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Posted: Dec 26, 2013 9:07 AM

Updated: Dec 26, 2013 9:07 AM

Fort Worth Star-Telegram. Dec. 21, 2013.

Mandatory sentences not appropriate for juvenile cases

Lt. Gov. David Dewhurst has joined the crowd of people who want to see a Keller 16-year-old behind bars for a Tarrant County DWI crash that killed four people in June.

Not surprising for a political figure who faces a difficult re-election campaign. Tough-on-crime can get some votes.

But what Dewhurst is going for is much broader than this case. He would have the Legislature establish mandatory sentences, eliminating the judges who know cases best from taking part in the decision about who gets locked up and who doesn't.

That's a far more dangerous step than Texas should take.

"As with any crime in Texas, we must ensure justice is served," Dewhurst said in a news release Thursday. He ordered the Senate Committee on Criminal Justice to study sentencing in intoxication manslaughter cases, saying he believes "recent cases indicate existing sentencing options may leave justice undone."

Earlier this month, District Judge Jean Boyd sentenced the Keller kid to 10 years' probation after he pleaded guilty to four counts of intoxication manslaughter and two counts of intoxication assault. Boyd is the presiding judge in Tarrant County's juvenile court and has been on the bench 19 years.

She will require that the 16-year-old enter a residential treatment facility to deal with his substance abuse problem and other issues and live under court supervision for 10 years.

Dewhurst told the Senate committee to "review cases involving the imposition of probation rather than imprisonment or commitment for adult and juvenile intoxication manslaughter offenders" and to "make recommendations to ensure that intoxication manslaughter sentences include appropriate punishment levels, maintain public safety and serve to deter driving under the influence."

In other words, let's punish kids in these cases more than Boyd did.

Nothing the Legislature does will change the Keller kid's sentence. Dewhurst is saying lawmakers, before they know anything at all about kids involved in future cases or the details of their lives or offenses, should decide that an intoxication manslaughter case must bring hard time.

Disregard everything that psychiatrists, psychologists and social scientists have learned during the past decade about juvenile brains, social development and quick rehabilitation potential. Lock 'em up.

Toss out all we know about the near-certainty (a 73-percent recidivism rate) that kids sentenced to state juvenile justice facilities will turn out to be more difficult criminals and more costly problems to society in their future years.

Even set aside what we know about mandatory sentences filling up correctional beds and driving up costs for taxpayers.

Just shove judges aside, along with their ability to craft sentences to fit individual offenders. Do that in juvenile cases, for which the Legislature passed major reform laws in 2007 and 2011 aimed at driving down the number of kids who are incarcerated and treating them in community settings instead, a strategy proven to reduce juvenile crime.

Call committee meetings. Get agonizing, tearful testimony from family members who have lost loved ones to drunk driving crashes. Make it seem like the threat of being locked up is going to deter teenagers from drinking, despite their immature thought patterns that give them a locked-in feeling of invincibility.

Do that so the lieutenant governor and some lawmakers can make themselves appear to be tough on crime and get votes.

That's both bad policy and a perversion of the political process.

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Austin American-Statesman. Dec. 26, 2013.

Charter school freedoms don't exempt them from accountability

At their inception, charter schools represented a type of compact between taxpayers, students and the state.

All acknowledged the grim reality that all public schools were not created equal, and the state agreed to give up some of its control if other groups, with taxpayer support, could accomplish what the state could not. In return, taxpayers and the students who rely on their local public schools to prepare them for productive futures would receive a legitimate choice, if their local school failed to meet their expectations.

However, charter schools, no matter how high-performing or beloved, are still accountable to the taxpaying public. And may be a hard lesson to learn in the case of American YouthWorks, an Austin-based charter school that focuses on high school dropouts. The school is in jeopardy of being shut down by the state under the a new "three-strikes-and-you're-out" rule approved by the Legislature this spring. The law directs the state's top education official to revoke a school's charter if it fails to meet academic or financial standards three years in a row.

The school has taken steps over the past few years to get its academic and financial house in order. In fact, the reason for the state's scrutiny is over financial standards not academic. According to Statesman reporter Benjamin Wermund, 68 percent of American YouthWorks' Class of 2012 graduated, earned a GED diploma or stayed in school for a fifth year, according to state data. These are students who see American YouthWorks as their last chance either because of an inability to succeed in traditional high school or life obstacles have placed the usual academic path out of their reach.

The school has reported financial troubles for years, and in the most recent evaluations by the Texas Education Agency, the state reports that the school failed to meet financial standards each of the last two years by not hiring a conservator, manager or board of managers to oversee its finances. The school has also failed to disclose weaknesses of internal controls in its audits, and has not kept its liabilities to 80 percent of its assets, among other issues.

It is true that the school fills a void that few high schools can match by bringing older students over the finish line to a high school or GED diploma, while giving them critical workplace skills. School leaders also say that there is additional information that state regulators missed in their evaluation, including a $3 million endowment and funding from the U.S. Department of Labor.

However, the public requires accountability from all of its institutions. Charter schools are not exceptions. American YouthWorks intentions may be honest, but exempting the school from basic financial best practices opens the entire system to corruption and weakens the ability of parents and students to make solid educational choices.

The school has had multiple chances to make their case to the state and they have until Jan. 15 to request a hearing with Texas Commissioner of Education Michael Williams. School officials have said they will fight the closure, but they should be advised that Williams fully supported the legislation that would require their automatic closure in June.

We sincerely hope they can clear up their outstanding issues with regulators. It would be a shame to lose such a valuable program at a time when work force demands in Central Texas are increasing and the Austin school district continues to struggle with its own dropout rate.

However, exempting the school from basic financial standards would be a mistake. Allowing them to continue to operate without the proper safeguards for more than three years threatens the entire charter school system.

Providing real school choice is good for families and incentivizes public schools to do better by its at-risk and low-income students. However, public accountability remains critical to that grand bargain. We expect nothing less of our public institutions.

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The Dallas Morning News. Dec. 26, 2013.

Consumers must demand greater financial security

News that cyber-criminals have put accounts of some 40 million customers of retail giant Target at risk is a sober reminder that as much as you might think your credit and debit card transactions are safe from theft, they're not.

Target isn't the first, or the largest. Nor will it be the last victim of cyber-crime, which is growing by leaps and bounds in the United States. For sure, the U.S. is where the money is, but U.S. banks, credit card companies and retailers are woefully behind their European counterparts in tackling this threat.

Consumers and lawmakers must demand tighter security on personal information, the theft of which can cause years of consternation. Financial networks are more connected than ever, leaving many entry points for thieves to exploit any transaction to rack up unauthorized charges.

After dozens of high-profile data breaches in recent years, you'd think retailers and financial institutions would have installed state-of-the-art security technology especially at the checkout counter.

Unfortunately, many haven't. Sophisticated fraud prevention technology is expensive, and retailers, banks and credit card companies all want someone else to pay for it. The Nilson Report, which tracks these things, says financial fraud reached a record $11.2 billion last year. That's a staggering figure to the average person but only amounts to about 5.2 cents for every $100 transaction. Companies often chalk up this loss as a cost of doing business or pass along the expense to consumers.

As a customer, you should find this a maddening and unacceptable calculation. If a breach causes you to be a victim of identity theft, you can be sure that your retailer, bank or credit rating agency will not be of much help. You'll be on your own to straighten out your financial life.

In Europe, credit cards store encrypted information digitally on embedded computer chips, which generate a unique code every time the card is swiped. Card fraud has dropped in Europe but continues to rise in the United States. Security experts say that's because the magnetic stripe on our credit and debit cards is a decades-old technology that is too easy to copy.

Target is telling customers that they won't be responsible for fraudulent, unauthorized charges and is discounting purchases to placate rattled consumers. JPMorgan Chase has limited the amount of cash withdrawals available to Target customers as a precaution. On the legal front, Sen. Charles Schumer, D-N.Y., is demanding a federal probe into the breach, at least four state attorneys general have sought answers from Target, and class-action lawsuits from consumers are underway.

But acting after the fact is not enough. We live in a plastic society, so it is unrealistic to ask consumers to not use debit or credit cards. It is, however, entirely reasonable to demand that banks and retailers do much more to protect customers.

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Waco Tribune-Herald. Dec. 24, 2013.

Provocative comments aside, A&E deserves most blame for 'Duck Dynasty' uproar

Beyond our surprise that a national uproar has erupted over the A&E Network's decision to suspend "Duck Dynasty" patriarch Phil Robertson over provocative comments about blacks and hellbound homosexuals in GQ magazine, we have no intention of wading into the precise meaning of Scripture, widely varying interpretations of it down through the ages and the fact that most folks cherry-pick parts of the Bible they like anyhow. But we do know a thing or two about the First Amendment and we're surprised to see so many people, including politicians who should know better, wildly misinterpreting it.

In the days since this controversy arose, many have claimed A&E's decision to suspend Robertson's role in yet-to-be-filmed, future episodes of the hit reality TV show is a violation of his First Amendment right (including one "concerned citizen" who told us that anyone who disagrees should have his tongue cut out). Well, here's a flash: Robertson, A&E executives, gay rights advocates, conservative champions, civil rights groups and family-value organizations all have a right to speak out and have done just that in this bizarre embroglio.

But the First Amendment only precludes government from restricting people's free speech. It doesn't entitle one to have his or her own reality show. By all accounts, Robertson and the rest of his family have continued opining, which is their absolute right. Whether they continue to entertain on the A&E Network is another question.

In our free-enterprise system, businesses have a right to decide how their products are promoted and produced. And if A&E has qualms about Robertson's comments deeming homosexuality a sin and linking it to bestiality and his suggestion that blacks of his acquaintance had few complaints in the Jim Crow days if A&E worries all this may impact its bottom line or offend some of the show's audience of 14 million it has a right to suspend Robertson.

That said, we lay most blame for this cultural snafu at the feet of A&E officials and others who have benefited enormously from the flood of reality shows, many far more outrageous or provocative than "Duck Dynasty" and its heavily bearded cast. What did A&E expect when it put the spotlight on a Louisiana family's duck-call business where rough-as-a-cob members would say and do anything for attention?

The fact these shows are produced by A&E week after week means they can't claim they were surprised when Phil Robertson, in his GQ interview, offered viewpoints that have obviously offended or outraged one-half of the nation, even as they resonate comfortably with the other half.

So much ado about nothing? We wouldn't go that far. But networks shouldn't insult our IQ by putting such rollicking, real-life characters on air and then react in shock when they say exactly what's on their minds. Our only real question: Why on earth was GQ of all magazines interviewing Phil Robertson?

Topics: Texas Editorial Roundup

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