Tuesday, December 06, 2005

Are Texas courts one big plea mill?

The Texas Office of Court Administration has produced its 2005 annual statistical report (pdf) on the Texas court system. Among the highlights, it turns out all these Jack McCoy wannabees in the prosecutors' offices aren't performing many jury enthralling orations -- less than one percent of Texas criminal cases are finally decided at trial. The rest are plea bargained. (p. 33).

Drug offenses made up 33% of all Texas state criminal prosecutions in 2005 the report said (p. 34).

Also, here's a good flow chart (pdf) from the report explaining the confusing Texas court system's structure -- with separate highest courts for criminal and civil cases, but combined jurisdictions for appellate, district and county courts.

See also this report by the same agency (pdf) on the 2005 activities of Texas judicial support agencies, boards and commissions. More on this later.


Anonymous said...


The crucial element, the jury trial, is the very rare exception rather than the rule.

There is nothing here to be proud of. This is shameful.

Anonymous said...


But be clear here: defendants decide whether or not to go to trial. They consider the state's offer, and try to predict if they'll do better at trial.

Most misdemeanor pleas are for probation, at least initially.

Most felony pleas are for reduced charges, and many of these are for probation.

Most probation revocations result in pleas of true because the standard of proof is so low, and the key witnesses are employees of the court.

The state has the right to a jury in Texas, so it can refuse to make an offer and force a case to trial. This only happens in serious high profile cases.

The only way I can see to increase the number of jury trials is to encourage more defendants to go to trial. It's their choice, not the court's. I advise jury trial in about half my cases.

Gritsforbreakfast said...

Don't y'all think sentence inflation over the last couple of decades contributes to it? When you face ridiculously high potential sentences -- one defendant from the Tulia cases got 300+ years -- to me that puts plea agreements in an extremely coercive context.

In my less generous moments, I sometimes wonder if this doesn't stem from lazy prosecutors who don't really want to try the cases. Prosecutors jack up the original charges, then plea to probation on lesser counts knowing, as you say, that the standard to revoke is very low. It's a lot easier to wait to revoke down the line. Plus it funds the probation departments, which are administered locally by the judges. Defendants who choose to take probation typically think it means they won't go to prison (though many have become wise to the gimmick), but really prosecutors have just found a way to incarcerate defendants, ultimately, without ever having to prove their case in court.

So Yeah, defendants make the decision, but in a pretty coercive environment. (Again, I'd encourage you to read the examples in Nate Blakeslee's book, Tulia, for horror stories in that regard.) If you advise half your clients to go to trial, then obviously you're in a minority in the criminal defense bar. Good for you. Best,

Anonymous said...

Bexar's official written policy on felonies is to penalize appointed attorneys for dismissals, and to reward quick uncontested guilty pleas.

The fee arrangement is a reverse illegal contingency fee in a criminal case. An appointed attorney is permitted to bill the county a more lucrative "fixed fee" contingent upon a guilty plea, but not permitted for any dismissal. Many appointed attorneys shade the advice to the indigent client in an effort to secure the quick plea and quick fee.

By example, a first appearance dismissal on a felony might pay as little as seventy-five dollars, whereas a first appearance guilty plea can pay as much as eight hundred fifty dollars; and it's far easier to talk a client into a plea deal than to talk a prosecutor into a dismissal.

Additionally, lawyers who do not clog a judge's docket by fighing cases are more likely to be rewarded by further appointments.

Bexar has paid appointed counsel on misdemeanor cases the same $100.00 fee per case since 1984, more than twenty years; and twenty years ago it was not uncommon for attorneys to handle more than one case at a time. Now, it is only one case at a time, and some judges are actually undercutting and low-bidding that $100.00.

As the previous poster said, appointing and low-bidding each yeild the needs of justice to the ends of economics or electoral politics.

Anonymous said...

I'd like to add my own experience to this matter, if I may do so. I went through the Misdemeanor courts for a DWI conviction, admitted my guilt, etc and took the probation and fines that my attorney recommended. Since I had blown into the machine(the Breathalizer) they had unmitigated evidence against me which I really thought I can't, and still think I couldn't, refute.

Recently, at my University, I was in a verbal confrontation with another student and I guess he was scared enough he fell against the stone pillar outside. I returned to my room only to be visited by the campus police 20 minutes later, being arrested for Assault, etc.

The two "witnesses" against me have now said they only filed witness statements against me because they were his friend at the time, not because they actually saw me do anything(which, honestly, I didn't-neither here nor there, I suppose), but because of their friendship with him at the time. On my first visit to the court, I was given what I like to call the McJustice, assembly-line plea offer: One year deferred adjudication, 400 something court cost, etc. EVERY SINGLE person, except myself, took the plea offer. Only two black women were skeptical of the process and started to protest the plea until the Prosecutor basically told them he wouldn't offer such "lenient" plea agreements to them; in effect, coercing them to take his plea.

It's unfortunate that in Texas that people get railroaded by justice, and are forced to basically make such a life-long decision about their good name by taking plea agreements in an on-the-fly decision.

I'm not fooled by my court appointed attorney, who has been rather lackadaisical in his defense of me and my case. He's part of the court room workgroup and is getting paid by the very court to vindicate me.

I have an announcement coming up and I WILL request a trial by jury. It is my right. I know that Hunt County is not happy about footing the bill for a misdemenor case, but for some reason that county is, in my opinion, a bit over-zealous in it's prosecution practice. It probably has a 100% conviction rate, through plea agreeements and reduction of charges offered defendants. I hope to break the statistics of that court and prove that people DO WIN CASES, especially when the evidence is weak or non-existant to begin with.