The homelessness crisis, part two

By Rob Kepple
TDCAA Executive Director in Austin

In the September–October 2019 issue of this journal, I wrote about criminal justice and the homelessness crisis, that no longer are county jails the default housing option for homeless people with mental health or drug addiction problems. That is good public policy, but the consequence has been to lay this problem squarely at the feet of everyone—literally and figuratively. I wondered how the public would respond.

            The response has come swiftly. As the public demands action and cities such as Austin struggle to find solutions, Governor Greg Abbott weighed in to clean up homeless encampments on highway rights-of-way and to invest resources by developing a large homeless camp operated by the state. (Here’s an article about it:  www.texasobserver.org/austin-homeless-greg-abbott-mega-tent/.) The camp will remain open until a coalition of businesses, churches, and nonprofits can raise an estimated $14 million for a homeless shelter to be opened in 2020 (https://cbsaustin .com/news/local/state-proposes-5-acre-site-for-temporary-homeless-camp-in-se-austin). In addition, the City of Austin is buying and renovating an old Rodeway Inn to serve as a temporary shelter (www.statesman.com/news/ 20191114/council-approves-purchase-of-motel-for-homeless). Those are great starts to make sure people are safe and off the streets, but I am hoping that we don’t just take the “out of sight, out of mind” approach. Here’s to hoping that our leaders continue to invest resources in mental health services and addiction recovery.

            As for Seattle, the focus of the “Seattle is Dying” YouTube video, leaders have re-instituted a role for criminal law enforcement, at least when it comes to what they have dubbed “prolific offenders.” The new initiative will include a new treatment center with case management and behavioral health services, including jail release services for inmates who need to be connected with support (www.seattletimes.com/seattle-news/homeless/looking-to-quell-downtown-disorder-seattle-and-king-county-announce-plan-for-repeat-offenders). All in all, it is gratifying to see the public spotlight on problems that for so long only the criminal justice system seemed to grapple with!

Mental health resources at your fingertips

Texas judges have been pretty active this year developing new strategies to handle people at the intersection of mental health and the criminal justice system. First, the Court of Criminal Appeals published the Texas Mental Health Resource Guide, a comprehensive listing of state and county mental health services and resources. The guide, cross-indexed by resource type, region, county, and individual practitioner by city, is a terrific help to courts and practitioners looking to identify resources near them. You can find it at www.txcourts.gov/media/1444700/texas-mental-health-resource-guide-email-corrected-09092019.pdf.

            In addition, the Texas Judicial Commission on Mental Health has published the Texas Mental Health and Intellectual and Developmental Disabilities Law Bench Book. This is a law and practice guide organized around “intercept” points in the criminal justice system for people with mental health issues or intellectual or developmental disabilities. In addition, the bench book comes complete with a robust forms bank. Access the bench book at http://texasjcmh.gov.

            Finally, thanks to a grant from the Court of Criminal Appeals, Texas prosecutors will receive a new TDCAA publication on mental health issues in prosecution. The book, authored by Texas prosecutors who are experts in the field, will cover every aspect of prosecutors’ duties when it comes to defendants with mental health issues, from pretrial onward. Keep an eye out for it this summer!

Report from the multi-state human-trafficking summit

In the middle of November, a Texas delegation traveled to Lake Charles, Louisiana, for a multistate summit on sex trafficking. Comal County CDA Jennifer Tharp, Rockwall County CDA Kenda Culpepper, Brazos County DA Jarvis Parsons, Galveston County CDA Jack Roady, and I represented Texas and met with delegations from Louisiana and Mississippi. The Texas delegation was led by Andrea Sparks, the Director of the Governor’s Child Sex Trafficking Team, and former district judge and retired Congressman Ted Poe. It was a great opportunity to share information about the investigation and prosecution of human trafficking cases in the region. Hot topics of discussion included how human trafficking advocates may assist victims and increase cooperation with the prosecution, and how prosecution might use forfeiture by wrongdoing in these cases.

            Perhaps the most interesting session was over lunch, where McLennan County Sheriff Deputy Joe Scaramucci demonstrated just how the “demand side” of the equation worked. Joe, using his laptop at the lunch table, advertised the prostitution services of a 16-year-old girl on a local website. Within an hour a man had responded to the ad and was on his way to meet the “girl” at our summit. Fortunately, the Lake Charles district attorney was at lunch and quickly alerted local police to await the predator’s arrival. Turns out he was also a felon illegally in possession of a firearm, and he was taken into custody without incident.

            We will be bringing you a lot more training and information on resources to address trafficking in the next year. Thanks to the governor’s office and Judge Poe for leading the team to bayou country! 

Welcome, Mark Penley

The Office of the Attorney General recently announced the appointment of a new Assistant Deputy Attorney General for Criminal Justice, Mark Penley. I had the pleasure of visiting with Mark recently, and I am very happy he is at the criminal justice helm at the AG’s Office. Mark, an Air Force Academy graduate, civil practitioner, and former Assistant U.S. Attorney in Dallas, knows what it takes to run a prosecutor shop and work with others as a team. He has committed to the mission of assisting prosecutors when needed and working side by side with local prosecutors on tough cases like human trafficking. Welcome to the team, Mark!

Thanks to Leslie Dippel

Congratulations to Assistant Travis County Attorney Leslie Dippel, who was recognized in the State Bar Director Spotlight segment of the November 2019 issue of the Texas Bar Journal. Leslie is the director of civil litigation at the Travis County Attorney’s Office and the current Chair of TDCAA’s Civil Committee. She is an accomplished writer and trial attorney, as well as a speaker at many of our TDCAA conferences. As the bar director for Region 9, she is certainly a great ambassador for our profession. In the article she offers insight about being in our profession and what it has meant to her, especially when she discussed the three pillars of effective leadership: skills, issues, and relationships. Thanks for being part of the TDCAA family!

RIP to Kit Bramblett, progressive prosecutor

I want to take a moment to honor a figure in Texas prosecution, C. R. “Kit” Bramblett, who recently passed away. A cursory Internet search will reveal his story as a fascinating West Texas rancher and Hudspeth County Attorney who displayed hospitality toward would-be gold miners and who once donated water rights on his ranch to the Texas Water Trust.

            What you may not know is that Kit was an early progressive prosecutor in Texas. His policies on the prosecution of marijuana came to light in 2011 when he refused to prosecute Willie Nelson for possession after a search of his tour bus at the border patrol checkpoint in Sierra Blanca turned up some pot. Kit famously reduced the case to a Class C misdemeanor because, as he explained, “I ain’t gonna be mean to Willie Nelson.” He also publicly hoped that Willie would sing “Blue Eyes Crying in the Rain” in the courtroom, which didn’t happen.

            But he wasn’t just giving a beloved singer-songwriter a break. Kit was interviewed following the case (read the article at www.texasnorml.org/the-raw-story-willie-nelsons-prosecutor-wants-to-see-marijuana-decriminalized) and made it clear that he typically reduced such cases to Class Cs and supported marijuana decriminalization. Who knew that when the governor announced his support for reducing possession of small amounts of marijuana to a Class C, he was following Kit’s lead?!