President's Message: In Search of Spring - By Mark Snodgrass

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Wednesday, March 27th, 2019

An impromptu Spring Break trip gave me a great opportunity to think about what to write in this column. The bomb cyclone that hit the central part of the country, coupled with the grounding of the Boeing 737 Max 8 airplanes, made flying my kids home in time to go back to school from a trip to Rockport to see my sister impossible. So off I went from Lubbock to Rockport with a quick overnight stop in Laredo to tend to a few things on the deer lease.

Jennings and Jeff Steen, two old boyhood friends, make an annual pilgrimage through South Texas in search of Primavera, the Spanish word for Spring. Jeff then writes about their travels and shares it with friends. They stole the idea from Leon Hale, the retired Houston Post and Chronicle columnist, and his friend Gene Morgan. Mother Nature can teach us many good things if you will simply pay attention. One of these being that when an old mature mesquite tree begins to bloom in honest and starts putting on leaves, Spring has arrived. The premise of the trip is simple enough. The search for Primavera starts by heading into South Texas in search of the line where the bull mesquites are in full bloom. That point is the northern edge of spring arriving in South Texas. The line will generally move north a few miles at a time until it covers the whole state.

For the Steen brothers, and Leon Hale and Gene Morgan before them, the trip is not just a straight drive south to find the encroaching bloom of spring, but a time to reflect on the rebirth and regrowth of the countryside—as well as reflect on the passing of winter and old friendships, some active and some lost. Nature, much like life itself, goes on.

This year’s retelling of the trip had arrived only two days before I set out from Lubbock heading for my unexpected Spring Break. As I was leaving Lubbock, I knew there would be no need to keep too close of an eye on the mesquite trees for many miles, as the temperature was in the high twenties when I left town. For those who care, my trip was pretty much a straight shot. From Lubbock down to Sweetwater on US 84, then a few farm-to-market roads to Eden, before picking up US 83 to Junction, on down to Uvalde, through Carrizo Springs and into Laredo.

To my eye, one of the prettiest parts of Texas is the area around Leakey and the Frio River near Garner State Park. Spring had not quite made it that far north, so I didn’t get to witness the area with a fresh coat of paint. I did finally encounter the green line of Spring just south of the Nueces River and a little north of La Pryor. Just to complete the details of that day’s travel, when I pulled up to the Ranch gate outside of Laredo, my truck thermometer read 90 degrees. Only in Texas can you have a 60-plus-degree temperature swing in one day without leaving the state.

Once I was south of the green line, the South Texas brush country had put on her Sunday best. The yucca plants had raised their flowers, and some of the prickly pear and black brush were in full bloom. Bluebonnets and Indian paintbrushes lined the roadsides. A countryside where every plant, bush, and tree seem to have a thorn to stick you can actually be pretty after shaking off the gray coat of winter.

This 1300-mile trip gave me many hours to think. Not only about nature, but life in general, and even a little time was spent thinking about the legal profession. Every time I go through a border check point and have to declare my citizenry—and be subjected to a free air dog sniff even though I am simply driving down the highway in my home state—I wonder if this is what the forefathers envisioned when they drafted the Fourth Amendment.

I also had time to think about our clients. Just recently, I had one of those feel-good moments that makes what we do seem even more worthwhile. An old client stopped me in public and told me how much he wanted to thank me for helping him get into a drug court program, and how that had probably saved his life. This gentleman had gone from a life that was heading to either death or prison to a rewarding life with a good job and a family.

The justice system in Texas has come a long way since I have been practicing law. Most counties now have drug courts, and many have other specialty courts dealing with alcohol, veterans’ problems, and other issues. I think there has become more focus on rehabilitation and less on outright punishment, which is a good thing. When you see people after they successfully complete one of these programs, it truly is like the are in the Spring of their life. They are reborn from whatever issues that were causing them trouble. The data indicates that these programs work.

While we have made tremendous strides in some areas, the State of Texas has a long row to hoe when it comes to treatment of mental health issues in the justice system. Somewhere along the line it appears that a decision was made to warehouse the mentally ill in county jails and TDC. The problem is compounded even further when there is a question of competency, or a defendant is currently incompetent but found by a psychiatrist to be restorable. I had observed my own clients wait a year or more to be admitted to the state hospital in Vernon to attempt to restore them to competency. The most recent data I could find shows the average wait time for a Maximum Security State Hospital bed is 416 days, while a non-max is 268 days.

Some quick research will also show you that there are only 2,432 state-hospital beds available across the state for both adults and juveniles. This means, roughly, there are not even enough State Hospital Beds to house and treat 1% of the inmate population—and I believe every practicing criminal defense attorney understands far more than 1% of those incarcerated suffer from mental illnesses and competency issues.

Last year, a joint order of the Texas Supreme Court and Court of Criminal Appeals created a Judicial Commission on Mental Health. Its purpose is to develop, implement, and coordinate policy initiatives to improve the courts’ interaction with children, adults, and families with mental health needs. While I am pleased to see attention being given to the mental health spectrum of criminal justice, the problem needs more than attention. There need to be more hospital beds and facilities for treatment. Mentally ill individuals do not deserve to be incarcerated for nothing more than being mentally ill in many cases. Our prisons and jails should not be the go-to holding facilities for those with those suffering from mental illnesses.

The State of Texas has a $12.5 billion rainy-day fund. I think the time has come to use some of that rainy-day money on treatment of the mentally ill. The common good would be well served to use a little rain and give a chance at a new start to so many in need.