Archive for the ‘Justice’ Category

Mental Health Day

Today, on my lunch hour, I attended a League of Women Voters panel about mental health and the criminal justice system. The panelists were Sheriff Kelly Rowe; Mary Gerlach, adult behavioral health director for the Lubbock regional MHMR; County Court-At-Law Judge Drue Farmer; and Cathy Givens from the DA’s office civil division. I was surprised at how good the panel was, and I learned a lot from it.

The panel was in anticipation of a Lubbock County mental health court that will begin operation in January. The mental health court will join the ranks of other specialty courts in Lubbock County: drug court, DWI court, and family recovery court. Budget-watchers can rejoice — the new mental health court will shift existing resources and does not add extra expense. And, if it’s successful, it should lower court and jail expenses by freeing up resources: jail beds, prosecutor time, and space on the docket to name a few.

The panel did an excellent job of illustrating how Lubbock County is working in an across-the-board (in the academic world, you might say interdisciplinary) way to address a serious problem: mentally ill people in jail. In fact, the County started coordinating MHMR, the courts, and the Sheriff’s office in the late 1990s when David Gutierrez became Sheriff.

Thanks in part to Ronald Reagan’s dumping of mentally ill people on the street, jails have become de facto mental health institutions, a task for which they are wholly unsuited. Tracking of mentally ill inmates only started recently, but anywhere from 30-70 percent (I know that’s a big range, but that’s what I heard from the panel) of inmates are in jail due to issues from mental illness or substance abuse. Most of these inmates are in jail for nonviolent misdemeanors. Also, mentally ill or substance-abusing inmates are often “frequent flyers” who, for lack of community resources and specialized programs, return to jail multiple times or remain in jail longer than necessary. In fact, the Lubbock County Jail has a few mentally ill inmates that have been there as long as seven years due to competency issues.

The courts add an additional — but necessary! — layer of difficulty with this issue of competency. The law says that a person has to be competent to stand trial. “Competent” means that they can take care of themselves physically and that they understand their situation; competency has nothing to do with sanity/insanity, which come into play at the end of a trial. For example, a defendant with mental illness or substance abuse problems may be “off meds” on their trial date; legally, they have to resume treatment before the trial can continue. Due to scheduling issues, this process can repeat itself multiple times, resulting in a legal black hole of sorts.

There are several good reforms that would help, most of which are on their way to Lubbock County:

  • At least one dedicated officer 24/7 who is trained to handle mental health issues at the time of arrest — Lubbock County Sheriff’s office has one such officer available weekdays 9-6, which is a good start
  • a non-jail or specialized-jail facility to house mentally ill inmates, also available 24/7 — the new Lubbock County Jail will feature a housing section for mentally ill inmates; only a few other jails in Texas have a similar facility
  • ID and assessment of mentally ill inmates as they are booked into jail — also in the works
  • a court that specializes in mental health issues — coming in January with a caseload of 10-15 people
  • prosecutors who are aware of mental health and substance abuse issues and options — The staff member from the civil division of the DA’s office (who was on the panel) is one such prosecutor
  • a mental illness defenders’ office with equally qualified defense attorneys
  • probation officers who can handle mentally ill probationers — Lubbock County has at least two such probation officers already

And there are a myriad of community resources that can be more tightly integrated with this process too. As I said earlier, the Sheriff’s office and MHMR have been working together on tackling this problem for over ten years. Now, LPD is coming on board as well. With the mental health court coming online in January, Lubbock County can improve this situation and be a leader in the state.

By the way, Mary Gerlach from MHMR also recommended a book for approaching/understanding the issues of mental health and the criminal justice system: Crazy by Pete Earley.

The Award-Winning Lubbock County

When government does something well, it’s worth noting. (Quick example: Lubbock City Council selecting the old Barnes and Noble location as the new home of Godeke Library.)

A friend clued me in to something that — strangely enough — local media seems to be missing or ignoring completely. And it’s kind of a big deal.

The County of Lubbock has just won (actually, back in August!) three prestigious awards from the Texas Association of Counties. They are part of the 2009 Best Practices Awards. Along with Travis County, Lubbock was the only county to win three awards. (Lubbock County’s awards are way cooler than Travis County’s awards, by the way.) Each of the three awards represents a significant, unique achievement of Lubbock County — unmatched in the State and with only a few peers throughout the whole nation.

Here’s what Lubbock County won:

CourtTools Accountability Program

Lubbock County is the only county in all of Texas to provide accountability through all ten measures of the CourtTools system. Only a few entities in the nation provide this much accountability. And 2009 is not the first year that Lubbock County has published metrics through CourtTools, either — reports go back as far as 2005.

What are the CourtTools metrics? They are:

  1. Access and Fairness
  2. Clearance Rates
  3. Time to Disposition
  4. Age of Active Pending Caseloads
  5. Certainty of Trial Dates
  6. Reliability and Integrity of Case Files
  7. Collection of Monetary Penalties
  8. Effective Use of Jurors
  9. Court Employee Satisfaction
  10. Cost Per Case

Courts Administrator David Slayton and his staff are responsible for compiling these reports.

The especially valuable thing about these reports is that, over time, they provide an objective measure for courts and the judges that run them. We’re fortunate to have a court system that takes these measures seriously.

Vote Centers

As most of you probably know, Lubbock County has been the leader in Texas when it comes to voting anywhere you like on Election Day — a concept known as Vote Centers (formerly Superprecincts). Our November 2006 election was the first such election, and we’ve done it again several times since. The November 2008 election is the one that got Lubbock County this award, not only for remaining the statewide leader in vote centers (Erath County was the only other County to attempt vote centers in November 2008 — prior to that, Lubbock was the only county to do so), but also for innovative ways to help voters find their nearest polling place. The County used text messaging, email, snail mail, radio, TV, websites — the works — to get the word out.

Elections Administrator Dorothy Kennedy and her staff at the Elections Office are responsible for implementing vote centers. (Notice a pattern of nonpartisan, appointed administrators behind these successes?)

An important note — Primary elections will continue to be precinct-driven, due to the nature of internal Party political structure (for all Parties).

Regional Capital Case Public Defender’s Office

Last but not least, Lubbock County hosts the regional public defender’s office for capital cases, for which it also won an award. The public defender’s office serves 70 counties in West Texas.

Why is this such a big deal? The costs involved in bringing a capital murder case to trial can easily bankrupt a rural county. Extra steps have to be taken for a capital trial to take place, and attorneys must have special certification to take part in a capital murder trial. (And they must maintain it as part of their continuing legal education.) Having a regional public defender’s office for capital cases is like life insurance for the counties involved.

Lubbock attorney Jack Stoffregen is the Chief Public Defender of the office, which was created in November of 2007.

Oh, and one more…

As a final note, there is one other area worth mentioning here that Lubbock County does well that didn’t make it to these awards: drug court. The drug court is a special court that hears cases involving nonviolent drug offenders and works to rehabilitate them. By doing so, it can divert the nonviolent drug offenders from the regular courts (and jail system), returning productive citizens to the community and saving taxpayer dollars. Really, the drug court deserves its own post, but I wanted to mention it here because people may not be aware that it even exists.

So, way to go Lubbock County! It’s nice to have non-embarrassing news from our area every now and then.

The Least of These

This Thursday at 7pm, Lubbock Democracy for America will show “The Least of These,” a brand new 2009 movie about the so-called “family detention center” in Hutto, TX.

From the film’s description:

Detention of immigrant children in a former medium-security prison in Texas leads to controversy when three activist attorneys discover troubling conditions at the facility. This compelling documentary film explores the role - and limits - of community activism, and considers how American rights and values apply to the least powerful among us.

Here are the event details:

Event Date: Sep 24, 2009
Event Time: 7:00 PM
Venue Name: Lubbock County Democratic Party HQ
Address: 2809A 74th St
City: Lubbock
State: TX
Zip Code: 79423
Phone: 806-749-8683

DFA Movie nights are always free and open to the public. Refreshments are provided, and a discussion will follow the film.

See you there!
Lubbock DFA site
Lubbock Democrats

Alan Turing Apology

I love it when a plan comes together. Or, in this case, an online petition accomplishes something.

(Honestly, I don’t want to see statistics on what percentage of online petitions result in action… I bet it’s a low number.)

Today, British Prime Minister Gordon Brown apologized for the British Government’s treatment of science hero Alan Turing in the 1950s. From Gordon Brown’s statement:

Turing was a quite brilliant mathematician, most famous for his work on breaking the German Enigma codes. It is no exaggeration to say that, without his outstanding contribution, the history of World War Two could well have been very different. He truly was one of those individuals we can point to whose unique contribution helped to turn the tide of war. The debt of gratitude he is owed makes it all the more horrifying, therefore, that he was treated so inhumanely. In 1952, he was convicted of ‘gross indecency’ - in effect, tried for being gay. His sentence - and he was faced with the miserable choice of this or prison - was chemical castration by a series of injections of female hormones. He took his own life just two years later.

AlanTuringThis news is exciting not only because a war hero and scientific giant (you’ve probably heard of the “Turing Test,” for example) has finally been exonerated, but also because of the manner in which it was done. The British government maintains an online petition system as part of its website, and 10,000+ British citizens signed this one, moving it up the list quite rapidly. I first found out about it via Facebook last week.

Online activism is still evolving a great deal, but I believe that this is a successful form of it. It used social networking sites in conjunction with an established infrastructure for online petitions that someone somewhere with some amount of authority or influence looked at. It’s great that the UK government has embraced online petitions in this way. Given the overture toward online openness for which the Obama administration is already known, maybe we’ll see something like this soon in the States.

For now, as someone who spent a significant amount of undergraduate classroom time proving that this-or-that algorithm is reducible to a Turing machine, and as someone who wants to see an end to homophobia, I call today a good day.

The Jena 6 Are Free

The Jena 6 are finally free after a misdemeanor plea deal on Friday. This result is a testament to the power of internet-era activism.

From an email from organizer James Rucker:

Luckily for the Jena 6, hundreds of thousands of you got involved, and
the power of your participation changed the game. An amazing team of
lawyers worked tirelessly to achieve Friday’s outcome. Our staff
helped recruit them, and your financial contributions–over
$275,000–provided the bulk of the funds for their work. Jim Boren,
the coordinating attorney, said this about ColorOfChange members’
contribution: “None of this would have happened without you.”

But it wasn’t just lawyers and money. Over 300,000 of you wrote to
Governor Blanco and District Attorney Reed Walters. On September 20th,
2007, more than 10,000 of you went to Jena. Members who couldn’t make
it to Jena held more than 150 rallies and vigils across the country,
and made more than 6,000 phone calls to elected officials in
Louisiana. And a few weeks later, ColorOfChange members sent almost
4,000 complaints demanding an inquiry into the DA’s actions.

Your actions offline and online helped put Jena on the map and
resulted in critical coverage in every mainstream news outlet. You
started a movement that made it impossible for Louisiana officials to
support the status quo.

For me, this is a validation that a little bit of activism from a lot of people goes a long way. (Similarly, a lot of people each giving a little bit of money can break fundraising records!) The freedom of the Jena 6 gives me hope that we will win the fight for a public health care option, clean/green energy, quality public education, protection of civil liberties, and so forth.

When you encounter and online petition for a cause you care about and feel the urge to sign it, do it. When you have time to show up at a political or service event, do it. (The recent health care day of service comes to mind as a good example.) When a candidate you care about says that a $5 donation matters to their campaign, it does.

Sometimes even just a little bit of activism can have very real, very easy-to-see consequences.

Finally, James Rucker’s email said something else that I think is important and will be expanding on in future posts:

While this is a great moment, it’s important to remember that if it
were not for the extreme nature of this case, most of us wouldn’t have
known about it or gotten involved. The reality is that there are
countless Jena 6’s: young people–often Black and male–who are
overcharged or unduly criminalized, and whose plight is unknown to
most of the outside world.

It’s the reason our work cannot just be about identifying and fighting
for individuals
railroaded by the system, but about creating systemic
in criminal justice in America.

(my emphasis)

One advantage that progressive activists have is our understanding that real change is systemic. We can celebrate individual victories along the way, but the work isn’t done until the big picture is developed.

New Mexico Repeals Death Penalty

Great news today, as New Mexico Governor Bill Richardson signed a bill repealing the death penalty in New Mexico. This move makes New Mexico the 15th state to outlaw capital punishment.

I also take as a good sign the fact that his office solicited public input:

In preparing for his decision, the governor solicited input over the weekend from state residents. According to his office, he got more than 9,000 responses by e-mail and in person.

“In a society which values individual life and liberty above all else, where justice and not vengeance is the singular guiding principle of our system of criminal law, the potential for wrongful conviction and, God forbid, execution of an innocent person stands as anathema to our very sensibilities as human beings,” Richardson said in prepared remarks. “That is why I’m signing this bill into law.”

He may have had to wait until it was politically safe to do so, but I commend Gov. Richardson for his decision.

More good news comes out of Nebraska, where a bill to authorize lethal injections has stalled in committee. Currently, Nebraska has the death penalty but no legal way to carry it out — their method of using the electric chair was stuck down by the Nebraska Supreme Court. So, as long as their legislature does not approve a method of carrying out the death penalty, they are effectively the 16th state without a death penalty.

You can learn more about the fight to eliminate the death penalty around the world at Death Watch International.

Gitmo Detainee Profiles

A friend of mine sent me a link to an interesting project that collects biographical information of those imprisoned at Guantanamo Bay.

Here’s a taste:

“They would say they were taking me to isolation for three days, and then leave me there for three months,” Najib said. “Then they would bring me back to a cell, and three or four days later take me back to isolation. . . . I would say, and this is a guess, I spent 15 days a month in isolation.”

As a result, Najib, who was arrested by U.S.-backed northern alliance soldiers in November 2001 after he’d driven a load of Taliban fighters to surrender, was jailed at Guantanamo for more than four years.

This facility’s short life will be a black mark on our history. Reading the individual stories of the detainees really drives that point home.

Obama’s speech on race

(a transcript of the speech is up at

Throw a cheap attack at Obama and get a profound speech about the big picture. I love it!

This is an amazing speech. If you have the time to read it or listen to it, I strongly urge you to do so. I think it will be one of the most important speeches of this campaign.

Mortgage Crisis: Etymology, Cartoon, and “Just Say No”

The etymology of the word mortgage is a fascinating one:

The great jurist Sir Edward Coke, who lived from 1552 to 1634, has explained why the term mortgage comes from the Old French words mort, “dead,” and gage, “pledge.” It seemed to him that it had to do with the doubtfulness of whether or not the mortgagor will pay the debt. If the mortgagor does not, then the land pledged to the mortgagee as security for the debt “is taken from him for ever, and so dead to him upon condition, &c. And if he doth pay the money, then the pledge is dead as to the [mortgagee].”

Our contemporary adjustable rate / subprime mortgage crisis is a little bit more complicated than a simple matter of a debt that may or may not be repaid and a house that may or may not be seized. That’s why I was delighted to find this stick figure cartoon explanation called “The Subprime Primer.” It’s hilarious, educational, and worth the five minutes it takes to read.

Lastly, what happens when someone who is foreclosed on decides that they aren’t giving up without a fight?

Joe Lents hasn’t made a payment on his $1.5 million mortgage since 2002.

That’s when Washington Mutual Inc. first tried to foreclose on his home in Boca Raton. The Seattle-based lender failed to prove that it owned Lents’ mortgage note and dropped attempts to take his house. Subsequent efforts to foreclose have stalled because no one has produced the paperwork.

“If you’re going to take my house away from me, you better own the note,” said Lents, 63, the former chief executive officer of a now-defunct voice recognition software company.

Judges in at least five states have stopped foreclosure proceedings because the banks that pool mortgages into securities and the companies that collect monthly payments haven’t been able to prove they own the mortgages.

These ripoff securities were in such a hurry to rip people off that they may not have done the appropriate paperwork to transfer ownership of the mortgages they are selling to investors! The amount of deceit and dumbassedness at every stage of our modern mortgage crisis is simply staggering.

The lesson that I am learning from the mortgage crisis is this: in a culture where regulation is frowned upon, crooks will thrive.

“Ghosts of Abu Grahib” screening tomorrow

Just a quick reminder about a free film screening tomorrow:

Ethics Movie Series, spring 2008
“Ghosts of Abu Grahib,” an HBO documentary by Rory Kennedy
Saturday, January 19, 7pm
Philosophy and English building
ROOM 001
Sponsored by the Texas Tech Women’s Studies Program and the Lubbock Chapter of the ACLU.

This event should be very well attended, so get there a little early to get a good seat!

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