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Recent editorials from Texas newspapers

August 13, 2019

Here are excerpts from recent editorials in Texas newspapers:

Longview News-Journal. Aug. 11, 2019.

It’s merely incidental that Starbucks is the business wanting to locate at the site of an old Waffle House Restaurant at Spur 63 and West Marshall Avenue.

It’s true the coffeehouse chain is known as a good corporate citizen and its business would almost certainly be successful at that location. But the same could be said of most Longview businesses.

The location is a prime one and, eventually, other companies are going to inquire about its availability. By standards of economic development, it will not long remain a vacant eyesore.

But there is a roadblock — actually, a city sign ordinance — preventing redevelopment at this busy intersection. That’s a shame, because no matter who winds up with this property, they will want removal of the towering, three-sided electronic billboard owned separately and apart by Lamar Advertising.

Lamar, understandably, doesn’t want to give up its billboard for nothing. It would like the opportunity to put up three single-sided electronic billboards in other parts of the city in exchange for removing the three-sided sign at Spur 63.

These are reasonable positions. Unfortunately, resolving the issue easily has become impossible because of the sign ordinance which, in our opinion, is not at all unreasonable.

That being said, the ordinance as it stands is blocking economic development that would be good not just for Longview’s coffee consumers but also those who never touch the stuff. Not only would a thriving new business bring in new tax receipts, but the improved intersection — and gateway into the city — will boost future development in the area.

We are not advocating scrapping the sign ordinance. Those rules and regulations do a lot for the city’s aesthetics. But we do not accept the notion the ordinance was passed with the intent of stopping development.

This situation provides impetus to reconsider the ordinance, to restructure and clarify it so the zoning board of adjustment is not required to make judgments on a patchwork of variances.

Economic development — especially when it comes with improving how the city looks — requires special consideration. The sign ordinance itself was at least partly intended to standardize and regulate signage to bring the city a better look. When a new business will achieve the same goal, it should be able to do that as well.

Swapping the three-sided monstrosity for three individual electronic billboards across the city does nothing to hurt Longview, and rehabilitating that intersection will bring about a world of good.

We encourage the city to allow the Starbucks-Lamar plan for redeveloping this intersection, and call for the city to revisit and amend the ordinance to try to prevent such a mess in the future.

When presented with roadblocks, some businesses will find another path — often, that is another city — where there are fewer hurdles to jump.

We don’t know where Mayor Andy Mack stands on this issue, but a plank in his election platform was that barriers to economic development in Longview should be removed. We agreed then, and we agree now.

The mayor offering direction in this case would be helpful, and we would like to see it.

This matter should come to a successful end, not because we need another coffee shop but because we need to move forward as a city. This would show that Longview can, indeed, do just that.

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The Dallas Morning News. Aug. 12, 2019.

In the sordid and brutal world of human trafficking, two recent stories deserve a closer look and a deeper understanding. Both stories involve justice — one for a person just emerging from a long run behind bars and the other for a person who always seems just outside of the grasp of the law.

The first of these two stories comes to us from Tennessee, where Cyntoia Brown has recently been released from prison. Her case is more complicated than many human trafficking clemency stories but nonetheless instructive. At 16, she was in a desperate situation. She was being trafficked, sold for sex to men unconcerned about the damage they did to her. But she also had a gun, which she used to shoot one of those men in the back of the head. She committed murder and, even as a juvenile, was therefore sentenced to life in prison.

It’s likely that is where she would still be today except for a dramatic change that is underway in our society. The definition of trafficking is to be under someone else’s control. In many cases that means a trafficker uses coercion — be it drug dependency, emotional manipulation, the threat of physical violence or actual physical violence — to force a person into a world of shame, degradation and abuse.

The human psyche being the complex creation that it is, often the trafficking victims will insist, even to themselves, that they are making rational choices about their lives. The result is that the trafficker makes a killing, but the trafficking victim dies inside.

Recognizing the complex nature of this dynamic, in January outgoing Gov. Bill Haslam offered Brown clemency and she was released at 3:30 a.m. Aug. 7 — just a few days ago.

The governor didn’t let her entirely off the hook. Her record was not wiped clean. She’ll have to serve another 10 years on parole, so even a relatively small infraction can send her back to jail. She will also have to attend counseling sessions, keep a job or enroll in school, and perform at least 50 hours of community service. She will work with at-risk youth.

But after 16 hard years growing up and another 15 years of hard time, she will now have more freedom than she has ever had to build a positive life.

Juxtapose this story against that of Jeffrey Epstein, the disgraced financier, who committed suicide in jail over the weekend while awaiting trial on charges stemming from allegations that he trafficked young girls. What becomes clear is that there is a real change underway. A decade ago, Epstein cut a deal with prosecutors to do a short stint in jail but otherwise go back to his life. We wish Epstein had lived to be tried again, so that true justice could be done. But it’s important to remember, even now, that he was rearrested because his alleged victims were empowered and speaking out. And the investigation into his death, as well as those who enabled him, must now be the focus.

In a world where we pay more attention to the victims of human trafficking than we once did, one girl has been released from prison while an alleged perpetrator was brought into custody for crimes he once was able to largely skate away from. We hope investigators do not allow any of his accomplices off the hook now. But in any case, this is what progress looks like in the messy world of human trafficking. Brown has been held to account for her sins, but justice also recognizes that she too was a victim. At the same time, justice is more broadly working to catch up to the real masterminds of these crimes.

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Houston Chronicle. Aug. 13, 2019.

Federal Judge Keith Ellison had every right to be angry when he blasted the state on Friday for violating a settlement reached last year to stop putting inmates in hot prison cells, which the prisoners argued violated the Constitution’s prohibition of cruel and unusual punishment.

At least 22 people have died as a result of oppressive conditions at 15 state prisons since 1998, according to the Texas Department of Criminal Justice.

The settlement in a class-action case Ellison oversaw required the temperature be kept under 88 degrees inside the Wallace Pack Unit near Navasota. The agreement also said comparable conditions must be provided to any Pack inmates covered under the settlement who were transferred to a different prison.

That didn’t happen for 37 men recently transferred to the Richard LeBlanc Unit in Beaumont. Once again, they sweltered in a facility with a bad cooling system.

Ellison said the state had shown “negligible interest” in determining the conditions at LeBlanc before sending the inmates there despite available evidence that temperatures inside the prison exceeded those set forth in the settlement. He ordered the state to return the transferred inmates to Pack.

Worse than the state’s noncompliance with the settlement was its apparent effort to hide the truth.

Scott Medlock, an attorney for the inmates transferred to LeBlanc, said prison officials assured him that the prison’s cooling system “has been functioning properly and has maintained the temperature just below 85 degrees.” But 15 measurements taken during a subsequent site visit showed 14 areas above 90 degrees and one above 100.

Medlock said the thermostats on the LeBlanc air conditioning units displayed only the set temperature. He said one thermostat read 30 degrees when the indoor heat index was 97 degrees.

The state assured Ellison that it was repairing the air conditioning at LeBlanc. But keep in mind those repairs are occurring only because the Pack Unit inmates covered under the court settlement were sent to LeBlanc. It’s likely that had those inmates not been transferred, stifling conditions there would have continued.

Texas operates more than 100 state prisons, jails and other facilities, with 10 more run by private operators. It’s a sure bet that the heat is just as oppressive inside many of those facilities.

Life-threatening conditions exist in Texas prisons because state officials aren’t fully committed to rehabilitating inmates. The TDCJ has programs that prepare inmates for their eventual return to society, but the effectiveness of those programs is blunted by the inhumane ways the prison system treats the incarcerated.

You can find dog pounds with better climate-control systems than some Texas prisons.

It’s not coddling inmates to provide cells that are heated and cooled properly. That cost is an investment in rehabilitation that can help reduce recidivism and lower the more than $3 billion this state spends annually to house the nation’s largest prison population.

Remember, too, that guards and other staff suffer as well when prison conditions are oppressive.

With the summer heat reaching triple digits this week, many Texans consider air conditioning a necessity. It’s worse inside prison. Inmates can’t leave to cool off at the mall or a movie theater. And when it gets too hot, people die.

Serving time shouldn’t be a death sentence for people who didn’t commit a capital offense. Texas needs to improve prison conditions that endanger people’s health.

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