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Recent editorials from Texas newspapers

November 19, 2018

Here are excerpts from recent editorials in Texas newspapers:

San Antonio Express-News. Nov. 17, 2018.

The inmates were kicking the doors to their cells.

It was near midnight in early October, and city officials were providing an exclusive glimpse inside the detention center at Frank Wing Municipal Court.

This building on the West Side of downtown is where newly arrested people are booked and processed. It’s the entry point to the criminal justice system. One big depressing sorting center. Bail hearings happen here. So do assessments. Some of the people held at Frank Wing will be released on bond, others will go to jail.

The city’s detention center has been called a “dungeon” and “archaic” by one criminal justice expert, a consultant for Bexar County. It is a disconsolate place. But we were there to better understand a simple question. If the detention center at Frank Wing is so terrible in the eyes of county officials, why were those same county officials holding people there for more than 18 hours?

This had been the agreed upon time between the city and Bexar County to move people out of the detention center, but through August and September, thousands of people had been detained above and beyond the 18-hour mark.

From mid-August when the city began tracking this issue through the first week of October, just before our visit and tour, 4,375 people were detained in Frank Wing for more than 18 hours, city data show. That’s about 36 percent of all arrested people, 12,086, who were brought to the detention center in that time period.

“They are calling it a ‘dungeon,’” Chief William McManus said in an interview in late September. “But they are using it to keep people out of their county jail. They are using it as an annex.”

The overstays raise questions about whether Bexar County has adequate jail space and is doing enough diversion for people who could be released on personal recognizance bonds. Quite simply, the detention center at Frank Wing was never designed to hold people for so long.

McManus was very much our tour guide on that October evening. The detention center had a hectic energy to it. New arrests trickled into the building. Cops milled around the booking area. Some of the group cells were crowded. People slept on metal benches or the floor. The cells were frigid, and many people had balled themselves up to stay warm.

Everyone wanted the chief’s attention. A woman in an observational cell shouted to him across the booking area. Inmates would bang on the plexiglass or kick doors so hard that it periodically sounded like the boom of thunder. Part of Frank Wing might be a detention center, but it’s undeniably a holding area for people with mental health issues.

McManus and other city officials shrugged amid the cacophony. It was a pretty normal night. Not too busy, but not too slow. And plenty jarring.

The concerns about the overstays are myriad — and we have included this in our “Unequal Justice” series because poor defendants are disproportionately part of the criminal justice system, and county officials have said defendants are being given more time to secure bail and avoid jail, a dynamic that reflects the inequities of cash bail.

But most important, there is the question of safety. This is not a jail. It’s not designed to hold people for so long. Meals are trucked over from the Bexar County Adult Detention Center periodically for people who have stayed in the detention center for more than 12 hours. Each group cell comes with a shared toilet. There is no shower. The public defender meets with clients in front of law enforcement.

The facility can hold about 190 people at any given time, but as the number of people in detention stack, crowding strains the system. Inmates are divided by gender as well as offense type. Those accused of nonviolent offenses are kept separate from those accused of violent ones. But when space becomes a premium, that task becomes more challenging. Officials didn’t cite particular safety incidents — there have been two deaths this year at the facility unrelated to this issue — but they did express concern.

From the city’s perspective, the detention center at Frank Wing is an old building, but not a dungeon. It only becomes a dungeon when the county keeps people there for far too long.

Michael Ugarte, the county’s presiding magistrate judge, did not respond to our interview requests by phone or email. We also raised these concerns with Mike Lozito, who heads judicial services for Bexar County. Lozito said the county is not holding people to minimize the jail population. He said many of the overstays are people who are in the process of securing bonds or are undergoing extensive background checks.

No doubt, this happens. But a recent memo about the detention center from Municipal Court Presiding Judge John Bull outlines another side of the issue.

“Individuals are being held in the 401 S. Frio facility that have no chance of bonding out (Remand without bond, Parole violations, child support cases, high level violent offenders, etc,” he wrote. “The 401 facility is being used solely as a County Jail extension.”

On our tour, we observed a filing system where county magistrates were holding commitment orders until the last possible hour.

This is hardly a new issue. When the county assumed magistration duties from the city in 2007, part of the stated rationale was to reduce the jail population.

The idea was to hold people longer so they could either secure bail or plead guilty to avoid jail. A 2007 consultant’s report to the city describes how the county was considering additional space at Frank Wing so defendants “would either raise the necessary bond amount or change their pleas from not guilty to guilty within the 48-72 hour holding period and thus avoid the necessity for a booking in the county jail.”

The county never secured that additional holding space. But Bexar County Judge Nelson Wolff echoed this view in an article from the time about the county assuming magistration duties.

Not surprisingly, hold times have increased at Frank Wing from about 10 hours in 2006 to 18 hours or longer this fall (but the jail remains at or near capacity).

That dynamic changed the week of our visit. Bexar County and the city informally agreed to a 12-hour detention timeline, and — voila! — the numbers precipitously dropped.

From Oct. 8 through Oct. 28, 130 people overstayed the 18-hour mark. Our concern is that this improvement might only last as long as there is scrutiny. Besides, even with the better numbers, issues persist.

For example, in a November email to Bexar County Chief Public Defender Michael Young, Bull, the municipal court presiding judge, wrote, “I am still very concerned about the extended holding of (arrested persons) in the back.”

He told the story of a woman who was “arrested for Class B shoplifting, no priors, arrested at 2 p.m. on a Thursday, bond posted at 9 p.m. on Thursday, and she was still waiting to be processed in cell 13 at 10:30 a.m. on Friday. . She had a small child and was still nursing.”

Lozito said this delay was likely due to a state and FBI background check.

The county will open its Justice Intake and Assessment Center in December or January (it was supposed to open in October), marking a potentially significant shift in booking practices here. This new facility will follow the open booking model, meaning as long as people stay calm and orderly, they will wait in an open space, not in a cell.

While Bexar County Sheriff Javier Salazar told us he has “no concerns” about the new building, city officials have not agreed to participate. They have expressed major concerns about its design, potential cost to the city and how the county’s process could delay officers.

The city, which is responsible for most of the arrests in the county, will continue with Frank Wing. This split will relieve some of the pressure at Frank Wing, but it is also redundant. As for the county, a new building does not necessarily end old practices. Could a person end up detained for hours and hours? Lozito said that shouldn’t happen, but it is possible.

An ideal system would detain defendants in a humane setting, and then move them along quickly, not hold them to tamp down a jail population. An ideal system would judge defendants — who have the right to the presumption of innocence — based on the risk they pose at the pretrial stage to the public, not their ability to scrounge up enough cash to make bail. An ideal system would ensure those defendants who receive personal recognizance bonds have an appropriate level of pretrial services upon release.

But in our system, the county will operate a modern building that city officials say has serious design flaws. Meanwhile, the city will continue to book defendants in an antiquated building that county officials have argued is a dungeon. There is never enough jail space, and people have been held for hours on end before being transferred to jail or even bonding out.

We visited the Frank Wing detention center to understand a simple question: Why were so many people being held for so long at the detention center? Since then, we have been haunted by a more complicated question. One punctuated by those booming kicks on cell doors. Why is it so hard for the city and county to work together on this?

___

The Dallas Morning News. Nov. 17, 2018.

In the melee that passes for press briefings at the White House these days, it can be easy to lose sight of a basic fact. In our system where the government is accountable to the people, the media can play an important role in ferreting out crucial facts and pressing officials who otherwise might prefer to obfuscate.

But as with all important leadership roles, the role of the press comes with a set of responsibilities. It is that set of responsibilities that we hope Jim Acosta is focused on as he and CNN have prevailed in court to have his White House press credentials reinstated.

We support the D.C. district court’s decision. After all, we are better served if the White House doesn’t toss reporters because it dislikes tough questions. But we also support it because we want Acosta to get back to doing what he’s supposed to do: Ask the president or press secretary Sarah Sanders tough and probing questions.

What we want to avoid is seeing Acosta falling into the trap of making statements and getting into arguments with officials. As warranted as some of that might be, in the end, it only makes it easier for the administration to impugn the integrity of the press as a whole.

Reporters who attend the White House press briefings or news conferences with Trump have a difficult job. It’s not easy to get answers from an administration that often shows a callous disregard for the truth.

But journalists have a responsibility to report the news, not become the news. With the 24-hour cable news stations, the internet and social media, reporters who attend the press briefings are in a powerful position and have the ability to ask probing questions that can put pressure on the subject and force him or her to explain an issue or position. If an official dodges under the glare of such public attention, he or she might just be subject to more questions or public criticism for deflecting on an important topic.

Reporters such as Acosta have a great deal of responsibility along with the privilege of being in a position to inform the public and drive public debate. It’s obvious (and perhaps by design) that this administration can challenge the patience of any person, including seasoned journalists.

Regardless of whether it is a role he ever wanted, Acosta’s task now is to demonstrate the importance and value of standing up for the right of reporters everywhere to ask tough questions to tough-minded officials.

___

Houston Chronicle. Nov. 18, 2018.

It’s not enough that the health of thousands of children attending Texas’ public schools has been compromised by the grossly misguided anti-immunization movement.

Now, an anti-vaccine group is targeting the littlest kids who aren’t even public school age.

Texans for Vaccine Choice says it wants to help children who were denied admission into private child care facilities because they were not immunized against childhood diseases. The organization believes the right of parents to decide what, if any, medications their children receive trumps other parents’ right to protect their children’s health. Following that logic, parents who think their children need guns to be safe should be allowed to put Glocks in little Susie’s or Johnny’s backpack.

Parents who refuse to have their children vaccinated put their own children and their classmates at risk. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention earlier this year reported 172 pediatric flu deaths. That’s the highest number of flu-related deaths in children during a single flu season (excluding pandemics). The CDC said 80 percent of the children who died had not received a flu shot.

Texas has become a hotbed for the anti-immunization movement. At least 57,000 students this school year received an exemption. That’s 20 times more than in 2003 — and the problem may be worse. No one knows how many home-schooled children haven’t been vaccinated, points out Baylor College of Medicine professor Peter J. Hotez.

The CDC says 14 childhood diseases are preventable by vaccination, including chicken pox, mumps, measles, and whooping cough. Unfortunately, many of these illnesses that once seemed eradicated in the United States have re-emerged in large part due to the anti-immunization movement.

Groups like TVC have used the exemptions that most states give to parents who don’t want their children vaccinated for religious or philosophical reasons to force their will on parents who are trying to protect their children’s health. Now, TVC wants to extend its reach to child care centers, reportedly by asking for legislation extending the public school exemption to private schools.

The best way to stop this assault on public health is to get rid of the loophole that the anti-immunization movement exploits. Placing limits on any parental right won’t come easy in Texas, a state that takes pride in exhorting personal freedom. But every elected lawmaker in Austin accepted the responsibility of acting in the best interest of the general public. That includes protecting the public’s health.

Illnesses that could be prevented by inoculation should be. Parents who believe otherwise have a right to their beliefs, but they do not have a right to disregard the health and lives of others — especially when we’re talking about children.

___

Longview News-Journal. Nov. 18, 2018.

In few other pursuits would we celebrate attaining just 51 percent of perfection. In academics, to name just one, such a score would be deep into failing-grade territory.

But the fact is 51 percent of about 70,000 Gregg County registered voters getting to the polls is great success for a midterm election. And that is just what we saw earlier this month. According to a News-Journal analysis of turnout and voting trends, the Nov. 6 election drew more Northeast Texans to the polls than any midterm in decades. Across the state, turnout was similar.

Unfortunately, lackluster voting habits in Northeast Texas — and most of Texas — means the bar isn’t particularly high to get a turnout worth celebrating. We can, and should, do better.

Nonetheless, let us focus on the positives in this election.

The 51 percent of Gregg County voters to cast ballots was the highest percentage since 2010, when tea party fervor drove it to 38 percent. Harrison and Upshur counties also saw 51 percent turnout Nov. 6, while 52 percent of Rusk County voters and 53 percent of Panola County voters cast ballots. With 57 percent, Smith County was our region’s turnout leader. In each, it was the highest turnout since the 1998 midterms.

What was driving it? A rare competitive race for the U.S. Senate electrified both Republican and Democratic voters across Texas, offering a strong reminder that our system works best when more than one viewpoint is represented.

Republicans saw this month’s midterm as a chance to express their support for President Donald Trump and Republicans in Congress and did so in droves. Meanwhile, Democrats wanted to send a message to the White House and flip control of the U.S. House of Representatives. That Democratic push was successful.

Local issues also played a role. Here in Longview, voters were engaged by a trio of bond issue propositions that aim to keep our city growing. Their relatively easy passage offers the latest reminder that Longview voters want to see our city move forward and are ready to pay to keep it a player in the long term.

Still, only 51 percent of us could get off our duffs and to the polls.

While we know not everyone is going to vote, it would be nice to celebrate turnout of, say, 60 percent or even 70 percent. We should keep trying to nudge it higher.

Democracy doesn’t work well when the number falls into the 30s, where turnout has been stuck for many recent elections, with some even into the 20s.

We rightly put a lot of focus on voter registration, because without being registered no one can vote. But as we have seen over and over, the problem is not voter registration but voter participation.

It is incredibly easy in Texas, where early voting, mail-ballot voting and the ability to vote at any polling place have removed most excuses for not getting it done.

While the recent numbers are better than usual, they should be this good or better at every election. We are puzzled why so many register to vote — then fail to cast a ballot at every election. Voting, after all, is a civic responsibility.

Still, given the apathy seen in recent years, we are heartened that more than 50 percent of our area’s registered voters fulfilled their responsibility.

That made Election Day 2018 an encouraging exercise in representative democracy. Now we have to build on it and do that every election.

___

Beaumont Enterprise. Nov. 19, 2018.

The Groves City Council has affirmed the results of the recent election that recalled City Council member Cross Coburn, but it’s hard to see any real winners here. Coburn did something he shouldn’t have done, and so did some voters.

Clearly, any council member who posted nude photos of himself or herself online is crossing a line. That’s just not something that any public official should do.

Yet Coburn is only 19, and young people sometimes do things they wouldn’t a few years later. Nude photos are also common on gay dating apps. That doesn’t make it right, but it’s a point to keep in perspective. At the meeting last week, Coburn himself said, “I’ve admitted my wrongdoing from day one and apologized for my judgment but never will I apologize for being human.”

Coburn also didn’t spread the photos beyond the app. Someone saw them, printed them out and sent them anonymously to City Hall. His campaign consultant called that a form of “revenge porn.” The city attorney and human resources director concluded that no laws were broken by Coburn. Again, not the best judgment, but not something that necessarily rendered him unfit to serve on the council.

That decision was up to the voters. By a 62-37 percent margin, they voted to recall Coburn. Some of those voters would have voted to recall any council member linked with nude photos, and that’s a defensible position. But it also seems clear that some voters just didn’t like the fact that Coburn is gay, even though he had been duly elected to this post.

The majority’s decision must be respected, but Coburn and his attorney said the recall petition included some unverified names. To cite just one alleged irregularity, they said that in at least 15 cases, it appeared that one spouse signed the petition for the husband and wife.

For now, Coburn’s political career is over, or put on hold. Yet local government needs more young candidates like him, and recalls like this won’t encourage that. They send a message that certain people aren’t welcome, even though they are part of the community and have been for years.

That’s not good for Groves or any place that wants to attract more residents and businesses to keep growing and improving.

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