Hot topics at the Legislative Updates

Rob Kepple

TDCAA Executive Director in Austin

As this edition of The Texas Prosecutor goes to print, the dust is still settling on the 84th Legislative Session. As usual, there are some fascinating developments in criminal law which you will want to learn about at this summer’s TDCAA Legislative Updates. (Sign up at www.tdcaa.com/ training/2015-legislative-updates-summer-tour-starts.) It seemed that last session was all about prosecutor accountability, and we have worked hard the last couple years to demonstrate to the public and our lawmakers that prosecutors are worthy of their trust. Judging by the number of new responsibilities district and county attorneys will have after the 84th Session, it appears that we have regained that trust—and then some! Two areas prosecutors need to learn about are public integrity prosecutions and the civil commitment of sexually violent predators. That’s because two special prosecution programs (the Public Integrity Unit of the Travis County District Attorney’s Office and the Special Prosecution Unit in Huntsville) have been dissolved, and their authority and responsibility to handle those cases will now be in local hands. Just what does that mean? Come to our Legislative Updates and find out!

Some changes to the Annual in Corpus
Many of you are preparing to come to the TDCAA Annual Criminal and Civil Law Update in Corpus Christi September 23–25. This has been a popular location for this event in the past, but we want you to be prepared for a new training venue. Instead of spreading out into the Omni Bayfront and other hotels, we are able to host the entire conference under one roof at the American Bank Convention Center, which is a great facility. It’s just a short distance from the hotels at the north end of Shoreline Boulevard, and frequent shuttle service will run from the hotels to make it easy. And for the first time in a decade, we will again host our Thursday night reception on the U.S.S. Lexington aircraft carrier. There will be a lot to talk about as we digest the latest legislative changes, so see you there.

TDCAA Annual
Business Meeting
You are used to getting a notice of our Annual Business Meeting and Board Elections in this summer edition of The Texas Prosecutor. In the past, that meeting has always been held in conjunction with the Annual Update in September, but this year, the meeting will be held alongside the Elected Prosecutor Conference in December.
    The Board decided to move the meeting this year for two reasons. First, there is no impending by-law changes or other significant reason to call a meeting of the full TDCAA membership. Second, the Board was interested in invigorating interest in service on TDCAA boards and committees and wanted to use September’s Annual to encourage members to take part in the association. So it made sense to push the elections to December and allow folks who are interested in serving to learn more about it at the Annual and begin the nomination and election process.
    If you have an interest in TDCAA board or committee service, come to this year’s Annual and learn more about it. This is truly a member-driven organization, so we need your energy and enthusiasm for the profession to keep moving forward!

Police use of force
One of the issues at the 84th Legislative Session was peace officer use of force and related prosecutions—or as some might say, the lack of prosecution. Although Texas has not seen the civil unrest of other jurisdictions, this topic was as hot at the Texas Capitol as in capitols all around the country. In the end, we saw legislative reforms in the grand jury and in police officer body cameras, but deeper reforms were tabled for at least a session.
    But that isn’t the end of the discussion. TDCAA’s leadership is concerned about this national issue and how police use-of-force cases are handled in Texas. In an effort to see where we are as a state, TDCAA has applied for and received an additional grant from the Court of Criminal Appeals to host a prosecutor summit on Texas use of force investigation and prosecution in November 2015. This will be a small group brought together over a couple days to closely examine how use-of-force cases are handled in Texas and what additional training and resources are needed. We have also extended invitations to experts in the field at the Department of Justice, so we can count on seeing where we stack up nationwide.
    After we see where we do well and where we might improve, we will design training for our offices and perhaps even our local law enforcement agencies to make sure we are doing our best in these cases. Stay tuned!

Criminal justice and national politics?
For the first time in 20 years, it appears that criminal justice policy might play a part in the upcoming presidential election cycle. Take a look at the lead of a recent New York Times article titled “2016 Candidates Are United in Call to Alter Justice System”:
The last time a Clinton and a Bush ran for president, the country was awash in crime and the two parties were competing to show who could be tougher on murderers, rapists, and drug dealers. Sentences were lengthened and new prisons sprouted up across the country. But more than two decades later, declared and presumed candidates for president are competing over how to reverse what they see as the policy excesses of the 1990s and the mass incarceration that has followed. Democrats and Republicans alike are putting forth ideas to reduce the prison population and rethink a system that has locked up a generation of young men, particularly African-Americans.1
    Be ready to fact-check if the televised debates focus on crime. By now, we have heard time and time again about “the Texas Miracle,” touted as policies to increase treatment and rehabilitation in 2007 that led to savings of over a billion dollars in prison construction costs. Long story short, be very suspicious of someone who attributes the overall drop in crime and a lot of cost savings to a single legislative policy. Some would attribute the drop to tough-on-crime policies in the 1990s and others to treatment and rehabilitation options of the 2000s. I read one article arguing that it could very well be the aging of America and disappearance of lead paint in homes with small children. It seems plausible that a lot of factors played a role here, so one needs to be suspicious of a simplistic and convenient answer (and by convenient I mean the answer that just happens to save money). It is obviously great to have effective treatment and rehabilitation options when dealing with defendants in our courts, but the declining prison population doubtless has many other contributing factors. Has anyone noticed, for instance, that the Texas parole rate has gone from 22 to 38 percent in recent years?

Jaime Esparza wins national MADD award
Jaime Esparza, District Attorney in El Paso, Hudspeth, and Culberson Counties, was recently honored at Mothers Against Drunk Driving’s 35th Anniversary National Conference in Washington, D.C. Jaime was the recipient of the National President’s Award, a top honor from MADD. He was originally nominated by MADD’s West Texas chapter for his work with victims and the El Paso Police Department’s “Out For Blood” educational program, an eye-catching campaign that alerts folks that El Paso’s police department runs a 24/7 blood-draw program. In his remarks accepting the award, Jaime was quick to praise all of the prosecutors around Texas and the nation who are dedicated to reducing drunk driving and helping the victims of this crime restore their lives. Congratulations, Jaime, for this deserved recognition.

Welcome, Ashley Martin
When you call TDCAA for some research assistance, you will no doubt get to talk with our new Research Attorney, Ashley Martin. Ashley is a graduate of Texas A&M University, where she double-majored in history and political science. She got her law degree at the University of Texas. Ashley, having interned at both the Travis County District Attorney’s Office and the U.S. Attorney’s Office for the Northern District of Texas, has hit the ground running, and we are lucky to have her on the team. Welcome!

Another talented
Texas ­prosecutor
Every now and again you hear about a Texas prosecutor who has taken a non-law talent like writing, music, or acting to a new level. Recently, one assistant criminal district attorney not only got the attention of folks in the art world, but also dedicated her art to victims of crime.
    This past April, Johna Stallings, a Victoria County prosecutor, opened an art show in a Victoria gallery, with proceeds going to the local child advocacy center, the Hope of South Texas, Inc. You can read about the showing here: www .victoriaadvocate.com/news/2015/apr/15/art-show-to-benefit-hope-of-south-texas-inc.
    It is always great to see that dedicated prosecutors also have diverse interests and talents. And I hope the public appreciates someone like Johna, who can’t help but use her talent in art to find yet another way to help the children in her community. Well done!

David Escamilla honored
In April, the Austin Bar Foundation and Austin Bar Association held the 2105 Law Day Luncheon, at which it honored a number of Austin-area attorneys. Congratulations to David Escamilla, the County Attorney in Travis County, for being honored as this year’s recipient of the Regina Rogoff Award. David was singled out as a career public servant who has contributed greatly in developing a strong Family Violence Division that prioritizes protective orders and the criminal enforcement of domestic violence cases. A well-deserved recognition!

Endnote

1 Baker, Peter, The New York Times, April 27, 2015, available at www.nytimes.com/2015/04/28/us/ politics/being-less-tough-on-crime-is-2016-consensus.html?_r=0 (payment or subscription required; last accessed June 8, 2015).