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Recent editorials from Texas newspapers

February 19, 2019

Here are excerpts from recent editorials in Texas newspapers:

Houston Chronicle. Feb. 18, 2019.

Five suicides in two years at the Harris County Jail, including two in one month. A failed inspection that cited unsanitary conditions. A history of placing inmates in jails as far away as Louisiana.

Is this acceptable? No, and the problems have justifiably shaken confidence in the local officials, especially Harris County Sheriff Ed Gonzalez, who run the jail and pay its bills.

State Sen. John Whitmire, the Houston Democrat who chairs the Senate’s criminal justice committee, has threatened state intervention if conditions don’t improve. A state inspection in November found bug-infested cells and lukewarm food, but what triggered his alarm was the Jan. 16 death of inmate Tracy Whited, who hanged herself in her cell after she couldn’t post $1,000 bond on two misdemeanor charges.

“I am looking to see a sense of urgency from Ed and from the county judge,” Whitmire told the Editorial Board. He said on Monday he’s not seen it.

Whitmire is right to raise concerns. Gonzalez, County Judge Lina Hidalgo and the commissioners must make improving conditions at the jail an urgent priority. “When you deprive someone of liberty, you have a special duty to protect them while they are in your custody,” Whitmire said.

Still, a state takeover isn’t the way to do it. Running the jail is the job voters gave Gonzalez. If they don’t like his performance, they can fire him in 2020.

“I have skin in the game. This is my role and my responsibility,” Gonzalez told the Editorial Board. “I admit there’s challenges we need to work through. But I tell you . our jail system here locally is not broken.”

Evidence supports that. One suicide is too many, but the Harris County jail is not an outlier, according to Chronicle reporter Keri Blakinger’s analysis of state data: Harris’ suicide rate ranks sixth among Texas’ 10 biggest county jails. Gonzalez said his team will soon be working with a suicide prevention expert, and is open to expert advice on other reforms. Some have been made already. Whitmire said state inspectors have concluded that the sanitation issues have been resolved. Gonzalez has said he’s no longer housing inmates out of state.

Other issues — including camera surveillance of all at-risk inmates — remain a work in progress. Pending bail reform should eventually reduce the number of defendants jailed, lead to fewer defendants will be jailed while they wait for trial, making improvements easier.

Hidalgo and county commissioners should use their power of the purse to keep jail reform atop Gonzalez’s to-do list. If they don’t, voters can fire them, too.

Whitmire’s pressure is helpful and county leaders should take it to heart. Inmates are counting on it with their lives.

___

Austin American-Statesman. Feb. 18, 2019.

We’ve seen no shortage of norm-shattering behavior in the first two years of Donald Trump’s presidency. But Trump’s flighty declaration of a national emergency to build his border wall arguably inflicts the most lasting damage to our democracy.

It’s not just because a wall is a terribly ineffective way to curb illegal immigration and drug smuggling — although that is the case. Nor is it because such a barrier would disrupt vibrant communities and fragile ecosystems across Texas’ southern border — though, to our deep dismay, that is also true.

Rather, Trump’s brazen power grab to redirect money to his political priorities, bypassing Congress for the admitted purpose of expediency, is an assault on our system of government.

The separation of powers is a defining feature of U.S. government. Dividing the government’s power between three equal branches, each with the ability to rein in the others, protects the people from the whims of a tyrannical leader.

As George Washington reminded the young nation in his 1796 Farewell Address, such a system was needed because “that love of power, and proneness to abuse it ... predominates in the human heart.” It was essential, he wrote, for each branch to serve as a guardian “against the invasions by the others.”

The distance from our first president to the current one couldn’t be greater. Last week in a jumbled rant from the Rose Garden, Trump described a border threat at odds with his own administration’s statistics, and tacitly acknowledged his emergency declaration was simply a tool to short-circuit political opposition.

“I could do the wall over a longer period of time,” Trump said. “I didn’t need to do this, but I’d rather do it much faster.”

The Constitution plainly gives Congress the power to decide how our federal dollars are spent. Members of Congress should soundly reject Trump’s efforts to wrest that duty from them. Allowing Trump’s emergency declaration to stand would shove Congress to the sidelines while the presidency amassed unchecked powers, a development that should alarm Americans of all parties.

America does not have a crisis at its southern border. To the contrary:

— Illegal border crossings are down. Border Patrol agents arrested about 400,000 people last year trying to sneak into the country between ports of entry, a significant drop from more than 1.6 million arrests in 2000.

— America has fewer undocumented residents. Even as new people are coming, more are leaving. So while the U.S. had 11.7 million people living here illegally in 2010, the number fell to nearly 10.7 million in 2017, according to the Center for Migration Studies. Studies also show undocumented immigrants are less likely to commit crimes than U.S.-born citizens.

— The main breakdown isn’t at the border. Among the 515,000 people joining the ranks of the undocumented in the U.S. in 2016, about 62 percent initially flew into the country on legally obtained visas, then overstayed those visas, according to the Center for Migration Studies. Building a border wall doesn’t address that situation, which over the past decade has been the primary method of entry for people who are now here illegally.

— Most drugs come through ports of entry. How much can smugglers carry on foot across a desolate stretch of borderlands? Not nearly as much as they can pack into cars and trucks going through legal ports of entry, where cartels gamble that traffic will be so busy that U.S. agents won’t catch everything. Indeed, 90 percent of the heroin seized at the border last year came through ports of entry. Meanwhile, the alternatives cartels have been developing, digging tunnels and using drones to fly drugs over the border, won’t be stymied by a wall.

We’ve recognized over the years that securing the border is an evolving task, one that requires strategic placement of the most appropriate resources — physical barriers, motion sensors, better detection systems at ports of entry and more agents and immigration judges — not a one-size-fits-all wall. We applauded Sen. John Cornyn’s call for such a nuanced approach two years ago. But then, as now, Trump isn’t listening to what Texas needs.

As the American-Statesman’s Jeremy Schwartz reported over the weekend, residents of the Rio Grande Valley may shoulder the heaviest burdens in order for Trump to keep his campaign promise to “Build that wall.” Cherished homes, a beloved chapel, historic cemeteries, riverine habitats and even a stop on the old Underground Railroad all sit in shadows, if not the direct path, of Trump’s planned wall.

Building a wall won’t make America safer, especially if Trump disrupts the very foundation of our country to do so. Members of Congress must prevent Trump’s contrived emergency from creating a true threat to our system of government.

___

Amarillo Globe-News. Feb. 19, 2019.

The dry winter weather and all-too-frequent recent high winds have helped usher in an unwanted time of the year much too early — winter wildfire season and its accompanying danger to life and property across West Texas. Typically, the alarm isn’t sounded for a few more weeks, but our story Monday indicated a constellation of factors have aligned.

No one has to look back too far to realize the terrible threat wildfires pose for this region. Panhandle wildfires left a handful of people dead and burned more than 500,000 acres less than two years ago. A lot of damage from the March 2017 wildfires took place in Gray and Lipscomb counties. Just this week, Texas A&M Forest Service firefighters contained the Channing Fire, which had scorched more than 7,500 acres in Moore, Oldham and Hartley counties.

There are few scenarios scarier than a wind-whipped wildfire rapidly moving across drought-stricken lands. Already this year, there have been a number of red flag warnings (issued by the National Weather Service when drought conditions are compounded by high winds and low relative humidity). Likewise, burn bans are being enforced across West Texas.

The danger of a sudden or careless spark has caused local authorities to raise awareness of the favorable wildfire conditions through education and other means. Although many West Texans are well-acquainted with what now seems to have become an annual threat, those who have recently moved to the region may not be as familiar.

?...There’s a lot of people who didn’t grow up here and don’t realize that fire season is a large issue up here,” Paige Purvis, regional fire coordinator of the Texas A&M Forest Service in Lubbock, said in our story. “A lot of people in the Amarillo area are a lot more versed in fire weather than people in the Lubbock area. It’s knowing it can still happen here.”

Experts suggest being aware of warning signs conducive to wildfires: winds between 15 and 20 mph; relative humidity at or below 20 percent; and a general understanding of the region’s dry conditions, although limited moisture in the form of snow, freezing rain and ice were in the forecast for Tuesday.

Fires can start more easily than one might imagine, according to experts. For example, they say something as seemingly innocuous as a safety chain dragging on pavement from a truck or trailer has the capability of producing sparks that can ignite a fire. According to our story, other sources include machinery, dry lightning strikes and people burning trash without realizing the danger on a particular day.

With wildfire season starting earlier than usual, West Texans can take several steps to do their part in protecting the area by being prepared and aware. There are resources available to educate homeowners on defending their homes and for ranchers to make sure they have a plan in the event fire crews must be on their land.

“If people will listen to the weather and what’s coming from the county, and have situational awareness of what you’re doing and what could happen from what you’re doing, that would make a difference,” said Keith Lammons, taskforce coordinator for Texas A&M Forest Service.

If everyone does their part, there’s no telling the difference it will make. In the end, though, those efforts will help protect West Texans and everything they hold so dear.

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