•Judges setting bonds must remember that the people they are setting bond for are, whether they believe it or not, presumed innocent. Bond is supposed to be set only in an amount high enough to assure the defendant's appearance in court. Judges need to stop thinking like prosecutors when they set bond. Bond set in amounts calculated to punish the defendant for the crime charged, punitive bonds, ignore the Constitution and waste jail space.
•Judges should stop setting outlandish bonds in drug and theft cases. In drug cases, the judges often set the bond at twice the alleged street value of the drugs involved. The bond amounts are fictionally based. There is no connection between the purpose of bond and the amounts set. It is more gamesmanship than rational behavior and it needs to stop. Reasonable bonds need to be set on drug cases. The same is true for felony theft cases, where the bonds are also often set at twice the amount of the alleged theft. The bonds on drug and theft cases are quite often higher than the bonds on murder cases. That is preposterous. If reasonable bonds are set on the drug and theft cases, these presumptively innocent defendants can make bond and not crowd our jails while awaiting trial.
The same is true for misdemeanor family violence charges. A life-long, hard working Houstonian with no prior criminal record who gets in an argument with his wife that ends in his going to jail on a misdemeanor assault charge will find himself facing a $50,000 bond. These ridiculous bonds also unnecessarily waste jail space.
•Judges seeking to jump on the current wave of xenophobia must stop setting outlandish bonds on undocumented defendants who have spent many years working in Houston. The county jail should not be used as a holding facility for people with immigration issues. Reasonable bonds, not the current $35,000, should be set for these individuals. If they have immigration issues that the federal government wants to spend time on, let the federal government pay for it. Using the jail to house hard-working, long-time Houston residents who have families, who also have federal immigration issues, wastes jail space.
•Judges should stop illegally revoking bonds. For years some judges in Harris County have engaged in the illegal practice of revoking defendants bonds when the defendant has not hired counsel. This activity on the part of judges is well known yet consistently and indignantly denied. Indignant denials aside, the illegal practice must stop. Throwing people in jail for not having the resources to hire an attorney is not only illegal and unethical, it also wastes our jail space.
•Judges need to place people suffering with serious mental illnesses in some place other than the jail. Currently our jail is the largest mental health housing facility in the county. That makes zero sense. The jail does not have sufficient manpower, training or resources to effectively deal with those suffering from mental illness. Those suffering from mental illness who cannot afford bond must be given personal recognizance bonds whenever possible. Locking up those who are presumed innocent is bad enough; locking up those who are presumed innocent who also suffer from a serious mental illness, while denying them any real treatment, is inhumane. The long-standing practice of locking up the mentally ill with hardened criminals must stop. Locking up the mentally ill in the county jail wastes jail space.
•Judges must start granting indigent defendants personal recognizance (PR) bonds. A man who is too poor to make a misdemeanor bond should not be punished simply because he is poor. In Harris County, poor men and women are punished in the criminal courthouse every day simply because they are poor. Unable to hire a bondsman to get them out of jail, they are left to the mercy of judges who have the authority to grant them PR bonds. But do they find mercy? Even if they have lived in Houston for years, have families here and no history of violence? No, the judges either refuse to consider the bond or deny it. Poor, presumptively innocent defendants fill our jail, simply because they are poor, awaiting the processing of their cases.
Monday, August 10, 2009
Judges have tools to reduce Harris jail overcrowding, if they'll use them
An excellent op ed by attorney Rob Fickman appeared in yesterday's Houston Chronicle (rightly) blaming Harris County judges for jail overcrowding. He provides specific suggestions for how judges must change their behavior if the county hopes to solve the problem without building a new jail that voters don't want: