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Recent editorials from Texas newspapers

June 25, 2019

Here are excerpts from recent editorials in Texas newspapers:

Fort Worth Star-Telegram. June 24, 2019.

Like any big group, the Legislature breaks down to certain personality types. There are the movers, who get the heavy work of policy done. There’s the furniture, so named because they blend in without much notice. There are the ideological firebrands, committed to their cause.

Rep. Jonathan Stickland certainly fit the last of those categories. And Texas Monthly was compelled to create a whole new one just for him: the “cockroach.”

The magazine, in its venerable listing of the best and worst legislators for this year’s session, said Stickland had gone beyond the “worst” list, where he’d become a regular feature, to deserving special recognition as a lawmaker who “accomplishes nothing but always manages to show up in the worst possible way.”

Stickland, R-Bedford, announced Monday that four terms in the House is enough. And we agree. His chief causes — limited government, personal freedom, gun rights — deserve a better standard bearer.

If you’re unfamiliar with Stickland’s brand of preening, all you need to know is that in his Facebook announcement of his departure, he declared: “Eight years was enough for George Washington, and it certainly is for me.”

Stickland missed a key difference. Washington excelled at triumphing in his war despite losing more battles than he won.

Time and again, Stickland raged about personal freedom, shrinking government, and the unfairness he perceived in how the House was run. Time and again, his causes went down in flames.

Here’s just one measure of how ineffective he was: Stickland leaves having passed only one bill in four terms, to kill red-light cameras.

And yet, he managed to dominate the conversation in a way few others have. If politics and celebrity (perhaps we repeat ourselves?) is now about getting famous without actually accomplishing anything, Stickland is an icon of our time.

Journalist/author Lawrence Wright told a typical Stickland story in his book about the recent GOP governing of Texas -- how the young lawmaker nearly got in a fight over his effort to cut state money for eliminating feral hogs. A colleague retaliated with a bill to slash highway funding from Stickland’s district, prompting then-House Speaker Joe Straus to quip to Wright: “I guess all the hogs are going to move to north Arlington.”

We could highlight plenty of cringe-worthy moments — Stickland’s comments as a young man about rape during marriage, his habit of killing colleagues’ legislation, even the most innocuous of bills, the time he was kicked out of a committee meeting over charges he’d tried to manipulate testimony on a bill.

Stickland has poorly represented the tea-party libertarianism that has been a force in Texas and national Republican politics. At a 2009 town hall meeting hosted by U.S. Rep. Michael Burgess, Stickland — a devotee of libertarian Rep. Ron Paul — asked questions so belligerent, local tea party leaders asked him if he’d like to run for office.

Stepping aside might be the most he can do now to advance those causes. With him gone, District 92 voters stand a much better chance of electing a legislator who would actually be effective in working for smaller government.

One way or another, though, his successor will be no Jonathan Stickland, who reminded us of what seems to be a cardinal rule in American politics today: If you can’t be effective, at least be entertaining.

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Houston Chronicle. June 24, 2019.

The tragic jail death of a woman initially stopped for a traffic infraction spurred Texas to take stronger steps to reduce suicides in local jails. Now the state needs to afford that same level of concern to inmates in the state prison system, which last year saw 40 suicides — the most in 20 years.

Completed suicides in Texas prisons doubled between 2013 and 2018, even as the prison population declined. Meanwhile, suicides in the state’s jails dropped by a third over the same period, to 17 last year. That drop was largely due to reforms made after the July 2015 death of Sandra Bland, who hanged herself with a plastic trash-can liner in the Waller County Jail. That happened three days after she was charged with assaulting a state trooper who stopped her for failing to signal a lane change.

Waller County officials later admitted Bland probably should have been placed on suicide watch. She had disclosed on a jail screening form that she once tried to kill herself with pills after losing a baby. She also had told her jailers that she had battled depression and was feeling depressed after being arrested.

Her suicide led to the passage of the Sandra Bland Act in 2017. The Texas statute mandates additional mental health training for jailers and law enforcement officers and improved supervision in jails of suicidal and mentally unstable prisoners, including round-the-clock monitoring and sensors or cameras to ensure continual checks of cells containing at-risk prisoners.

Similar reforms are needed to reverse the rise in prison suicides. Unfortunately, there’s been no similar urgency for action. Maybe that shouldn’t be surprising. Unlike jail inmates who are awaiting trial, most prison inmates have already been tried and convicted. The public has less sympathy for felons so politicians are less motivated to act. They barely responded when inmates complained about stifling conditions in hot cells that needed air conditioning or about difficulty eating solid food because inmates weren’t provided dentures.

A 20-year high in prison suicides should not be ignored.

Attempts of suicide in Texas prisons are also up, rising from 65 a month in 2013 to 150 a month in 2017. The increase is being attributed to the poor conditions within the state’s prisons, critical staffing shortages and the high number of inmates who enter prison with mental health problems. About 27,000 inmates, 18.5% of the state’s prison population, have some form of mental illness, according to the Texas Department of Criminal Justice.

Two Houston legislators, Rep. Jarvis Johnson and Sen. Borris Miles, believe the suicide increase reflects the TDCJ’s mismanagement. The Democrats filed companion bills in the last legislative session to create an independent ombudsman post to monitor the state prison system, but the legislation never got out of committee.

Johnson said an ombudsman might prevent costly lawsuits challenging prison conditions, but litigation may be unavoidable. A federal judge in Alabama ruled last month that unaddressed “severe and systemic inadequacies” within that state’s Department of Corrections had led to a dramatic increase in inmate suicides. The ruling cited 15 suicides that had occurred in Alabama prisons over 15 months.

Judge Myron Thompson said Alabama prisons had failed to conduct adequate suicide risk assessments, failed to place suicidal or potentially suicidal inmates on suicide watch, failed to monitor inmates released from suicide watch, failed to adequately monitor inmates placed in segregation and failed to require staff to take immediate life-saving measures when they find an inmate attempting suicide.

It would not be a surprise if the Texas prison system were found guilty of some of those same lapses. Gov. Greg Abbott shouldn’t wait for that to happen. He should be demanding that the TDCJ explain why suicides are increasing in Texas prisons and tell him how it plans to bring that number down.

A prison sentence shouldn’t be a death sentence for people who didn’t receive one. Suicide is preventable both behind bars and outside of them, but not if people and institutions who can intercede ignore the signs. It’s the TDCJ’s job to pay better attention; it’s the governor’s job to ensure it does.

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Amarillo Globe-News. June 25, 2019.

“Porch pirates,” beware.

Anyone who has ever encountered the frustration that comes from having a package stolen from their front porch will take solace in knowing the Texas Legislature moved to address the growing menace that has come to be known as “porch piracy.”

Gov. Greg Abbott signed a bill that will increase punishment for stealing mail, which, according to the legislation, is defined as “a letter, a postal card, a package, bag or other sealed article” addressed to an individual that has been dropped off by a common carrier or delivery service or has been left by a customer for pickup.

Passing a law with stronger penalties was wise. According to surveys, as many as three in 10 people say they’ve had a package stolen. The increase comes at the same time an overwhelming majority of people shop online or opt to have purchases delivered to their doorstep. Increasingly emboldened thieves are not just breaking the law; they are violating the sacred space of homeowners and renters, many of whom are at work earning an honest living for their families while some stranger trespasses on their property and steals their package. Frustrated victims have even resorted in some cases to taking a bite out of crime by booby-trapping packages.

It has always been against the law to steal someone else’s mail, but this legislation, which becomes effective Sept. 1, steps up the penalties for “porch pirates” acting with impunity and exhibiting greater degrees of brazenness. They are a particularly pronounced nuisance during the holiday season.

Under the new law, a convicted mail thief can face as much as 10 years in prison, depending on how many people they took advantage of. Fines range from $4,000 to $10,000. It also includes additional penalties in cases where the disabled or elderly are victimized.

Mail theft is a felony under federal law but had typically been a misdemeanor under state law. Convicted offenders received the equivalent of a slap on the wrist, and the crime became a felony only if the equivalent of $1,500 was stolen and only if prosecuted. The new statute boasts serious consequences and should be a deterrent to would-be offenders.

House Bill 37 was introduced by Rep. Gene Wu (D-Houston). “Package theft has been on the rise in recent years due to the increased market share of online shopping and home delivery services,” Wu said in a news release when he filed the bill in February. “Despite frequently having clear videos documenting the theft, these acts often go uninvestigated, and the offenders go unpunished.”

This may seem like a low priority to some, but because other measures have not been effective, it was time for Texas to address a growing issue and put stiff penalties in place for a problem too many West Texans have experienced. Few things are as maddening as placing an order, tracking it online through a delivery service, receiving a notification it has been delivered, and then discovering a thief has beat a path to its location and stolen it before the intended recipient’s arrival.

To top it off, the victim has little recourse other than to notify law enforcement and file a form to start the ordering process all over again. Lawmakers made the right move in making this practice a felony with serious consequences. Perhaps now, “porch pirates” will think twice before deciding if they want to risk becoming a convicted felon.

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