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Texas Edition
Curated by @carimahwheat

In Justice Today, Texas Edition, covers justice system news in Texas. We also publish a newsletter of national justice system news every weekday. You can sign up here.

What you’ll read today about justice in Texas.

  • Spotlight: What crimmigration currently looks like in Texas

  • Around the state: The damaging impact of preventing transgender prisoners from changing their names; how one community stopped a city council from supporting tough sentencing; wrongful death lawsuit filed for Danny Ray Thomas’s shooting; and more...
 
Governor Greg Abbott shakes President Donald Trump's hand. Both favor heavy-handed immigration enforcement. (Chip Somodevilla / Getty Images)

The state of crimmigration

It’s no secret that Texas Governor Greg Abbott favors a heavy-handed approach to immigration enforcement. Under his leadership, the state passed SB 4, which empowers local law enforcement officers to act as federal immigration officials and has a provision to criminalize officials who don’t abide by federal detainer requests. In March, the Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals upheld most of the law; a provision prohibiting public officials from “endorsing” a policy that limits immigration enforcement was struck down. Now, Abbott is publicly sparring with former Sheriff Lupe Valdez, a Democratic challenger running for his seat. Following a Tea Party meeting on Monday, Abbott said, “If Lupe is elected, she will eviscerate that ban on sanctuary cities, and all these concerns that so many Texans have will be threatened.” The next day, Valdez responded, “I’ve spent 42 years working in law enforcement, working to keep Americans safe, I know what smart security looks like and this isn’t it.” She also accused Abbott of “spewing his fear-based open borders nonsense.” With all of this mudslinging, immigration is sure to be a major issue leading up to the gubernatorial election in November—and there’s a lot to be concerned about now.

  • Few immigrants have legal representation: Texas has the highest number of deportation cases, by far. But a new report by Syracuse University’s Transactional Records Access Clearinghouse (TRAC) concluded that 71 percent of the immigrants shuffled through these proceedings between October 2000 and February 2018 didn’t have legal representation. These cases are handled in civil court, which means immigrant defendants don’t have a right to an attorney like they would in criminal court. TRAC, unsurprisingly, found that the majority of these proceedings—roughly 70 percent—resulted in an order for defendants’ removal. And with recent directives by Attorney General Jeff Sessions to expedite immigration proceedings and halt the Vera Institute program that provided legal guidance for free, the lack of representation will only get worse and lead to more deportations, says immigration attorney Jackie Watson. “As bad as it is, doing all this ensures that it’s going to go up,” she told the Texas Tribune. “It doesn’t make any sense to me, this is a really shitty strategic plan from the DOJ.” [Julián Aguilar & Darla Cameron / Texas Tribune]
  • Making a bad problem worse: Legal service providers are already bracing for impact in Texas. Vera Institute’s Legal Orientation Program educated participants about court proceedings, as well as their legal rights. At least two facilities in Texas had contracts with Vera to oversee local operations. One, in Dallas’s Prairieland Detention Center, was operated by the Catholic Charities of Dallas. “Our experience with various judges hearing these cases is that they appreciate the detainees coming to court prepared vs. not,” said David Woodyard, the Catholic Charities of Dallas CEO. “We also believe this ‘pre-work’ saves the court system and beyond both time and money.” The American Bar Association, which oversees the Vera service at Port Isabel Detention Center in Los Fresnos agrees. “The Legal Orientation Program, whose funding will end April 30, has a track record of effectively saving the government millions of dollars in immigration court and detention costs while providing due process and dignity to individuals involved in the immigration court system,” it wrote of Sessions’s decision. The ABA also wrote that it is “deeply disturbed.” [Dianne Solis / Dallas Morning News]

  • Heartbreaking decisions: When her 4-year-old son broke his arm, Silvia Macuixtle was forced to make a gut-wrenching call: She could go with him to a  hospital in San Antonio for surgery, or have him transported to the hospital without her. If she went, she’d have to go through an internal checkpoint between Laredo, where she originally brought the little boy for medical help, and San Antonio. As an undocumented immigrant, she’d face the risk of alerting immigration officials about her whereabouts. Macuixtle decided to go, but hospital staff from Laredo ended up calling border agents, who followed her and her son to San Antonio and watched her until the boy was given the OK to leave the hospital. She was subsequently detained for several hours at one checkpoint and another two hours at an ICE facility. She was released on Saturday, but is required to check in with ICE next month. “The current climate has led to excessive fear and uncertainty that is really concerning regarding the health and well-being of children,” one doctor told ThinkProgress. “When parents are scared, children are scared … the threat of separation from a parent really places children in a situation where we are disrupting the most essential and important part of their development.” [Esther Yu Hsi Lee / ThinkProgress]

Stories From Around the State

Graphic promoting Trans Pride Initiative’s campaign to expanding access to affirming name and gender corrections in Texas (Facebook)

Advocates fight statute delaying transgender prisoners’ ability to change their names: Marius Mason, a transgender man incarcerated at a federal women’s prison located in Fort Worth, Texas, has wanted to change his legal name to his chosen name since 2014. However, Texas Family Code prevents anyone in the state with a felony conviction from changing their legal name until two years after completing all of the terms of their sentence, a law advocates are fighting. The continued use of birth names can contribute to a climate of violence and harassment, both in prison and outside. Additionally, being unable to change their names could deny trans prisoners access to gender-affirming medical care. “[M]y old [name] reminds me every day of the person that I am not anymore,” Mason says, “and it feels false and humiliating to be constantly reminded that society does not see me as the man I want to be. It feels cruel to me to force me to live in this way.”[Aviva Stahl / In Justice Today] But see Texas prisons have updated their LGBT policy after a lawsuit from a trans woman who was beaten and raped after being housed in a men’s prison. [Jolie McCullough / Texas Tribune]

Defendants paid Brown County Attorney: Records obtained by a local ABC affiliate show that Brown County Attorney Shane Britton accepted money in exchange for dropping charges over many years. The records were obtained from the Brown County Sheriff’s Office, which started investigating Britton’s operation after a former FBI agent tipped it off. Britton allegedly funneled the money he received into the Brown County Attorney Donation Fund that the prosecutor created over a decade ago. According to the records, a defendant paid Britton $1,500 to get his indecent exposure case dismissed. Investigators suspect that he received these payments between 2009 and 2014. “[Defendants] could avoid hiring a defense attorney. They could avoid a conviction on their record and everything went away. All you had to do was make a donation,” Brown County Chief Deputy Bobby Duvall said of the scheme. He also specified that Britton was involved in “outright theft cases” and “cases that would be easily categorized as extortion.” [Joshua Peguero / KTXS 12]

Criminal justice resolution “tabled indefinitely” after public concern: A city council resolution in Pflugerville, Texas, that would have “[encouraged] the courts to sentence criminals convicted of drugs or violent acts to the maximum punishment allowable by law” flopped last week, due to community backlash. Three out of five councilmembers had cosponsored Resolution 0508, including Rudy Metayer, who said he opposed it but wanted it to generate a public discussion. Ultimately, he got his wish. Community members slammed the proposal during a council meeting, after members of a local criminal justice organization, MEASURE, alerted them about the potentially disastrous proposal. Just Liberty, another Texas-based organization that promotes comprehensive reform, also solicited letters from constituents who opposed the legislation and sent dozens to the mayor’s office. For his part, Mayor Victor Gonzales says he was against the resolution from the moment he saw it, as violent crime fell 7 percent in the past year. “I was appalled we would even suggest … that crime was on the rise, things were out of hand and we had no control over law enforcement,” Gonzales said of the resolution. “I think we need to bow to the judiciary and process that’s available.” In the end, the five members of the council voted unanimously against the proposal. [Iain Oldman / Community Impact]

Family of Danny Ray Thomas file wrongful death lawsuit: Last Thursday, with the help of two attorneys, relatives of Danny Ray Thomas filed a wrongful death lawsuit against Harris County. The suit alleges that the sheriff’s deputy who pulled the trigger, Cameron Brewer, resorted to excessive force “even after observing that Mr. Thomas was unarmed and clearly in a state of crisis or suffering from mental health problems, and was not then presenting any objective danger to others or himself.” The suit also claims that this kind of excessive force is part of a larger trend of using force against people in a state of crisis. The lawyers for the family held a press conference at the Harris County Civil Court to address the lawsuit the same day it was filed. “Statistics bear out that if you’re mentally ill and you are black that you already have two strikes against you when you encounter law enforcement,” said one of the family’s attorneys, Benjamin Crump, who previously represented the families of Mike Brown and Tamir Rice. “With the filing of this lawsuit we declare that just because you are having a mental crisis does not mean that you should encounter the death penalty, executed by a police officer on a street corner.” [Tom Dart / Guardian]  See also “The aftermath of Danny Ray Thomas’s shooting” in the 4/5/18 edition of this newsletter.

Why this judge dreads execution day: Former District Judge Mike Lynch presided over eight capital cases during a two-decade-long career in Texas, but the death penalty never sat right with him. In this first-person account, he describes how deeply conflicted he felt when he confronted people found guilty of grisly crimes. He knew what they did was deplorable, but he was still able to see their humanity. He journaled as a coping mechanism, writing once that he believed he was “invading God’s province.” In another entry, he wrote, “If only we could execute the bad side and keep the good side alive.” He describes the anxiety he felt before one execution, knowing that he had set the date and time. He also knew he’d have to make a quick decision regarding a stay, if new evidence were presented at the eleventh hour. Unable to stomach more capital cases, Lynch retired in 2012. “Sometimes I was able to rationalize that my role in the outcome of these cases was minimal. After all, jurors were the ones who weighed evidence and reached a lawful verdict. But other times I wondered whether the system I have been a part of for so long was, simply, barbaric,” Lynch said. [Mike Lynch / The Marshall Project]

Thank you for reading. See you next week!

In Justice Today is a publication of The Justice Collaborative, a project of The Advocacy Fund

Copyright © 2018 Fair Punishment Project, All rights reserved.


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