author. On Thursday, White also filed House Bill 3729, which would require courts to ask whether a defendant can afford to pay a fine and offer alternatives to payment.

Bernal said representing a district with people from different socioeconomic backgrounds made him realize how a simple traffic ticket could dramatically affect someone’s life. HB 1125 would “level the playing field” and “give people some dignity,” he said.

Thousands of Texans are at risk of being arrested at any given moment for not paying fines related to traffic offenses or other city ordinance violations, according to a recently released report by Texas Appleseed and the Texas Fair Defense Project. Those who can’t afford to pay often find themselves hit with additional fines or other restrictions such as being blocked from renewing their driver’s licenses and vehicle registrations.

More than 200,000 Texans can’t renew their licenses and approximately 400,000 have holds on vehicle registrations due to unpaid fines, according to the report. In 2015, almost 3 million warrants were issued in cases where the punishment was originally just a fine.

“What happens is that the current system is counterproductive, and it drives people further into debt because they’re accumulating more tickets for driving illegally and on top of those tickets are all of the costs and fees that start snowballing as well,” said Mary Mergler, criminal justice project director with Texas Appleseed. “So it drives people further into debt … and impedes people’s abilities to make a living.”

Courts generally don’t offer alternatives to jailing or ask about a defendant’s ability to pay, the study found. In 2015, judges rarely used community service to resolve “fine-only” cases – just 1.3 percent of the time. In fewer than 1 percent of cases, they waived fines or reduced payments owed because the defendant couldn’t afford to pay, according to the study.

Many drivers feel a sense of helplessness related to paying off their mounting fines, said Emily Gerrick, a staff attorney with the Texas Fair Defense Project.

“It’s very easy for people to accumulate thousands of dollars in ticket debt even if they’re not bad drivers, just because they have to get their kids to school, they have to go to the doctor,” she said. “There’s no choice but to drive, so they’re going to keep getting these tickets and then eventually, what ends up happening is they get their warrant, they go to jail.”

That kind of disruption puts families, jobs and housing at risk, studies and individual accounts have shown.

“They’re usually very distressed,” Gerrick said, describing clients behind bars. “I’ve had them not know where their kids were when I saw them.”

Mergler added that the situation undermines, rather than improves, public safety.

“People with outstanding warrants who are afraid of being arrested on those warrants are inclined to avoid contact with law enforcement, whether that’s to report a crime or even to ask for help when they themselves are a victim of crime,” she said.

I agree with this, and I agree that we should not jail people for having unpaid fines. I’m sure there are some exceptional circumstances under which jailing is the best option, but it should be the exception and not the rule. Otherwise, people should always be given alternative means of complying – payment plans, community service, some other means that people smarter than I am can come up with – and should not have additional violations and fines piled on top of their existing ones if they are in the process of paying them off. It’s not justice, and it’s not right. I support these bills and I hope to see them become laws.

(By the way, that same argument at the end of this story, about how this situation undermines public safety, is basically the same argument made by police chiefs and sheriffs against so-called “sanctuary cities”. Just wanted to point that out.)

Decriminalizing truancy

This is important.

Sen. John Whitmire

Sen. John Whitmire

Senate Bill 106, filed by Sen. John Whitmire, D-Houston, would make major overhauls to current truancy law, including referring students to a civil court that hears truancy cases rather than a criminal court.

Under current law, children as young as 12 who miss 10 or more days or parts of days in a 6-month period and their parents must appear in court, where they face a Class C misdemeanor charge and a fine up to $500. School districts can file truancy charges when a student misses at least three full or partial days in a four-week period.

Advocates told the Senate Criminal Justice Committee that many truant students miss school because they are are pregnant, bullied or are the sole financial providers for their families. They said current law unfairly punishes them, labeling them a criminal at an early age.

“We have to find a way to encourage students and we’re finding that if you come through with a punitive manner it just doesn’t work,” said Yvonne Williams, a Travis County judge who deals with dozens of truancy cases a week.

Sen. Whitmire is acting on the tireless advocacy of Texas Appleseed, which has been banging the drum over the school-to-prison pipeline for several years. Decriminalizing truancy is at the top of their legislative agenda for this session. It’s great to see this move forward, especially (as Grits reported from the hearing) in the face of some heated but misleading opposition. Kudos to all for this, but let’s make sure it crosses the finish line.

Meanwhile, Sen. Whitmire has some other reforms on the burner as well.

Legislation that would take the biggest step in eight years to reform Texas’ juvenile-justice system by keeping more teen-aged offenders in community and regional treatment centers, rather than in a remote state lockup, was approved late Tuesday by a state Senate committee.

Under Senate Bill 1630, up to 80 percent of juvenile offenders who are now sent to state lockups could instead be held in local treatment programs – a move that could significantly downsize the state’s long-troubled youth corrections system and save taxpayers perhaps as much as $40 million.

“This is the next huge step to keep the youth closer to their communities in programs that work, instead of state programs that have not,” said state Sen. John Whitmire, D-Houston, the author of the measure. “We’ll not only have better results, but this will save money.”

Officials and justice experts testified during a public hearing the plan, if approved, would mark the most significant change in Texas’ juvenile justice system in years – a change recommended seven years ago, when the number of youths in state lockups was cut by more than half in favor of local treatment and rehabilitation programs.

Under the bill, youths serving time for so-called indeterminate sentences – most held for less-serious crimes and who remain in the program until they successfully complete it – would be sent to regional facilities, many of them operated by counties, instead of the state’s five high-security lockups that more resemble prisons than rehabilitation centers.

Tom Brooks, chief juvenile probation officer of Harris County, and his counterpart in Bexar County, Lynne Wilkerson, were among a long list of witnesses voicing support for the legislation, which has also been endorsed by officials of the Texas Juvenile Justice Department.

[…]

Whitmire said Senate budget writers refocused the agency’s two-year budget to fund more local rehabilitation and treatment programs and to hire more parole officers.

“It currently costs about $140,000 a year to house a youth in a state facility, and it costs just $60,000 in a local or regional program – with much better outcomes,” Whitmire said.

I don’t see how anyone can argue with that. Again, I’m glad to see this moving, and I hope to see it go the distance.

There is one reform that won’t happen at this time, however.

Armed with research on the dangers 17-year-olds face in adult jails and prisons, children’s groups and criminal justice advocates have made the cause a top priority this session. Texans Care for Children convened a summit on the issue last fall, and a January report from a House committee has recommended changing the law.

Texas’ law, the committee notes, is out of step with both federal law and all but eight other states. The report notes research that says adolescent brains are still developing, which calls into question whether they should be held as culpable as adults, and suggests they might have a better chance at rehabilitation.

Sheriffs and jailers have supported the idea as well, in part because federal law already requires them to keep 17-year-olds out of “sight and sound” from older inmates, which is an expensive proposition. In practice, especially in smaller county facilities, 17-year-olds are confined alone instead. Juvenile court judges in Bexar and Harris counties have also signed on, editorial boards at the Houston Chronicle, San Antonio Express-News, Austin American-Statesman have all called for change this year.

With such a drumbeat of support, moving 17-year-olds into the juvenile justice system seems like just the sort of research-based, bipartisan idea that a reform-minded Legislature would embrace. On Wednesday afternoon, a House committee will hear a handful of bills to do so.

But for now at least, the proposal is likely headed nowhere in the Senate, where the most visible opposition has come from an unlikely source: Whitmire.

“I personally, philosophically, believe that if a 17-year-old commits a violent act, I see no reason to change that they wouldn’t be [treated] as an adult. I just think that a 17-year-old knows right from wrong,” Whitmire told the Observer. “I just am not of the opinion that it’s a broken system, and I’m not prepared to change the law to assist the sheriffs in the management of their jails.”

Well, we’ll have to disagree on that. I think the wind is blowing in the direction of less incarceration, and we should take advantage of any opportunity we can to pursue that. Maybe next session for this part of it.

How much do payday lenders suck?

This much.

paydayloanssized-712x475

Pursuing, or even threatening, criminal charges against payday and title borrowers is strictly prohibited by Texas law, with very few exceptions. The Texas Constitution unequivocally states, “No person shall ever be imprisoned for debt.”

But new research released this morning by Texas Appleseed shows that criminal charges against payday borrowers for missing payments is common in Texas. Texas Appleseed documents more than 1,500 criminal complaints of bad check and theft by check allegations filed by payday loan companies in Texas between 2012 and the spring of this year. Many of them resulted in fines, arrest warrants and even jail time.

The research builds on reporting by the Observer published in July 2013, which found 1,700 instances in which payday lenders in Texas have filed criminal complaints against customers. The Observer story prompted an ongoing investigation by the state Office of Consumer Credit Commissioner, which regulates the industry in Texas, into one payday loan business, Cash Biz. It also led regulators to issue an advisory bulletin to lenders warning them to stop pursuing criminal charges against their customers.

Texas Appleseed found 13 different payday loan companies pursuing criminal charges in eight different counties, including Travis, Dallas, Harris and Collin. Texas Appleseed filed a complaint today with the federal Consumer Financial Protection Bureau, the Federal Trade Commission, the Texas Attorney General’s Office and the state Office of Consumer Credit Commissioner. The complaint letter, which includes 700 pages of supporting documentation calls for state and federal authorities to launch an investigation and take enforcement action against lenders abusing the law and their customers.

“In addition to their outrageous rates and lending practices, payday loan businesses are illegally using the criminal justice system to coerce repayment form borrowers,” said Ann Baddour of Texas Appleseed. “This directly contravenes state and federal law, which eliminated debtor’s prisons long ago.”

In one justice of the peace court in Harris County, the group found that arrest warrants were issued in more than 42 percent of the cases and at least six people served jail time. In Collin County, there were 740 documented criminal cases against payday borrowers—636 from a single lender, PLS Loan Store—and $132,000 collected from borrowers.

Go read the whole thing, and read that Observer story from last year that I managed to overlook at the time. I don’t know about you, but I don’t want my county’s law enforcement apparatus acting as a debt collector for private companies. Here’s the Texas Appleseed press release and the complaint they filed, which lists all the offenders. Consider this your pre-session reminder of why we need state regulation of these shysters. I don’t know what any of the offices that received these complaints can do about it, but I would suggest that boiling them in their own pudding and burying them with a stake of holly through their heart would be poetically just, if perhaps not quite constitutional.

Wonkblog on Texas cities’ efforts to combat payday lenders

It’s always nice when the national media notices something positive happening in Texas instead of the usual.

The number of payday and auto title loan outlets has skyrocketed since 2005. (Texas Appleseed)

Four years ago, ACE Cash Express was the company that turned Dallas Council member Jerry Allen into the payday loan industry’s worst enemy.

The day before he was about to celebrate the launch of the Bank On Dallas program, which helps people get bank accounts, Allen got a call from a lobbyist asking if he would meet with the ACE’s executives. He didn’t have time, and declined. But the next day, along with regular council business, it became apparent that two council members had taken the meeting: They made a proclamation declaring ACE a model corporate citizen, after it donated $100,000 to relief efforts in Haiti. “It irritated me that these guys thought they could play that game,” Allen said. “It was game on.”

Texas has been a gold mine for payday lenders since 2005, when a court ruling sanctioned a loophole in usury laws that allowed them to charge whatever interest they pleased. Storefronts proliferated to the point where, according to a 2012 report by Texas Appleseed, the state accounted for 60 percent of the four biggest publicly traded firms’ profits. A major push by religious and community groups to pass restrictions in the state legislature failed in its last biannual session, in 2013; they only managed to require that borrowers be provided with certain disclosures when they took out loans.

Allen, however, had already started pushing on a different front. In 2011, he got an ordinance passed that limited the number of installments on a loan to four, each of which must pay down 25 percent of the loan principal, and can’t exceed 20 percent of a borrower’s paycheck. On top of that, the council passed zoning restrictions that prevented new shops from opening within certain distances from highways, residential areas, and other payday lenders.

It’s not really an aggressive set of rules. Because municipalities aren’t allowed to legislate much on top of an area already regulated by the state, Dallas didn’t limit the actual interest or fees the lenders could charge, so as to remain safe from legal challenges. Still, Allen says, not one single new “credit service organization,” as they’re called in the state, has applied to set up shop in Dallas since it passed. And meanwhile, 17 other cities — including most of the largest, besides Fort Worth — have passed similar rules. That’s left advocates, especially Allen, feeling triumphant.

“You can run, but you better run fast, because we’ve got jets on,” Allen says. “Go down your rabbit holes, because we’re going to put concrete in ’em. We’ve got ’em on the run, and we’re shooting ’em in the back.”

Allen doesn’t hold out much hope that Texas’ next legislative session will significantly strengthen or standardize the ordinances that cities have been adopting on their own; he’s just hoping the conservative House won’t overrule them. In the mean time, he’s waiting for the CFPB’s expected rulemaking in the fall, which could include national requirements for a borrower’s ability to pay back loans, even though the agency can’t cap the interest rates outright. And importantly, he’s working to develop alternative banking services, so people don’t find themselves in Gail Rowland’s shoes in the first place — a common critique of the industry, which says people will just seek out even worse options if they can’t borrow against their next paycheck.

One possible substitute: Community loan centers, like this one in Brownsville, Tex., which offer more affordable small-dollar loans. They’ll have an easier time expanding once payday lenders retreat, as they have in most places that place serious limits on their operations.

“If there’s a situation where people don’t have access,” Allen says, “well then dad gummit, we’ve got to get it to them.”

The “go where the customers are” approach of Select Federal Credit Union (SFCU) in San Antonio is another possible substitute. I’m glad to see people paying some attention to that, because it undercuts the one argument that the payday lenders have for themselves, and I strongly suspect they will not be able to handle this kind of competition. I had forgotten about the zoning restrictions in the Dallas ordinance. The Houston ordinance doesn’t have anything like that. Not because of the Z-word – we have no problem restricting where bars, liquor stores, and strip clubs can operate; there should be no reason we couldn’t do the same with payday lenders. That’s something I’d like to see considered as an extension of our ordinance down the line, maybe next year. I understand CM Allen’s pessimism about state action on payday lenders, but do keep in mind that one candidate for Governor has helped lead the fight against payday lenders, while the other candidate greatly enabled their expanded presence. Just look at that chart above to see the effect. You want to improve the odds of state action, or at least greatly reduce the odds of any attempt to claw back what the cities have done, you know who to vote for this fall.

Enforcing a new payday loan ordinance

Mayor Parker’s proposed payday lending ordinance will be up before Council today, though it might wind up being delayed until the new Council is sworn in. It’s not clear yet how the vote might go, but in the meantime it’s worth pondering what the enforcement mechanism for this new law would be. Other cities that have passed similar ordinances, on which the Houston version is modeled, have taken it slow so far.

Martha Hernandez, who was hired to handle enforcement of the ordinance for the city of Austin, said four complaints have been referred for prosecution in 19 months. Her staff is nearly done with an analysis showing which lenders are most likely violating the ordinance, based on the accuracy of their reports, complaints and other data. That list will guide compliance audits, she said.

“Our process, we anticipated it would be complaint-driven, but there’s just not very much demand on that. We’re constantly looking at what we can do to better inform the public about the ordinance,” Hernandez said. “The plan has always been to do audits in tandem with the complaint-based investigations.”

Dallas City Councilman Jerry Allen said more than 30 lenders were closed for violating a 2011 ordinance governing where the stores could operate, but agreed Dallas’ enforcement has been slow. The lenders’ lawsuit made the city cautious, he said, and officials paused to see if the Legislature would act.

“I wish it was quicker, but we’ve had a pretty organized approach to it. Without question, it’s now time for enforcement,” Allen said, adding audits could come in weeks. “Dallas is coming. We will find violations, it’ll be $500 a day, and we’re going to keep coming.”

San Antonio Councilman Diego Bernal said his city has hired no staff and acknowledged the first year under the new regime was quiet. However, he said, workers have begun stings, and he said there is enough public awareness that valid complaints are coming in.

“Some of the violations have been rectified: They weren’t registered and so we got them registered. Now we’re at a point where what we’re left with are bad actors that are purposefully violating the ordinance,” Bernal said. “We’re pursuing all enforcement options, one of which is full-on litigation.”

Houston plans to begin enforcement on its estimated 550 such lenders July 1 to give proper time to staff up, [City Attorney David] Feldman said.

See here for more on what the cities have been doing. I’m okay with the approach described above. This would be a big change, and it’s sensible for the city to give the payday lenders some time to make themselves compliant, as well as some time to get its own ducks in a row for future enforcement. To some extent, Houston and other cities will need to rely on consumer complaints, but it’s a good idea to get to a point where someone at the city has a reasonably clear picture of how these businesses are operating and can step in as needed to deal with problems. And none of this changes the fact that the Legislature needs to get its own act together and pass a real law that builds on what these cities have done and holds these businesses accountable across the board. We’ll see if Council does their job today or if we have to wait till next year. Campos has more.

Payday lending prospects look grim in the House

From the Observer:

Late into the night on Monday, the payday loan industry strutted its stuff before a very friendly House committee. The hearing came just a week after the Senate passed a surprisingly tough bill that the industry insists would shut down most of Texas’ 3,400 payday and auto-title storefronts. Even though the legislation aired last night is a faint shadow of the Senate bill, it got a rough treatment from six of the seven committee members.

Only the chairman and author of the bill, Rep. Mike Villarreal (D-San Antonio) evidenced any interest in cracking down on the industry.

“I think the tone of the committee was that clearly there was no support for what Villarreal put out there, at least right now,” said Ann Baddour of Texas Appleseed.

What happens next is anyone’s guess but it is possible that payday reform is dead for the session.

[…]

Villarreal’s bill is considered by consumer groups to be a minimalist reform effort. The Senate version would close a loophole that allows payday and title lenders to get around Texas’ anti-usury laws and charge unlimited rates. Instead it would impose a strict 36 percent APR cap on loans, effectively scuttling the business model in Texas. The Villarreal proposal, which focuses on limiting the number of “rollovers” and imposes modest limits on the size of loans based on borrower income, has only received tepid support from consumer groups.

The wording here is a little confusing. Rep. Villarreal has his own bill, HB2706, which was heard in committee on April 22 and which is pending in committee. I believe this bill is similar to the pre-amendment version of Sen. Carona bill, which is SB1247. That now-tougher bill, which passed the Senate last week, is what Rep. Villarreal brought up in committee this Monday. Rep. Villarreal is the chair of the Investments & Financial Services committee, but only one other member of the committee is a Democrat, and two of the Republicans are quoted in the story giving rhetorical foot massages to the payday lenders and the curious notion that their lightly regulated existence is necessary for truth, justice, and the American way. As the man said, you don’t need to be a weatherman to know which way the wind blows.

What happens next is impossible to predict but billions in revenues hang in the balance.

Daniel Freehan, the CEO of Cash America International, acknowledged as much on a conference call with analysts last week.

“Dozens of different scenarios could unfold at this point that run the gamut of this bill never getting out of the House committee, to a bill that passes the House in identical form of Senate Bill 1247. In between these two extremes are multiple permutations that could develop, and it’s impossible to predict how this may unfold with any reasonable degree of confidence.”

A worst-case scenario from the point of view of the reformers is legislation that would strike down city ordinances but not add any new statewide regulations. One such pre-emption only bill, House Bill 2953 by Rep. Ryan Guillen (D-Rio Grande City), is already headed to the House floor.

Last night, Rob Norcross of the Consumer Services Alliance of Texas, a group that represents 80 percent of all the payday and title storefronts in Texas, tried to play down the pre-emption issue, saying that he believed the industry would prevail in its court. But there’s no doubt that ordinances passed in Austin, Dallas, San Antonio, El Paso and Denton are cutting into profits. In January, Mark Kuchenrithe, the CFO of Austin-based EZCorp, told analysts that the company’s “profitability… was negatively impacted by over $1 million” during the last quarter of 2012 “as a result of ordinances enacted in Dallas and Austin.”

Here’s HB2953. Far better that nothing passes than this does. I’m okay with rolling the dice in the courts if it comes down to it. BOR has more.

UPDATE: The Trib adds on.

Division over the payday loan bill

Quite a heated little fight in the Senate yesterday.

An ugly scene erupted in the Texas Senate today, with Sen. John Carona (R-Dallas) suggesting that some of his Republican colleagues were “shills” for the payday loan industry and worrying that the GOP would be seen as “the party that is backed and bankrolled by payday lenders.”

After intense negotiations this week, Carona told lawmakers he had struck a deal to pass legislation to reform payday and auto-title lending in Texas. Most of the consumer groups, the cities, Senate Democrats and even the payday loan industry were on board with the “hard-fought compromise,” he said.

“There have been great concessions on both sides,” Carona said. “We can leave this chamber at the end of May and honestly say we made a significant incremental step forward on protecting consumers.”

However, as Carona moved toward a suspension of the rule to bring the bill up for debate, which requires two-thirds of the Senate, he complained that payday-loan lobbyists were calling senators on the Senate floor and asking them to change their votes. He even hinted that two GOP senators were acting as agents for the industry.

“If we don’t do it this time, you won’t be able to regulate this industry two years from now,” he said. “This industry will be so much wealthier, so much more politically powerful that you won’t be able to say no and you won’t be able to draw the line. I know the lobbyists are just in a frenzy right now to try to stir up some action on the floor and get one or two of my colleagues who seem to be working the floor to change their vote.”

Sen. Carona wound up pulling the bill down. The Trib adds some details.

Carona, who said the bill had been “negotiated literally through the night,” brought with him to the floor six amendments that were intended to address the concerns of some consumer advocates who said the bill didn’t go far enough in limiting the abilities of short-term lenders.

Ultimately, the bill was pulled before debate on the amendments began, but Carona said they mostly contained ways to strengthen consumer protections, including limiting the types of loans that short-term lenders could offer, mandating that lenders accept partial payments, and limiting the maximum duration of multiple-payment loans — a major sticking point for consumer advocates.

“There are only two or three amendments that the industry really finds objectionable,” he said, “and in that case, all we’re asking the chamber to do is do what’s right for consumers.”

Early in the debate, state Sen. Kirk Watson, D-Austin, said many senators’ support for the measure would depend on the inclusion of those six amendments in the final bill.

“I think that there will be an effort to stop 16 people from voting for any conference committee report that strips those out,” he said, referring to the version of the bill that could emerge from a future House vote.

But some senators, who had previously expressed their intent to vote for the bill that emerged from committee, balked at the proposed changes. In an argument about process that turned personal, critics of the bill took issue with the way Carona brought his amendments to the floor.

Leading the criticism was state Sen. Troy Fraser, R-Horseshoe Bay, who charged that Carona hadn’t given the chamber enough time to review the proposed changes. While calling payday lending reform a “difficult issue,” he asked Carona if he had sent the amendments around 24 hours in advance. Carona’s reply was sharp.

“No, sir,” he said. “And, frankly, I haven’t seen you do that with your bills.”

[…]

Fraser was joined in his criticism by Sen. John Whitmire, D-Houston, who also argued that the legislative process should be slowed down to give senators time to consider prospective amendments, adding that he had concerns about Houston’s ability to regulate payday lending under the bill.

“What’s the rush?” Whitmire asked Carona.

Because “the industry has hired damn near every lobbyist in town to kill this bill,” Carona replied.

When Carona replied that he had been in constant contact with the city of Houston to determine its position on the bill, Whitmire erupted, telling Carona that he would represent his own constituents. He again criticized Corona for rushing the process.

“When you were negotiating this most recent agreement, I was chairing [Senate] Criminal Justice for four hours,” Whitmire said. “I think this has gotten totally out of control.”

The bill in question is SB 1247. Before this kerfuffle, the main divisions had been among consumer advocates.

Some progressive groups, including the Center for Public Policy Priorities and Texas Impact, have thrown their support behind the bill, arguing that it’s better than the status quo.

“For us, doing nothing is not an option this time around,” said Don Baylor, senior policy analyst at the Center for Public Policy Priorities. He points to estimates that limiting the number of times borrowers can “roll over” loans would save consumers at least $132 million.

“You get to a point where you ask yourself the question, Is there any more money [for consumers] left on the table? The folks that have decided to support it have decided there isn’t any more money on the table.”

Bee Moorhead, director of interfaith group Texas Impact, said that it’s important that legislators show the increasingly aggressive and powerful industry who’s boss.

“The thing that’s hard is that first step,” Moorhead said, “saying the state gets to decide under what terms you do business.”

Opposing the bill, however, are most Senate Democrats, the Texas Catholic Conference, Baptist organizations, Texas Appleseed and AARP.

They say that Carona’s approach falls short of meaningful reform and sanctions harmful new loan products.

“Our opposition is that this bill doesn’t do what it purports to do,” said Ann Baddour, with Austin-based group Texas Appleseed.

The pre-emption of local ordinances is the sticking point for many, myself included. It should be noted that there is a decent argument for proceeding anyway, as articulated in the Chron.

The bill has split the community of nonprofits that lobby legislation affecting the poor. Favoring it are the Center for Public Policy Priorities, Goodwill Industries and Texas Impact, whose leaders believe it provides a pragmatic system of statewide regulation.

While it pre-empts the stronger city ordinances, they believe lenders simply are directing borrowers to suburban locations outside the reach of city enforcement.

The industry has launched legal challenges to those ordinances that probably will be resolved by the conservative Texas Supreme Court, said Scott McCown, executive director of the public policy center. “Do we really think that if the ordinances are challenged, the Texas Supreme Court is going to say they are valid and enforceable?” he asked.

McCown also said most cities do not have the “economic wherewithal” to enforce the ordinances. While he would like the bill to be stronger, McCown said, “our assessment is that this was the best we could do.”

[…]

Carona’s bill would limit the number of times lenders could “roll over” a loan and charge new fees. That provision would save Texas consumers at least $132 million a year, according to an analysis by the Texas Consumer Credit Commission.

[Rob] Norcross said [the payday lending group Consumer Service Alliance of Texas] agreed to it in response to the plethora of city ordinances and the burden that dealing with so many different laws creates for business. “If anybody thinks anybody (in the industry) is happy, they are wrong,” he said. “This is a high price to pay.”

I’m a half-a-loaf guy and I get where McCown and Moorhead are coming from. I’m still reluctant to support this thing, though perhaps I’d feel better once I knew what the amendments that never got to be debated are about. The Observer indicated that Carona may bring the bill back on Monday, though the Trib suggested it could be longer than that. I don’t know what to think at this point, other than to marvel once again at how sleazy the payday lending industry is. Trail Blazers has more.

Somewhat improved payday lending bill passes Senate committee

I still don’t think it’s good enough.

Breathing new life into a proposal that was doomed by the opposition of consumer groups only last week, a Texas Senate committee approved strengthened legislation Tuesday that imposes restrictions on the payday loan industry that could save desperate Texas consumers some $220 million a year.

Sen. John Carona, R-Dallas, said his proposal would end the cycle of debt that entraps thousands of Texans each year by curtailing the kinds of credit products offered, limiting loan amounts based on a borrower’s income and capping the number of times a loan can be refinanced.

Acknowledging that some consumer groups still opposed the bill as insufficiently restrictive, Carona cautioned that a politically powerful industry would kill legislation that reached too far. “In the eyes of none of you is this a perfect bill,” he said at a Senate Business and Commerce Committee hearing Tuesday. “But this is the only version that will pass this session. I am convinced the industry has given as far as it intends to go.”

Carona noted that according to the state’s consumer credit commissioner, the bill’s provisions would limit extensions of loans, saving Texas borrowers as much as $221 million a year. “If that’s not progress, then I am not sure what progress is,” he said.

Only last week the proposal appeared dead when every consumer group involved in negotiations testified against it. On Tuesday, however, representatives of Texas Impact, the Center for Public Policy Priorities and Goodwill Industries gave their blessings. “This will meaningfully benefit more than 300,000 borrowers and will save real money,” said Bee Moorhead of Texas Impact.

See here and here for the background. The bill in question is SB1247. Rep. Mike Villarreal says he is now prepared to move forward with his companion bill after Sen. Carona’s modifications. Others, such as the AARP, Texas Appleseed, and Sen. Letitia Van de Putte, who cast the sole No vote in committee, remain opposed. The modified bill still preempts local ordinances, which to me is a deal-breaker. I believe cities should not be prevented from addressing whatever shortcomings they see in the statewide regulations on these parasites. Until that provision is taken out, I can’t support this bill.

It’s good to be a payday lender

Bleah.

Earlier this legislative session, a chief of staff for a senator noted that the $4 billion Texas payday and auto-title loan industry would soon grow powerful and lucrative enough that the Texas Legislature would be unable to take it on. That time may have already come.

At a legislative hearing this morning, state Sen. John Carona, the Dallas Republican who’s leading the payday “reform” effort in the Senate, basically said the industry had bought off lawmakers. Carona was defending the latest version of his payday loan legislation, which most advocates derided as unacceptably weak. Senate Bill 1247 would scuttle the efforts of most of Texas’ big cities—Austin, San Antonio, Dallas and El Paso—to rein in payday loan excesses and codify the industry’s loan products in statute.

“You have to get the most you can get with the political support that you have,” Carona said. “This industry is in business and this industry has amassed enormous political support at the Capitol.”

He urged opponents to consider that the votes were lacking in both the House and the Senate to pass anything more.

Yesterday, campaign finance watchdog Texans for Public Justice released a report that “loan sharks” had poured almost $4 million into Texas politicians during the past two election cycles.

Carona blamed the industry’s stroke for the hobbled proposal he laid out in committee this morning. In almost every respect it’s weaker than the filed bill.

[…]

“None of this will meaningfully change the market,” said Ann Baddour of Texas Appleseed.

The latest version would also allow a one-year, multi-payment auto-title loan that would cost a borrower $5,000 to pay back a $1,000 product. The previous version had capped the length of such a loan at 270 days.

“They’ve basically created new uncapped loan products,” Baddour said.

Bishop Joseph Vazquez said the legislation “offers a few positive measures while it ultimately endorses predatory lending practices.”

“Current industry practice, which would be given state sanction, only rewards borrower failure with lender profit.”

Perhaps most galling to reform advocates is that the legislation would wipe out existing city ordinances, which almost uniformly provide stricter lending regulations. While Carona lamented that legislators had been persuaded by lucre to abandon whatever conscience they might have, a city councilman from San Antonio made a salient observation.

“While they’ve amassed a significant amount of political capital here, outside of Austin there is not anywhere a component of constituents that are on their side.”

The San Antonio City Council member in question is Diego Bernal, who pushed the San Antonio effort to curb payday lending excesses and who made his feelings about the industry quite clear. Any legislation that rolls back the local efforts to regulate payday lending is not only unacceptable, it’s unconscionable. Any legislator that votes in favor of such a bill should be ashamed of themselves. Thankfully, this weakened bill may get killed in the House.

But the compromise reached with industry groups may have cost Carona his House sponsor. Rep. Mike Villarreal, D-San Antonio, said he does not believe “the version presented in the Senate committee today provides adequate protection for consumers.”

He left open the possibility that further negotiations would produce a stronger version. “I know Chairman Carona would like to strengthen the bill,” Villarreal said. “I’m hopeful we can pass a balanced bill. But I’d rather pass no bill than legitimize usury.”

Amen to that.

City wants the Lege to deal with payday lending

That’s what came out of the presentation to Council on payday lending on Tuesday.

Houston leaders say they will wait to see whether the Legislature acts during its current session before voting on their proposal. Mayor Annise Parker has said the industry “cries out for regulation” and called the state’s failure to do so “disgraceful.”

[…]

Houston’s proposal would cap payday loans at 35 percent of the borrower’s gross monthly income for single-payment deals, which are intended to be paid back in a lump sum.

For multiple-payment loans, each installment would be capped at 25 percent of the borrower’s monthly income. Auto title loans could not exceed 6 percent of the borrower’s gross annual income or 70 percent of the car’s value, whichever is less.

The city’s proposal also would bar refinancing of multiple-payment loans. Single-payment payday loans could be refinanced no more than four times, and no more than six times for title loans. If a borrower cannot pay after the rollover maximum is reached, he must be offered a no-interest, no-fee payment plan with at least four installments.

Rob Norcross, of the Consumer Service Alliance of Texas, which represents all but 150 of the state’s 3,400 licensed payday and title lenders, said Houston’s proposed ordinance “is not perfect, but it’s a significant step in the right direction.” The group has agreed not to sue if the city adopts its ordinance largely as drafted, he said.

Consumer groups said the proposal is focused on what the industry could stomach, not what is best for the community.

They prefer the ordinance adopted by Dallas and other cities, which sets lower caps than the Houston proposal on the amount consumers can borrow, allows the plans to be refinanced fewer times, caps the number of installments that can be offered in multiple-payment deals, and requires the principal loan amount to be reduced by 25 percent with each refinancing or, on a multiple-payment deal, with each installment.

Allowing unlimited installments on multiple-payment deals, as the Houston draft does, is particularly problematic, said Texas Appleseed policy analyst Ann Baddour, since one such deal can contain the fees associated with 10 to 12 rollovers of a typical single-payment deal.

“The payday lenders are not likely to sue on this ordinance because it really doesn’t hurt very much,” said Mark Wawro, a Texas Appleseed board member. “It doesn’t address the cycle of debt. We want to see real change.”

This mirrors the comments I got on Tuesday’s post about the presentation. Clearly, a more comprehensive reform bill than what we got in 2011 is preferable to piecemeal action, and the story indicates that Sen. John Carona will be filing his own bill on payday lending soon. I would like the city to be prepared to take action on its own in the event that the Lege fails again, but I agree with Texas Appleseed that it would be better to follow in the path of cities that have already done this. Speaking of which, according to Texas Appleseed, the city of El Paso joined Austin, San Antonio, and Dallas in taking action to regulate payday lending in January, following the Dallas model. As for Dallas, the lawsuit filed against it by payday lenders over their ordinance was dismissed by a District Court judge on Tuesday, so if there’s a fear of being sued in Houston, this should help allay that.

Further reading, courtesy of Texas Appleseed: A 2012 Houston MSA fact sheet about payday and auto title loans; 2012 statewide data on same; and a copy of the proposed Houston ordinance, so that we all know what we’re arguing about. If nothing else, if Houston joins the other cities that have done this, it will be that much more pressure on the Lege to do something. It’s fine for Houston to give the Lege a chance to act first, but let’s be prepared to take the most effective action ourselves in case it’s needed. PDiddie has more.

The payday lenders’ new tricks

You really need to read Forrest Wilder’s story about the latest scheme by payday lenders to skirt regulation.

As serendipity would have it, I had stumbled onto the latest mutant creature in the wild and wooly world of Texas payday lending. “What you’ve come across is really important,” said Ann Baddour of Texas Appleseed, an Austin-based group that advocates for social and economic justice. “It looks like they have found a loophole within a loophole,” one that allows Cottonwood Financial (d/b/a Cash Store) to escape new, albeit meager, licensing and disclosure requirements passed by the Texas Legislature as well as more stringent rules adopted by Austin, San Antonio and Dallas.

[…]

What’s different about Cash Store’s loans versus a “regular” payday loan? Instead of signing a postdated check for the amount due, like you would in a true payday loan, the Cash Store had me sign a photocopy of a blank check. That small change apparently has magical powers. Voila! Not a deferred presentment transaction, not a payday loan, not a credit access business, and apparently not subject to Texas regulations.

Experts I consulted said the arrangement looked legal on its face, but raised troubling questions about the state’s convoluted and extraordinarily lax legal apparatus surrounding payday and title loans. (You can view my contracts here.)

“There are new products in the payday and auto-loan field that raise questions,” said state Sen. John Carona, a Dallas Republican who chairs the Senate Business and Commerce Committee. “These approaches appear to skirt local ordinances as well as state law. Carona said he would consider filing legislation to address the problem next year.

Read it and learn the details. What this ultimately boils down to is the fact that there are no limits on interest rates and fees that payday lenders can charge, which leads to effective annual percentage rates in the hundreds, even thousands. People who are forced by circumstance to take out one of these loans are often trapped, sometimes for years, paying fees without ever being able to pay off the principal. The simple solution is to do what other states have done and impose caps on interest rates and fees. If the Lege is serious about taking another crack at reform, this is what the goal needs to be.

Local action on payday lending

Patricia Kilday Hart reports on a promising movement.

Where payday lending comes from

No one was particularly surprised a year ago when the Texas Legislature failed – once again – to pass meaningful regulation of the payday and auto title loan industries. After all, the folks who charge triple digit interest on loans to society’s most desperately poor had invested $3.9 million on a persuasive lobby team to protect business as usual. But the coalition of consumer advocates hoping to de-fang the loan sharks – which included a wide swath of Texas churches – didn’t sit around and sulk.

Instead, the Texas Fair Lending Alliance, teaming up with the interdenominational Texas Faith for Fair Lending, found a way around the Austin lobby juggernaut. Taking a cue from the political axiom that “all politics is local,” they made their case to city councils in Austin and Dallas, which recently passed ordinances protecting their residents from open-ended loans with escalating fees and interest. This week, a San Antonio City Council committee took up the issue. Could Houston be far behind?

Like San Antonio, Dallas and Austin, poor neighborhoods in Houston have little access to banking, leaving a vacuum that the payday lenders have exploited. And really, is there any other word that better describes this business than “exploit?” When debtors can’t pay off their entire loan, they must pay stiff “rollover” fees plus interest. Imagine a family making $200 payments every two weeks for four months – shelling out $1,800 – without making a dent in their principal loan of $700.

That family is not imaginary, but the reason one San Antonio pastor became politically active. As I wrote last year, the family sought financial assistance from the Rev. Chad R. Chaddick’s church. Chaddick came to realize that lots of families obtaining financial assistance from churches were simply handing the cash over to lenders, in many cases, to keep their cars from being repossessed. “Eye-opening,” was how the polite minister described the situation.

Here’s more information about that San Antonio ordinance, which was proposed by City Council member Diego Bernal:

The proposed ordinance would be stronger than a law passed by the Legislature in 2011. That law requires payday lenders to post a fee schedule and submit to state regulation.

Payday lending is banned in at least a dozen states, and others limit loan amounts. In Texas, there’s a cap of 10 percent on annual interest rates, but Bernal said companies have found a loophole by calling themselves “credit-repair agencies,” which aren’t subject to the same limit.

Bernal’s plan has several elements, including limiting payday loans to 20 percent of the borrower’s gross monthly income and limiting auto title loans to the lesser of 3 percent of the borrower’s gross annual income or 70 percent of the vehicle value. He also seeks to require that the loans be limited to no more than four installments or three rollovers or renewals and that the proceeds from each installment or renewal reduce the loan principal by 25 percent.

Now, payday lenders can continually collect interest and fees from customers who can’t pay down the principal.

“You can put yourself into debt in perpetuity,” Bernal said. “And this (proposal) limits that.”

Seems reasonable to me. By the way, here’s how you can tell that the state law that was passed last year – which was still better than nothing, though not nearly as good as it should have been – is going to be inadequate. According to this Express News editorial in favor of Bernal’s proposal, Rick Perry appointed William White, the former head of payday lending giant Cash America, to head the Texas Finance Commission, which is the agency responsible for regulating payday lenders. Remember how well it worked out when Perry appointed one of Bob Perry’s top executives to head the agency that would regulate home builders? It’s like that.

See here and here for more on Bernals’ proposed ordinance, and see the Observer for more on the Texas Fair Lending Alliance. The Alliance released a poll showing broad support for further regulations and limits on payday lending – here’s the press release and the polling memo. Austin and Dallas have already taken some action, both via zoning laws and via similar legislation to Bernal’s. The payday lenders have threatened to sue, but the good guys feel like they’re on solid legal ground. I hope Houston gets in the game soon as well. I share Bernal’s feelings on the matter, as expressed in that last Express News link, a column by Brian Chasnoff:

On Wednesday, after City Council members agreed to draft an ordinance to address the problem locally, Tim Von Kennel explained why the industry opposes Bernal’s efforts.

“We need to have regulation,” said Von Kennel, executive director for Consumer Service Alliance of Texas, an association of payday lenders. “And we’re advocating state regulation over municipal ordinances.”

I’ve already outlined what “state regulation” looks like at the Capitol, where money seeps into cracks and distorts laws.

As for why Von Kennel is averse to “municipal ordinances,” Bernal’s reaction to the circling sharks is enlightening.

I asked the councilman how he responds to lobbyists’ entreaties to consider the perspective of payday lenders.

“How do I say this?” Bernal responded.

He paused for a few seconds, presumably to craft a politic answer.

“I sort of tell them,” he said, “to go (expletive) themselves.”

You’re my kind of guy, CM Bernal. For a non-exploitative alternative to payday lending, see The Slacktivist.

Rethinking school discipline

Wow.

Nearly 60 percent of junior high school and high school students get suspended or expelled, according to a report that tracked about 1 million Texas children over a six-year period.

About 15 percent of the Texas seventh- through 12th-grade students tracked during the study were suspended or expelled at least 11 times and nearly half of those ended up in the juvenile justice system. Most students who experienced multiple suspensions or expulsions do not graduate, according to the study by the Council of State Governments Justice Center and the Public Policy Research Institute of Texas A&M University.

“The findings in this report should prompt policymakers in Texas and in states everywhere to ask this question: ‘Is our (public) school discipline system getting the desired results?’ ” said Michael Thompson of the justice center, one of the report’s co-authors.

The findings suggest an urgent need to stop the criminalization of students for simply misbehaving, said Sen. John Whitmire, D-Houston, longtime chairman of the Senate Criminal Justice Committee, and Texas Supreme Court Chief Justice Wallace Jefferson.

Some highlights from the study:

The report also found that during a six-year period, about 15 percent of the students studied were suspended or expelled 11 times or more — and more than half of those students had been on probation or incarcerated by juvenile justice authorities.

The study also found that:

• Nearly 6 in 10 public school students studied were suspended or expelled from at least one class during grades seven to 12, most of them at least four times.

• Only 3 percent of the disciplinary actions were for conduct for which state law mandated suspensions and expulsions; the rest were made at the discretion of school officials primarily in response to violations of local schools’ conduct codes.

• Repeated suspensions and expulsions predicted poor academic outcomes. Only 40 percent of students disciplined 11 times or more graduated from high school during the study period, and 31 percent of students disciplined one or more times repeated their grade at least once.

• Schools that had similar characteristics, including racial composition and economic status of the student body, varied greatly in how frequently they suspended or expelled students.

Michael Thompson, director of the Council of State Governments Justice Center program and one of the report’s authors, said classroom removal is highly related to an increase of students repeating a grade, dropping out or entering the juvenile justice system.

“We see significant differences in the rates of suspension and explusion for similar student populations, indicating, I think, that it’s possible for schools, by relying less on suspension and expulsion, in theory, to actually reduce juvenile justice involvement and improve academic performance,” Thompson said.

You can find the report and related information here. It’s a first of its kind longitudinal study – every seventh grader was tracked for six years. I think we would all agree that every kid at that age occasionally engages in some knucklehead behavior. What we need to do with all this data is learn how to better distinguish between and deal with the good kids that do dumb things and the real troublemakers. The Trib notes that some school districts are already taking steps.

What the report ultimately means is that schools’ current methods of punishing kids are ineffective, said Deborah Fowler, a contributor to the report and director of Texas Appleseed, an Austin-based nonprofit social justice research and advocacy group.

“The good news is that we know there are alternatives that do work,” Fowler said. She said schools can stop disciplinary problems from happening in the first place with an approach that emphasizes positive behavioral intervention and support, or a “PBIS” model. That allows teachers “to focus less time on disciplinary referrals and … more on the purpose of their role, which is educating the students.”

Several school districts across the state have implemented PBIS models, Fowler said, including Austin, Leander, Amarillo and Pflugerville.

Jane Nethercut coordinates a positive behavioral support program at Austin ISD. She said the model was based on praising students when they are doing something right, rather than punishing them when they are doing something wrong — and that it has “changed the schools” around the district.

“Disciplinary referrals have gone down; attendance rates have gone up,” she said, “This is not rocket science — in the schools that practice PBIS, academic performance has also gone up. We have seen thousands and thousands of hours of recovered learning time.”

That’s the goal, right? Click on to see the full press release from the Council of State Governments Justice Center. There’s a lot we ought to be able to learn from all this data.

(more…)

Walle files bills to address school ticketing

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

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

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

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

Too many tickets

From Texas Appleseed, via Grits.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The data that Texas Appleseed collected reflects these important trends:

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

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

The TYC still has problems

Three years after the Texas Youth Commission was rocked by a sexual abuse scandal, there are still major problems at its facilities.

In a formal complaint asking the U.S. Justice Department to investigate, Texas Appleseed, Advocacy Inc., the Center for Public Representation and the National Center for Youth Law said the commission is unable to ensure the safety of the 1,700 youngsters it incarcerates because of operational flaws, including inadequate staffing, improper restraints and excessive force.

The complaint also alleges that:

• Youths are not being provided proper medical and mental health care and educational programs.

• Youths are improperly restrained to keep them under control, and excessive force has been used on several occasions.

• High numbers of youth-on-youth assaults continue to plague the agency’s lockups in Beaumont and Corsicana — which last year won the dubious distinction in a federal report of having the second-highest sexual assault rate in the country among youth prisons.

“Our recent visits to facilities indicate broader systemic problems that TYC leadership has not resolved,” the complaint states. “These problems are not isolated to specific sites, but exist throughout TYC’s system of lockdown facilities.”

Youth Commission officials said that the safety of its inmates and staff members remains “a top priority” and that they planned to investigate the allegations.

The commission is “taking this letter and the concerns presented in it seriously,” an agency statement said.

You can read the letter here. Governor Perry, of course, thinks everything is just peachy:

Gov. Rick Perry’s office said in a statement that Texas can fix any problems on its own.

“Since 2007, Gov. Perry has passed sweeping reforms to ensure the safety of incarcerated youth in the TYC system, and the state will continue to improve the system without the help of the federal government,” the statement said.

But some other folks think maybe it’s time to tear it all down.

State Sen. John Whitmire, D-Houston, the chairman of the Senate Criminal Justice Committee, says keeping young offenders in their home communities has proven more successful than any other approach. Most offenders are from urban areas where there are greater professional services available than in small, rural towns that are home to TYC lockups. “They just can’t get a staff … that is competent to provide safety for the children,” Whitmire says of TYC. If he had his druthers, Whitmire says, he would consolidate and shrink TYC facilities and instead put more money into community-based plans that keep youths closer to home. “It’s just dilapidated,” he says. “They need professional help, and [it’s] just not in these facilities.”

When Whitmire first brought up the idea of abolishing or downsizing TYC, [Deborah Fowler, the legal director of Texas Appleseed] was opposed. She was hopeful two years ago that [Cherie] Townsend, TYC’s new executive director, who had three decades in juvenile justice and a track record of successful programs in other states, could save the agency. But after touring the facilities in recent months and talking to inmates, she changed her mind. “I’m certainly open to ideas and thoughts about how to reform TYC short of abolishing it,” Fowler says, “but my primary concern right now is making sure kids in TYC facilities are safe.”

I will be running an interview with Sen. Whitmire next week. This is one of the topics we discussed. Tune in then to hear more about what he thinks about this.

“The school-to-prison pipeline”

Read this.

When it comes to discipline, Aldine ISD doesn’t mess around. The large suburban district expelled more students last year — 525 — than any other district in Texas, despite being a fraction of the size of large urban districts, according to state data.

Aldine boots nearly three times as many students as neighboring Houston ISD — which expelled 181 students in 2008-09 — even though its enrollment, about 67,000, is only a third the size. The forced-out students get processed into either the Harris County Juvenile Justice Alternative Education Program or one of two “very strict” special schools run by the Harris County Department of Education, an unusual agency that provides services to area districts but runs no schools for the general public, according to agency spokeswoman Carol Vaughn. An additional 1,399 students were shipped off to a district alternative program — not technically expelled but removed from traditional classes.

Aldine is cited as a particularly striking example of the criminalization of school discipline in The School-to-Prison Pipeline, a report to be released this morning by Texas Appleseed, a nonprofit research and advocacy group focusing on social and economic justice. “The ‘pipeline’ refers to a disturbing pattern of school disciplinary problems escalating from suspension to removal from school, juvenile justice system involvement, and school dropout,” the report asserts. “Numerous studies by national experts … have established a link between school discipline, school dropout rates and incarceration. … More than 80 percent of Texas adult prison inmates are school dropouts.” (Emphasis in original)

The full Texas Appleseed report is here (PDF). It’s long, but you can just read the executive summary, which includes policy prescriptions, to get a good feel for it. The dropout problem in this state is big enough (no matter what Governor Perry says) that we need to get our hands around all of it in order to truly address it. Read the Trib story and the Texas Appleseed report for a good start.

Juvenile justice in Harris County

Is rather an oxymoron, it seems. Apparently, the process for certifying juveniles to be tried as adults, which according to the DA’s office is supposed to be only done on “the worst of the worst”, is a mere formality.

In 2007 and 2008 alone, Harris County juvenile judges transferred 160 teens’ cases to the adult system — more than nine of the largest urban counties in Texas combined, according to a Chronicle analysis of statewide certifications by county.

The certifications are based on allegations they committed felonies, including robbery, murder, car theft and drug possession.

But such rulings are so common here — and so nearly identical — that they have prompted a legal attack from local attorneys and juvenile justice experts who call them “rubber-stamped” and “assembly line” injustices that violate children’s rights.

The result: “virtual destruction” of dozens of juveniles who are dumped and damaged in adult prisons and “could otherwise turn their lives around,” claims nonprofit Texas Appleseed, according to documents filed in the case. The nonprofit is part of a pending legal challenge of the 2008 certification of a Houston teen charged with murder.

Attorney Christene Wood, a family friend of that teen, said that during his hearing last year the juvenile judge surfed the Internet, laughed and never once made eye contact with the boy. “The certification process here is an absolute joke,” Wood said.

[…]

Before certifying a child, juvenile judges are supposed to hold a hearing and review evidence about the seriousness and nature of the offense, a child’s maturity and background, the likelihood of rehabilitation and the need for protection for the community, according to state law.

Historically, more than 90 percent of the DA’s recommendations for certifications were approved, county statistics indicate. The pace slowed somewhat in the first four months of 2009: 22 requests for certification; six declined.

The hearings tend to be quick — as short as 15 minutes — and based mostly on police statements and probation officers’ reports, according to a review of 2008 case files and interviews with attorneys.

Judges used fill-in-the-blank form rulings with very similar findings, the Chronicle found. In two cases, the forms were written so sloppily that girls certified as adults were referred to as “he.”

Few juvenile defense attorneys asked outside experts to evaluate their 14- to 17-year-old clients. In fact, some children get no formal psychiatric evaluation at all for potential mental health or disability issues before being transferred to adult court, according to records and interviews.

University of Houston law professor Ellen Marrus, an expert in juvenile law, said many court-appointed lawyers don’t “bother to work up the case and a lot of the orders are rubber-stamped.”

Heck of a system we’ve got there, isn’t it? I hope that this pending legal challenge leads to a lot more specific information about the judges involved and their less-than-precise behavior, since all of them are up for re-election next year. Between this and the probate courts, the case for change in the judiciary is as clear in 2010 as it was last year. Grits has more.