Where are the Texas Experts?


This comment on Scott Greenfield’s blog by one of the authors of the recent Dallas Morning News article on probation for murder in Texas got me thinking a bit. “A closer read of our series,” he wrote, “shows that prosecutors still can offer probation through plea bargains with defendants.” Here is the article about which we’re talking. There may have been other articles, but I haven’t seen them and this one didn’t suggest that “a closer read” would be worthwhile. In the article about the Texas criminal justice system, the News cited eight “experts”:

  • University of Arizona law professor Marc Miller;
  • University of Houston law professor (and ethics expert) Bob Schuwerk;
  • Utah prison system executive director Tom Patterson;
  • Bennett Gershman, a law professor at Pace University in New York;
  • Buddy Meyer of the district attorney’s office in Austin, Texas;
  • George Dix, a University of Texas criminal law professor;
  • Doug Beloof, director of the National Crime Victim Law Institute in Oregon;
  • John Kramer, a Penn State University sociology professor specializing in criminal justice.

So which of those people is qualified as an expert in the Texas criminal justice system? If you said “Meyer and Dix” you would be correct. Schuwerk, while he teaches at my alma mater, is a legal ethics specialist; as far as I can tell he’s never been involved with the criminal justice system.

The rest of the DMN’s “experts” are from out of state; like the authors of the article, they seem universally atwitter that Texas allows probation for murder. Some of them — again, apparently like the authors of the article — think that sentencing guidelines would be a good idea for Texas. (I’ll talk about that another day.)

So what do the Texas criminal justice experts have to say about the DMN’s proposition that the availability of probation for murder is a problem? Dix said he wasn’t bothered by the number of murderers on probation statewide; Meyer said (not of the availability of probation, but of prosecutors giving probation without a jury’s recommendation), “I don’t know that that’s the appropriate way to go about ensuring public safety . . . . You’ve got your responsibility to the community.”

Neither of the Texas criminal justice professionals that the DMN managed to find (it’s not really that difficult, DMN: next time, call the Texas Criminal Defense Lawyers’ Organization and the Texas District and County Attorneys’ Association, and ask the directors of those associations who the best experts would be) has his panties in a twist about the fact that juries could recommend probation for convicted murderers.

But “I’m not bothered” doesn’t sell newspapers. So the DMN tracks down a bunch of out-of-state “experts” who are all worked up about probation for murder and think they can socially-engineer a better system by taking even more power out of the hands of Texas juries and putting it in the hands of bureaucrats.

That might fly in Dallas, but not in Texas.

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0 responses to “Where are the Texas Experts?”

  1. Mark,

    As the co-author who wrote in on the other blog, I can again clarify points you raise about the series.

    To answer your questions, the reason we included people from outside the fair state of Texas was simple.

    Various working prosecutors and defense lawyers in Texas made their assessment of the probation-for-murder practice clear in earlier installments of the series. We fully explored that long before the story quoting the out-of-staters. We even had a “sidebar” story on the first day that showed why a prosecutor might be open to offering probation in a plea deal.

    As you noted, we indeed quoted Texas experts, some of whom found no issues with the concept of probation for murder but did raise the potential risks if a freed killers goes on to commit more crime and violence — which we found happened in North Texas.

    We consulted experts who have worked in states other than Texas because they have broader insight into best practices used elsewhere. To limit the perspectives to only people inside Texas would limit the range of voices and views. We wanted a mixture. Thus, readers, such as yourself, could then decide whether what they said was BS or valid.

    For all we knew, the out-of-staters might have remarked that Texas had the best possible system in place. As we wrote in our finale, we simply gave them the summaries of each probation-for-murder case we found in North Texas, and asked for their thoughts.

    Furthermore, we noted that some experts didn’t see value in banning probation as a sentence. Instead, they saw a need for internal policies at DA offices that would keep the sentence possible but in more extraordinary cases.

    Sincerely,

    Reese Dunklin,
    The Dallas Morning News

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