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San Antonio DA Nico LaHood, an Anti-Islam, Pro-Death Penalty Democrat, Faces Former Pal in Primary

Nicholas “Nico” Lahood

San Antonio DA Nico LaHood, an Anti-Islam, Pro-Death Penalty Democrat, Faces Former Pal in Primary

He’s a death-penalty championing, Islam-bashing vaccine skeptic who believes the U.S. is “rooted in Christian principles.” And he’s currently campaigning for re-election in Texas as the district attorney of Bexar County, a populous county of nearly two million residents, close to 60 percent of whom are Hispanic — as a Democrat.

But Nico LaHood isn’t just a conservative Democrat. He is more ideologically aligned with Texas Republican Governor Greg Abbott and President Trump than he is with members of his own party. His opponent in the March 6 Democratic primary next month is local San Antonio defense attorney Joe Gonzales, who has called LaHood a “wolf in sheep’s clothing.”

Gonzales used to be LaHood’s friend and business partner. But now he says that rank-and-file Democrats “would be shocked” if they heard some of the things LaHood has said and done.

In the summer of 2016, for instance, LaHood appeared on the conservative Joe Pags’s nationally syndicated radio show, based in San Antonio, and called Islam a “horrifically violent” religion, claiming Muslims “tried to set up a Sharia court” near Dallas. LaHood was simply repeating a debunked news item published by Breitbart, which the Houston Chronicle dubbed the “Texas Hoax of the Year” in 2015.

Meanwhile, in a 2016 appearance on the Doc Owen Show, a Trump-supporting conservative radio program out of Texas, LaHood warned of the “dangers” of Sharia law, saying it mandated the death of gay people, that women were treated like property and could be beaten for insubordination, and that it sanctioned genital mutilation. “Let’s talk about Islam,” he added, shifting gears to immigration. “I am not supportive of bringing in a bunch of refugees without any type of background check. And we cannot background check them,” he said. “There’s no way.”

He’s been equally outspoken on vaccines. To coincide with the April 2016 release of the documentary Vaxxed, directed by disgraced former British doctor Andrew Wakefield about his (later found to be fraudulent) research paper on the supposed link between the MMR vaccine and autism, LaHood positioned himself as a spokesperson for the anti-vaccination movement. From behind an office desk, Lahood appeared in a video posted to Wakefield’s Autism Media Channel Facebook page, saying: “I’m the criminal district attorney in San Antonio, Texas. I’m here to tell you that vaccines can and do cause autism.” LaHood then talked about his own son, whose autism, he believes, was caused by vaccines.

“His position on vaccines actually could harm public safety and health,” wrote Brian Chasnoff, a columnist for the San Antonio Express-News in August 2016. Chasnoff quoted the president of the San Antonio Pediatric Society, Dr. Sharvari Parghi, who reportedly addressed LaHood’s comments without naming the DA. Vaccines are “the ONLY way to prevent threatening diseases such as measles, mumps, polio and rubella amongst many other diseases,” Parghi said. A year later, after other critical articles, LaHood barred the Express-News from press briefings.

But it’s not just LaHood’s controversial statements that have critics riled up. Last year, allegations of misconduct were leveled against him when he prosecuted a murder case. LaHood’s former friend Gonzales, who was representing the defendant in the case, claimed that a prosecutor from LaHood’s office withheld exculpatory evidence about a previous sexual encounter between a witness and a fellow prosecutor. He also claimed LaHood threatened to destroy the legal practice of Gonzales and co-counsel Christian Henricksen if they pursued the claim in court.

The presiding judge in the case said she’d heard LaHood threaten the defense attorneys, calling it an unprofessional rant that could be subject to sanction in another tribunal. The Express-News weighed in, saying the state bar should step up after a complaint is filed. In its January 2018 issue, Texas Monthlymagazine bestowed on LaHood the dubious distinction of “bum steer” — its annual effort to poke fun at Texas politicians and policies — specifically citing his threat to “shut down” Gonzales’s legal practice.

Since then, the bad blood between LaHood and Gonzales seems only to have worsened. At the beginning of February, LaHood accused Gonzales of specializing in defending clients accused of child abuse. Afterward, a political action committee backing Gonzales and funded by the billionaire George Soros sent a direct mailer to voters with a cut-out picture of LaHood’s head on a shrugging body that accused him of being prejudiced and intolerant.

LaHood asked members of the public in a campaign ad what people like Harvey Weinstein, Larry Nassar, and Soros all had in common. The answer? “They all want Joe Gonzales to be the DA of Bexar County.”

When LaHood isn’t gunning for his opponent, he is running a seemingly regressive DA’s office. Last summer, a report by local TV station Spectrum News showed that Bexar County’s jail population was bursting at the seams, at 98 percent capacity. There was also a surprising uptick in female prisoners facing minor drug charges or accused of prostitution, theft, or DWI.

Last fall, LaHood announced a new pilot program to deal with low-level misdemeanor offenses, such as driving without a license, theft of amounts under $750, or possession of less than four ounces of marijuana. But by the beginning of this year, the so-called cite-and-release program still hadn’t been launched. Five months after the announcement was made, LaHood’s office announced that the program would finally be implemented — albeit solely within the Bexar County sheriff’s office — and that it would expand in the future, but that it was not mandatory for law enforcement agencies.

On the death penalty, he has said the justice system should “be swift,” adding that in Texas, “we have something called capital punishment. It doesn’t get any swifter than that.” But the opposite is true. An investigation by the Houston Chronicle last year found that 13 percent of Texas death row prisoners wait 25 years or more for execution, nearly a decade above the national average. LaHood has also said he favors Texas’s controversial law of parties, which allows juries to sentence a co-defendant involved in a crime that results in murder to death even if that person didn’t know the crime was going to happen.

And his stance on sanctuary cities and immigration is murky at best. While he urged Texas Governor Greg Abbott to veto SB 4, legislation that would outlaw sanctuary cities, he said he understood “the spirit of what the governor was trying to do, and I appreciate it.”

Despite criticism, LaHood is still the frontrunner, according to David Crockett, chair of the department of political science at Trinity University in San Antonio. He said LaHood’s biggest challenge is the primary against Gonzales, but if he wins that, he’ll have the upper hand against his Republican opponent in the midterms. “Barring something really strange happening, the incumbent has the edge,” Crockett said, “even in his fight for the nomination with the other Democrat.” When it comes to the general election, Crockett added, LaHood’s party affiliation is a boost. “With a Trump presidency, Democrats will gain ground and a bunch of them will be elected in Bexar county … expect Republicans to be on the defensive.”

Ironically, when LaHood unseated Republican incumbent Susan Reed after her 16-year reign as DA in 2014, it was a year in which Obama was still in the White House. “It should not have been a Democratic year because Obama lost ground in the midterm elections,” Crockett said, “but LaHood had some high-profile endorsements.” These included San Antonio Spurs basketball team members Tim Duncan and Tony Parker.

He also had at least one donor with very deep pockets. According to the Express-News, LaHood raised about $1.2 million for his 2014 race from Texas-based personal injury lawyer Thomas J. Henry. This time, the newspaper reports, he received $100,000 from Martin Phipps PLLC, whose law firm is representing the county in a suit against opioid manufacturers. Gonzales, meanwhile, has accepted nearly $1 million in donations from a political action committee funded by Soros.

Regardless of whether LaHood’s opponents see him as a DINO — a Democrat In Name Only — Crockett said candidates for DA have to give people a compelling reason to vote contrary to how they voted four years earlier. “LaHood is a personality,” he said. “And people don’t necessarily dislike personalities.”

As Bail Reform Moves Forward in California, Defendant Who Advanced It Remains Incarcerated

Organizers with Resilience OC outside the Orange County Courthouse in Santa Ana
Credit: Max Rivlin-Nadler

As Bail Reform Moves Forward in California, Defendant Who Advanced It Remains Incarcerated

In California, as elsewhere in the nation, there’s a growing consensus that cash bail unfairly penalizes poor defendants, forcing them to sit in jail for months or even years pre-trial, while wealthier defendants walk free.

Last year, California nearly ended cash bail after a bill, SB 10, passed the State Senate and then stalled out in the Assembly over cost concerns this past summer. As the state’s legislative season began anew in January, legislators were determined to enact SB 10, buoyed by the state’s Chief Justice Tani Cantil-Sakauye recommending that cash bail be eliminated as soon as possible in a report released last fall.

In late January, meanwhile, a state appeals court ruled that defendants are entitled to hearings to determine their ability to pay their bail; if they cannot afford it, they must be offered alternative forms of bail, such as electronic monitoring and community supervision.

The decision centered on a San Francisco retiree, Kenneth Humphrey, who allegedly stole $5 and a bottle of cologne and was held on $350,000 bail. It became judicial precedent statewide on February 20, when California’s Attorney General Xavier Becerra declined to appeal to the state’s supreme court, announcing, “It’s time for bail reform now.”

On the day of Becerra’s announcement, Dulce Saavedra, a 24-year-old organizer with the youth organizing group Resilience OC, stood in front of the Orange County courthouse in Santa Ana, handing out flyers informing potential defendants and defense attorneys of their rights following the Humphrey decision. It was part of a day of action by reform groups across the state, who held simultaneous rallies and handed out flyers outside nine county courthouses.

“There’s no standardization when it comes to bail here,” Saavedra, told The Appeal. “You can get no bail set, or you can have your house, your mortgage, your whole life taken from you.” She stressed the need to not only eliminate cash bail, but to make sure it isn’t replaced with tools that may discriminate against people of color, like risk assessments, which attempt to predict how likely a defendant is to commit a new crime or fail to return to court. “Risk assessments are based on really racist criteria,” Saavedra said, “like … how much money do you make? do you have a home? do you own a home?”

As the end of cash bail in California draws nearer, Raj Jayadev, founder of Silicon Valley De-Bug, a community organizing and advocacy group based out of San José, which helped organize the statewide rallies last Tuesday, stressed that it’s up to community groups and advocates like Saavedra to push for the changes they want.

“We finally got to a place where this might happen,” Jayadev said, “and if we blow it now, if we get stuck with a bill that doesn’t reflect what we’ve been pushing for this entire time, then what was it all for? It’s going to be people in the courthouses holding prosecutors and judges accountable that make change happen, making sure they follow through, because they’re not just going to do it themselves.”

So advocates who had been flyering outside the Orange County courthouse sat in on the afternoon’s criminal arraignments, using surveys that had been distributed statewide to write down bail amounts that were being offered and to see if defense attorneys were requesting bail hearings (both criminal cases that afternoon were dismissed).

In places like Orange County, where the prosecutor’s office has a long history of misconduct, court-watching and community accountability are all the more important.

Credit: Max Rivlin-Nadler

“In Orange County, the DAs tend to feel like they can get away with anything,” said Ramon Campos, another organizer with Resilience OC. “From things like having snitches inside facilities to re-writing risk assessments where they can change what’s on that report and push for higher punishment for that person.”

In a state where over 60 percent of those detained in jail are being held pre-trial, ending cash bail would mean a seismic change in the criminal justice system, one that community groups and advocates feel they need to keep a close eye on.

“The community education part is really important,” says Campos. “If the attorney fails to ask for a hearing, the community can push them to do it. That knowledge just builds more and more power.”

Public defenders and advocates are already hitting resistance. Last Thursday, Kenneth Humphrey appeared in court to move forward with his own bail hearing. His San Francisco public defenders had arranged for a bed in senior housing and transportation, on the assumption that after the appeals court decision, he would receive another bail hearing and possibly be released.

But San Francisco District Attorney George Gascón’s office argued that the case had not yet been sent back down from the higher court, and the judge could not yet hold a bail hearing, even though other defendants in San Francisco had already been granted theirs. Humphrey, whose case sets a precedent that is already freeing people across the state, currently remains in jail.

“Everybody else in the state of California can now get a new bail hearing because of the Humphrey decision, and Mr. Humphrey himself cannot,” said Chesa Boudin, a deputy public defender in San Francisco who worked on Humphrey’s case with Civil Rights Corps, a nonprofit group that challenges systemic injustice in the American legal system. “The court of appeal and the state of California agree that Mr. Humphrey has been held in violation of his constitutional rights for over 275 days. And now the district attorney says no based on a technicality? They want him to wait another month before he gets the bail hearing that complies with minimum constitutional standards? It’s an outrage.”

The Humphrey decision may set the precedent for bail hearings, but it also shows how district attorneys, even supposed “reformer” DAs like Gascón, will throw up roadblocks between people who have not been convicted of crimes and their freedom. Gascón’s office has a history of setting bail for defendants even after risk assessment tools have recommended their release.

No date has been set for a bail hearing, according to Humphrey’s defense attorneys. In an email to The Appeal, Gascón’s office said the decision to delay Humphrey’s bail hearing was made by the court, and not at the urging of the DA’s office.

If passed this session, Senate Bill 10 would still not go into effect until 2020 at the earliest, meaning that for thousands of arrested individuals, the Humphrey decision could, for now, mean the difference between keeping their jobs and their homes, or languishing in jail simply because they don’t have the money to pay their bail. Groups like Resilience OC and others that rallied across the state see it as their duty to hold all of the actors in the criminal justice system, including Gascón, accountable for a radical change to the state’s bail policy.

“We need to be an everyday presence in the courtrooms,” says Jayadev. “We need judges spending the days before the bail hearings considering just what they’re doing to defendants when they set bail, and the impact it has on the communities they serve.”

Correction: This story has been corrected to note that Humphrey allegedly stole $5 and a bottle of cologne. He has not been convicted of stealing those items.

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How Zombie Crime Stats, Phantom Stats and Frankenstats Paint a Misleading Picture on Crime

Jorg Greuel for Photodisc via Getty

How Zombie Crime Stats, Phantom Stats and Frankenstats Paint a Misleading Picture on Crime

In September 2017, newspapers across the country ran headlines of a similar theme: According to data from the FBI’s Uniform Crime Reports, the agency’s official report on criminal behavior nationwide, crime — or at least violent crime — had risen for the second year in a row.

That’s not entirely true. “Violent crime” hadn’t risen. The violent crimes that we count — the so-called “index crimes” of murder/manslaughter, rape, robbery, and aggravated assault — had risen. Simple assaults? Sexual assaults that don’t rise to the level of rape? We don’t measure those crimes. The crimes we do measure were all chosen during the development of the UCR in the late 1920s, on the grounds that they were common, serious, and generally reported — which is true, but we haven’t updated the list since.

And even saying that “index violent crimes” rose isn’t quite right. Index violent crimes reported to the police had gone up. But a large fraction of crimes are never reported, perhaps fewer than half of all violent crimes and barely 50 percent of all serious violent crimes. And the widely reported UCR data are based only on crimes recorded by the police.

Well, some of the police. Participation in the UCR is voluntary, so it provides data on index crimes reported to the police by departments that then report to the FBI, with some efforts to fill in the gaps from those that don’t report at all or provide incomplete data. About 5,000 of the nation’s 18,000 or so police agencies — so something on the order of 20 to 25 percent — don’t appear to report sufficient data.

Oh, and the data is nearly an entire year out of date by the time it is reported to the public. The headlines in September 2017 about the rise in violent crimes were about the just-released UCR data… from 2016. Which, to be clear, is as close to just-in-time statistics as criminal justice stats get, but still potentially misleading. The number of homicides in Chicago rose by almost 60 percent from 2015 to 2016, but by the time the 2016 crime stats were released, Chicago was on course to see a 14 percent drop by the end of 2017.

So, “Violent crime is up!” is what the headlines say, but “According to agencies providing data to the FBI, the number of incidents of four serious types of violent crimes reported to or seen by the police rose nearly a year ago” is what they ought to say.

Welcome to the world of criminal justice statistics. At the heart of the push from being tough on crime to smart on crime is a desire to create a criminal justice system based on what works, and that should mean a criminal justice system that has accurate, up-to-date data that can shape and influence policy.

What we have instead is something akin to a horror movie bestiary. We have zombie statistics — numbers that haven’t been updated in years, like a detailed inmate survey that is supposed to be conducted every seven years but was last run in 2004. We have phantom statistics, those numbers that we ought to have but are invisible since we never gather them at all, such as anything on plea bargaining (despite the fact that about 95 percent of all guilty verdicts come from pleas… we think). And, perhaps worst of all, we have Frankenstatistics, those numbers that at first blush seem to measure one thing, but when looked at closely are tracking something altogether different.

Recidivism stats, for instance, are completely blind to an entire way of thinking about trends in reoffending. They can’t measure if someone is committing fewer crimes than before, only if he or she manages to completely avoid re-arrest. And they don’t really measure the trend they purport to measure in the first place (since they don’t track if the person fails to reoffend, only if he or she fails to be rearrested, which depends a lot on what the police are doing).

Far too often, journalists and policymakers alike invoke zombie statistics without acknowledging that they may no longer reflect current conditions, they cite Frankenstats at face value without considering what they are reallymeasuring, and they rely on anecdotes to fill the gaps left by the phantoms. None of these practices is acceptable, even if some of them often feel unavoidable. (I myself have been forced to rely on anecdotes more than I’d like.)

But it is also understandable. The defects in our criminal justice statistics are buried deep in the fine print, invisible to all but those who spend their days mired in them. The UCR stats are noisy and complex and imperfect, yet the FBI reports them with such specificity — there were “exactly” 803,007 aggravated assaults 2016, not 803,006 or 803,008 — that most people would likely think they are precisely measured. Our prison population statistics provide detailed national numbers, but unless you have access to the underlying data, which requires an application and a special encrypted hard drive and (it appears) an academic affiliation, you’d never know that Southern states systematically under-report data, which may introduce a bias, though of what sort we can’t really say.

There’s no reason we can’t have better criminal justice data. After all, other agencies produce detailed data far more rapidly. The Bureau of Labor Statistics releases employment data monthly, not with a nearly year-long lag. Of course, the BLS has a budget of almost $650 million, compared to under $40 million for the Bureau of Justice Statistics. Reliable up-to-date statistics cost money, money we’ve been so far unwilling to spend.

But there is some good news on the horizon. The FBI is hoping to complete a decades-long revamp of the UCR by 2021. The BJS is in the process of expanding its important national survey of criminal victimization to help explain what is happening at the local level. And while hamstrung by inadequate budgets, researchers at the BJS continue to work to improve and modernize other datasets as well.

In the meantime, however, it is essential that we understand exactly what our criminal justice statistics can and cannot say, and how they can both inform and mislead, which is what I intend to do here in the months ahead. The increased focus on data-driven criminal justice policy is an essential step forward, but it has to be done with a unflinching appreciation of just what that data looks like.

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