Wednesday, November 02, 2005

Grits commenters take on task forces and jail overcrowding

I wanted to point out some terrific discussion in the comments to recent Grits posts that merit readers' attention.

First, in response to
this item on the demise of the Waco-based Agriplex regional drug task force, a number of drug enforcement officers -- two from Agriplex and a couple from other agencies, one of them arguing for task forces' cessation -- went back in forth with me a bit in the comments. Give it a read.

Next, commenters rolling in via search engines to
this post, and this one, about Harris County (Houston) jail overcrowding offered up terrible reports regarding jail conditions. Here's a sample:
My son has been in the county jail for 5 1/2 months. Why? He violated his drug probation by smoking marijuana. He signed for RSAT (a "drug treatment" program) but he's waiting for a space! Apparently, there's no limit to how long a person must wait. If there's no space, then why are they assigning people to this program?

Harris County is indeed a very corrupt jail system. He has been thrown out of the shower naked because two other guys were talking over the wall in the restroom. He has had his head slammed against the wall for asking why. He witnessed numerous abuses, deputies punching and hitting other inmates. Why, why is nothing done? My son is not violent. He graduated from high school with excellent grades. He was working full time when he got the violation. I realize he needs some punishment, but how long does he have to stay there? He's in JAIL, yet every day he goes to work in and around the jail. He is permitted to go outside to work also. Something is very wrong with this jail system.
I'll bet a lot of people statewide are waiting in county jails for drug treatment beds to open up, just as many more are there waiting for lab tests to return from the Department of Public Safety. As a commenter to another Grits post pointed out, another source of extra jail inmates are post-conviction felons waiting to be taken to prison, a problem exacerbated in the aftermath of Hurricane Rita.

Meanwhile, in response to
this item about overcrowding in the Hidalgo County jail, Shaine Mata left a note in the comments suggesting practical, border-related dilemmas may contribute, and elaborated further at RGV Life.

Finally, a local attorney chimed in to disagree with
Grits' recommendation against Travis County's proposed jail construction bonds, and in the process offered this horror story:
Do you know about Travis County's "Jail Reduction Docket"? Distressing stuff, all about processing people out for misdemeanors, making sausage. Folks get to court within about a week of arrest, and are usually offered low sentences, which, combined with the standard 2-for-1 jail credit, gets lots out that day. Lots of people plead guilty to stuff they either didn't do or which could be defended. But trials are two to three weeks away, and people want out today.

This happens at 1:30 every day, in one of the County Courts at Law. 20 to 80 inmates are brought from the jails. Many meet their lawyers for the first time in this setting. Often the lawyer has already worked out the case before the meeting the guy. Lawyers recieve the appointments two or three days ahead of the setting. Lots of lawyers attend, even without a client, because of the prospect of bench appointments.

And one last gem. Travis County pays court appointed lawyers according to a fee schedule. The schedule provides that a misdemeanor resolved with a plea pays $175. Cases resolved by dismissal pay $150. It takes alot more work to get a case dismissed than to fill out plea paperwork. Lawyers don't complain because the expected response involves paying less for pleas.
Surely anyone so low-risk they could plea out that day without harming public safety could also be released on personal bond? Instead, perversely, Travis County has created a financial incentive for lawyers to advise clients to accept plea bargains instead of try for a dismissal. The whole jail reduction docket the writer describes sounds like a tremendous abuse of the plea bargain system.

Excellent and welcome comments, all -- especially from those who respectfully or not-so-respectfully disagree with me.
I'm thinking through a lot of these topics, myself, as I go, and feedback from others keeps me honest, helps me learn, and rounds out the discussion. Thanks, Grits readers, for making this a truly interactive format. Keep those comments coming!


idiotass1 said...

perversely, Travis County has created a financial incentive for lawyers

"perversely"? Please...

Gritsforbreakfast said...

perverse: "Directed away from what is right or good" -- No?

idiotass1 said...

I've gotten so used to the built-in institutional betterment of the Esquire class, it's hardly perverse to me, anymore.

Anonymous said...

The in-jail wait for SAFPF, TDCJ's maximum rehab, is currently around 14 weeks. SAFPF is a set of rehab destinations for felony probationers. The program itself is 9-12 months.

A run of the mill Motion to Revoke Probation starts with the Motion being filed, then a capias issued for the probationer's arrest. Then a wait in jail, usually of weeks, for appearance in court to resolve the revocation action. If the violation is a dirty UA, SAFPF (pronounced "Safe-P" by everyone involved) is often the decision of the judge. Then the 14 week wait in jail, then the 9-12 months of rehab, then release with probation continuing.

SAFPF is for felony probationers, including state jail felons. State jail felonies carry a maximum sentence of 2 years, day for day. A state jail felony probationer can easily spend more than 2 years locked up and in rehab, only to subsequently be finally revoked and sentenced to the 2 years, which must be served day for day, with award of back time optional for the court. That is wildly fucked up. The state jail felony is batshit crazy.

An astounding number of clients with drug problems beg for a straight sentence rather than SAFPF when facing revocation. Some even ask whether they can plead to a higher level felony because the time locked up can be substantially less. For example, a 2 year TDCJ sentence will get you released on parole (much easier to deal with than probation) in about 6 or 8 months. Weigh that against a probation regime which can, FOR EACH ALLEGED VIOLATION, hold you for 5 or 6 months in county before sending you for a 9-12 month stay at SAFPF, and you'll see why so many people lament ever having accepted probation. I routinely advise people to suck it up and do the time up front, especially if they have addiction problems. Probation is the greatest trick in the DA's toolbox. People plead, waiving their rights in so doing, then violate, then get locked up. At that point they start wishing they'd fought their case or at least taken a straight sentence. And if you can believe it, many judges will send a probationer to SAFPF despite the probationer's begging to be sentenced to prison once and for all. "Maybe next time," says the judge with a wink.

I could go on forever. Barbarism is better than our approach to crime. I'd rather lose a finger or two than get sentenced to 2 years felony probation.

In closing, I'd like idiotass1 to hear this: criminal defense lawyers have zero influence over the indigent defense policies of the various counties. They are routinely, often insultingly, undercompensated. Most cases pay around 10% of what a private case pays, and even that comes months after the case is settled. I was paid $300 for a two day jury trial ending in a hung jury, which is the best result possible short of acquital. That $300 was to compensate me for three months of pretrial work, six days of preparation, and two days of trial. I made less than the minimum wage in hanging the jury on what was really a slam dunk for the state. Overhead for the time I spent on the case was more than $300.

There is no institutional impulse to better the criminal defense bar. Judges dislike us, prosecutors dislike us, cops dislike us, juries dislike us, blog readers dislike us, other lawyers dislike us. Please excuse us from the cliched lawyer-hating. We deserve the perk of being separated from the Esquire class in the public mind. It is of course perfectly acceptable to deride any one of us for sucking at the job, but you should know that the wealthy criminal defense guy is a rarity.