Editorial Roundup:

Austin American-Statesman. February 14, 2020

Endorsement: Hegar in Dem primary

With Beto O’Rourke passing on a bid for the U.S. Senate, a remarkably strong field of Democrats is vying for the chance to unseat Republican John Cornyn.

The top tier of candidates includes MJ Hegar, the former Air Force helicopter pilot from Round Rock, longtime state Sen. Royce West of Dallas, former Houston City Council member Amanda Edwards, labor organizer and voter engagement activist Cristina Tzintzún Ramirez of Austin, former congressman Chris Bell, who also was the Democratic nominee for governor in 2006, and Sema Hernandez, a Houston activist who was the runner-up to O’Rourke in the 2018 Democratic Senate primary. All are impressive candidates with compelling personal stories and exceptional records of public service. All have progressive platforms with nuanced differences, strong on Democratic tenets like expanding access to health care, addressing climate change, implementing common-sense reforms to address gun violence and immigration reforms balancing humanitarian and security concerns.

State Democrats would do well to choose any one of these candidates, but it is our view that Hegar rises above the rest.

An effective communicator with populist appeal, Hegar flashes a ready command of the issues and an ability to connect them to Texans’ everyday lives, conveying, too, a sense of urgency that change is overdue. She strikes us as a disrupter who can bring the fight and a unifier who can reach across the aisle to get things done.

“A third of our state is not making decisions based on policy,” Hegar told our editorial board. “They’re looking for fighters, somebody who can effectively disrupt the broken system.”

Democrats must field a candidate who can energize the party if they are to defeat Cornyn in November. In her failed bid for a red U.S. House district in 2018 — she came within 3 points of upsetting Rep. John Carter — and now on a bigger stage, Hegar has demonstrated a natural ability to get people’s attention. Her made-for-Hollywood heroic back story doesn’t hurt. The self-proclaimed “ass-kicking, motorcycle-riding, Texas Democrat” served three tours in Afghanistan, earning a Purple Heart after the Taliban shot down her helicopter in 2009, wounding her during a rescue mission of three American soldiers.

Hegar later became a plaintiff in an ACLU lawsuit challenging the military’s policy that excluded women from many combat roles. The ban was lifted in 2013.

Hegar told us that she got into the Senate race over climate change, and concerns about the world in which her children, ages 3 and 5, are growing up.

She advocates setting aggressive goals for expanding clean, renewable energy and investing in clean energy manufacturing and sustainable transportation. Texas, she says, can be a leader in wind and solar energy.

But it is health care that is the number one issue on Texans’ minds, Hegar said. She favors a public option making Medicare available to all who want it, and supports measures to lower the cost of prescription drugs, like allowing Medicare to negotiate prices with pharmaceutical companies.

“Our state is on the front lines and in the headlines on most of the issues,” Hegar said. “The worst uninsured rate is here in Texas. We’re getting hit by climate change. We have a gun violence epidemic and a women’s health epidemic, where we have women’s health services under attack and politicized in a state whose maternal mortality rate competes with third world countries.”

Having been in a statewide office for decades, Cornyn “has to own some of (these issues),” Hegar said.

With a crowded field of 12 candidates, the Democratic primary is likely headed for a runoff. Democrats have a tough choice between substantive candidates. In our view Hegar has the greatest potential to act in Texans’ interests, to reach disaffected and moderate voters, and to get things done in Congress.

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Amarillo Globe-News. February 12, 2020

NCAA has chance to get in front of athlete compensation

The NCAA, under siege from states looking to enact athlete-friendly legislation, has turned to the federal government for help, seeking protection of its multibillion dollar college sports enterprise through federally mandated statutes.

The hope is a consistent standard, but the issues forcing the NCAA’s hand have long been within their purview and could have been addressed in a proactive manner rather than what is perceived to be a plan aimed at preservation of the status quo.

The organization’s president, Mark Emmert, appeared before a Senate committee Tuesday saying federal action is required to “maintain uniform standards in college sports.” The fear is athlete endorsement deals would negatively impact recruiting, giving states with player-friendly laws an unfair advantage.

“If implemented, these laws would give some schools an unfair recruiting advantage and open the door to sponsorship arrangements being used as a recruiting inducement,” Emmert said. “This would create a huge imbalance among schools and could lead to corruption in the recruiting process.”

The proposed laws likely would fundamentally change college athletics, giving players the freedom to earn money from their personal brand. A law along these lines is scheduled to come on line in California in 2023 while more than 25 states are considering similar legislation with some proposals set to take place this year.

So far, the NCAA has said it will allow players to benefit from the use of their name, image and likeness. The organization is working on new rules it plans to make public in April with proposals expected to become effective next January.

It is hardly a secret the recruiting process is already unlevel at best with teams in the top football conferences continually drawing the overwhelming majority of top players. The advantages are built in: facilities, resources, television exposure and higher degrees of success reaching the professional levels. Even without athlete-friendly laws in place, casual fans can recall more than a few recent instances of recruiting corruption. The sheer amount of money at stake in college athletics today can bring with it a temptation to take shortcuts.

“The power conferences have advantages and they consistently pull the best recruits,” Ramogi Huma, executive director of the National College Players’ Association, said. “They will continue to get the recruits. The reality is, you’re not going to change the recruiting by limiting the players’ opportunities.”

The NCAA has been inactive in an issue in which it should have been leading the way. The effort of 18- to 23-year-old athletes is the labor upon which billions of dollars are made. It has well-documented transparency and credibility challenges. Instead of consistently telling athletes what they could not do, the organization should have been at work looking for ways to expand players’ rights prior to having to react to threats of litigation.

The organization has a final chance to get in front of this matter in April when new rules become public. If the desire is to provide a uniform approach to allowing athletes to make money from their personal brand, it is in the best position and has access to the best ideas to do so while including regulatory safeguards.

The tide of public opinion has slowly turned on this issue, and the time is long overdue for an expansion of athletes’ rights that looks like an acknowledgement of what athletes mean to the bottom line rather than a mere protection of the bottom line.

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Dallas Morning News. February 13, 2020

What’s causing Dallas crime to spike?

We need to study how jail detainees are bailing out.

By all measures, May 2019 was the deadliest month in Dallas in two decades.

Forty people lost their lives to murder. Prior to that, the highest monthly murder tally came in 2000, when 29 people were killed in a single month. Ask city officials what happened, and the answer you’ll get is some combination of gangs, drugs and guns.

More than 200 people were murdered in Dallas in 2019. May stands out, but it was only the most obvious data point in a troubling trend of rising crime that saw Police Chief U. Reneé Hall fielding hard questions about what cops were going to do in response.

By summer, police had increased their presence in crime hot spots, state troopers were deployed, and the murder rate returned to historic levels. Still, largely because of May, the city finished the year with a 27.3% increase in homicides. It saw a similar increase in aggravated assaults and a 14.5% increase in robberies. The year would end as the worst in a decade for a host of violent crimes. The first month of this year doesn’t give us hope that the worst is behind us.

In sorting through what happened and what can be done about it, there has been significant public focus on the police response and the diminished number of officers. But few city leaders have publicly raised serious questions about other aspects of law enforcement that deserve greater examination.

One area where our community should turn its focus is in detaining and prosecuting people accused of crimes.

Bail Reform

The question of bail reform, and specifically the common practice of cash bail, has been a concern for years. But only in recent years has it swept into major cities as policy through both court orders and the election of more progressive district attorneys and judges as part of a wider repudiation of “tough on crime” laws passed in ‘90s.

Since September 2017, in Dallas County, magistrates and district judges have operated under a federal court order that made it harder for the county to hold criminal defendants who swear under oath they cannot afford bond — a key demand of proponents of bail reform.

And in 2018, District Attorney John Creuzot won election on a reform platform that stressed intervention over incarceration and that embraced bail reform as a key element of fairness in criminal justice.

Creuzot has since implemented a sweeping series of policies that impact prosecution and detention, including a determination not to prosecute certain low-level crimes and to require prosecutors to assess a defendant’s risk for flight and danger under a narrow set of criteria before recommending bail.

The connection, if any, between the federal order and Creuzot’s policies and Dallas’ spike in crime has not been studied or even substantially addressed in public in the way Dallas’ reduced police force has been.

But, within law enforcement, there is enormous concern about the impact of bail reform and Creuzot’s prosecution policies.

And, from police to prosecutors to judges, fingers are being pointed in every direction as to who, or what, is responsible for Dallas’ spike in crime. The answer is, no one appears to know definitively.

Worse, no one appears to be studying the entire scope of law enforcement, from arrest to detention to trial to punishment. We believe such analysis is essential to understanding the problem and enacting reforms that have a chance at success.

The Revolving Door

We have long agreed that our justice system shouldn’t reflexively hold in detention non-violent defendants awaiting trial, that there is a better path that enables more people to hold onto and expand the ability to function in society even as they await justice. But we also must ask whether people who should be spending time in jail are being released without adequate checks on their risk to society.

Substantial anecdotal evidence from top law enforcement officials suggests the unfortunate answer is yes. U.S. Attorney Erin Nealy Cox, Sheriff Marian Brown, City Manager T.C. Broadnax, Mayor Eric Johnson and Hall have begun raising questions about policies on bail and prosecution.

“Many of these individuals that we have apprehended have been apprehended multiple times,” Hall said recently, when the Dallas City Council called her in for hard questions about crime rates. “They have extensive criminal histories, and we have to be intentional about documenting where these individuals are and flagging them to ensure that the judges are aware of their lengthy criminal histories so they do not return back to our community.”

Last month, Nealy Cox raised concerns that violent criminals were walking out of jail on low bonds without an adequate assessment of their risk.

“(W)e shouldn’t let the laudable goal of removing income-disparity across offenders to singularly outweigh ensuring that violent offenders are held accountable for their crimes,” she wrote in these pages.

In a recent interview with the editorial board of The Dallas Morning News, Brown urged caution in developing law enforcement policies that could be construed as “no accountability” and worried that her officers are serving warrants on the same people.

Releasing defendants for low-level offenses without bond means “everybody’s getting out on a court date, and those people don’t come back,” Brown said. “What that does is that affects us on our end because warrants are now issued for those persons who are not coming back to court for their court date.”

Meanwhile, documented cases of plainly violent people leaving jail on absurdly low bonds have raised the urgency of understanding what is happening.

Among them is David Cadena, accused of beating a woman in a downtown parking garage only to leave the jail twice on bail set at $20,000 and $25,000 for two different charges before federal authorities held him without bond on a carjacking charge.

And the worst case we have seen to date — Jacques Smith, a two-time felon accused of beating his former girlfriend and then getting out on bail of $15,000. After his release, he drove to Texas A&M University-Commerce where he allegedly murdered her and her sister and shot a 2-year-old boy.

The cases of Smith and Cadena point to the danger of lax release policies and practices. But they also point to the complexity of a system that makes it hard to know who is responsible when decisions by police, prosecutors and judges all contribute to a defendant’s release.

According to Creuzot, Smith was granted his low bail by a municipal judge in Garland. No prosecutor was involved. That is common in what’s known as initial magistration.

But it’s also common for defendants to get a second hearing after initial magistration. At this bond review hearing, a prosecutor is present and the bail policies Creuzot set forth for prosecutors are applied. This is another opportunity for defendants to get released on bond, and another area that deserves examination.

To Creuzot, the policies he outlined for prosecutors were “designed for people who most likely were going to get a (personal recognizance) bond.” They were intended for “the lowest of the lowest level” of criminal offenses and for defendants who were determined to be no danger and no risk of flight.

Creuzot describes a system not where his policies have created a permissive approach to detention and prosecution but where magistrates “are setting inappropriately low bonds and people are coming back and committing another offense and the second bond is inappropriately low, but (prosecutors are) not there.”

An attorney representing Dallas’ magistrates in the federal bail reform case did not respond to a request for comment.

DA Under Fire

Creuzot’s relationship with both judges and police has become fractious. Last week, he met with Project Safe Neighborhood officers involved in the joint project between federal law enforcement and DPD aimed at cleaning up a broad area of northeast Dallas. Creuzot said his staff warned him the meeting was “a setup to confront me about my policies.”

As for magistrates and judges, he said he doesn’t want “to start a war” with them over their decisions on bond.

Creuzot also faces backlash from elected officials who call him to public meetings where people confront him. But when he asks for examples of people released because of his policies, he never gets anything concrete, he said. No one has been able to point to the actual impact of his policies as increasing crime, he said.

“If it’s wrong, it’s wrong. I’ll live up to it,” he said.

This is central to the problem Dallas has right now. No one has systematically studied the impact of Creuzot’s policies or the federal order that magistrates are operating under. No one knows whether there is a causal relationship. No one can definitively say who is responsible or how much each actor (including, police, judges and prosecutors) in this process has contributed (if at all) to the spike in crime.

Creuzot’s policies have been in effect for almost a year. But he acknowledges even he has no idea what the re-offense rate is among defendants released by magistrates and defendants released at bond review hearings where prosecutors are present.

It’s also clear that, in a vacuum of knowledge about why crime is spiking, law enforcement and the judiciary are pointing fingers at one another. But there is no central analysis of data from arrest to adjudication that helps determine where the holes in the system exist.

Creuzot said that analysis would be valuable. But he says the DA’s office has not been data-driven, and the staff and funding to fully analyze its work just aren’t available. The same is true across the board, so to some degree we are operating in the dark.

A Path Forward

Dallas is hardly alone in asking questions about the impact of bail reform, as well as more permissive prosecutorial policies. Around the country, similar concerns are being raised. In New York City, Police Commissioner Dermot Shea contends that bail reforms approved by the Legislature last year that went into effect on New Year’s Day played a significant role in a spike in crime there. In Philadelphia, District Attorney Larry Krasner eliminated cash bail for most nonviolent offenses, required prosecutors to explain the cost to taxpayers of incarceration when seeking a prison sentence, directed them to seek lighter sentences generally, and dropped some drug prosecutions. Homicides in Philadelphia increased by more than 10% in 2018, prompting concern that his reforms backfired and endangered the public.

We know that tracking crime isn’t a straight line that neatly connects cause and effect.

But it’s time for the city and county to commit to understanding the effect of the policies we are operating under.

Johnson said in a recent meeting with us that he has come to believe the city has a repeat offender problem. Those committing violent crimes have been arrested in the past and are being “released back on the streets very quickly because of low bond or for charges that are not being aggressively brought against them.”

Dallas law enforcement, the district attorney and the judiciary are suffering from a lack of understanding and are turning on one another in response. What we would rather see is either a law enforcement institution hire a consulting firm or a nonprofit organization to fund a long-term research project that can assemble a database that will enable a systemic analysis of what is happening. We know we face a complex problem, and fortunately the statistical analysis tools exist to point toward solutions. To be successful and to ensure accountability, that database should also be made public.

The time has come to shed light on who is committing crimes in our city and whether those people are on the streets because of a failure to hold them and prosecute them.

Reform may well be necessary. But no reform can take root in a city that doesn’t feel safe. And Dallas hasn’t felt safe for too long now.