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:

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.


Anonymous said...

How about addressing the problem of intake. Arrest less and you have less in jail. To quote an unofficial sheriff's department on-line forum, "The other day a Pct 5 ********** came in with one warrant on this guy for failure to attend school, WTF? This guy was 21 years old....We had Deputies that are out making arrests and getting real sh*t bags off the street and ********** are bringing in decent people for one warrant that have never been arrested before."

Just another side of the same problem. :~)

Gritsforbreakfast said...

Good point, neither HPD nor the Harris Sheriff have used the new authority granted them in 2007 by the Lege to give citations instead of arrests for low-level misdemeanors.

Anonymous said...


The sheriff told a group of citizens that he worried about a burglar trying to obtain funds for his next dope purchase being arrested with a citation previously issued in his pocket for a simple possession charge. Might explain the problem. He actually believes the propaganda put out by law enforcement. :~)

Anonymous said...

Being poor in this country means going to jail and then prison.

It isn't much different from the laws in effect in the 1700 that allowed only land owners to vote.

The only difference is that we now like to believe we can afford to house poor folks in jails and prisons. Mental illness and poverty go hand in hand. As a society, our care and treatment of mental illnesses is a disgrace.

We can spend our money on the problems of our society in much more effective ways that will benefit all of us. The current system of putting the poor in jail is very costly and brings very little benefit to anyone.

Anonymous said...


Your post is typical of the leftist perspective on crime.

No doubt a huge number of poor are incarcerated. You know why? Its because our politicians have the bright idea of "cleaning up" the very neighborhoods that the poor live in. Most of the arrest of poor people in America are for "poor on poor" crime. This dubious act of charity is funded by the middle class Americans from low crime areas.

I agree with you that mass incarceration is a problem, but not for the same reason you do. It is a problem because our society has accepted the idea that the government should provide total personal security.

We need to move towards conservative values, values that embrace the individual's responsibility to do his own part to provide for his own safety: by moving out of dangerous neighborhoods, associating with the right people, avoiding drugs and alcohol and(if you can handle the responsibility) owning a firearm.

Anonymous said...

Smith County has jail overcrowding issues also. Judge Skeen sets ridiculously high bonds and is responsible at least in part for the overcrowding. When is someone going to challenge these practices of setting ridiculous and unconstitutional bonds. The constitution garuantees the right to reasonable bail. Of course it has been said that the constitution doesn't apply in Smith County. Maybe that's true for Harris County also. Skeen not only set ridiculous bonds...when a bond is set by a JP and someone is indicted in his court he often raises the bond, causing the defendant to be rearrested until they can make the new bond. Some defense attorneys have said this is not legal....I'm not an attorney and don't know if it's legal but it certainly doesn't seem to be fair.

Anonymous said...

I used to consider myself very conservative and at one time would have agreed with 2:43. Age and experience has changed my perspective. I lean more towards libertarian now but when it comes to criminal justice I agree with 1:13.

Let's just take a simple example. A while back the city I lived in at that time decided to start towing the vehicles of those who did not have proof of insurance. The liability insurance laws on their face make sense. People should take responsibility, right? But, when I heard about the towing of cars for this I thought, "Whose car is going to be towed?". The guy who lives in the good part of town and drives a Lexus isn't going to get his car towed. It will be the single mom who can barely afford the rent, formula and diapers but has to have a car to get to work. She can't afford the insurance the law says she has to have to protect the other guy's Lexus. You want to say people should be responsible. How about this: driving on the streets involves some risk. You assume that risk when you choose to operate your vehicle on public roadways. How about everybody be responsible for insuring their own cars and only their own? That way if someone doesn't have insurance their car doesn't get fixed whether they are at fault or not. Logical and natural consequences. Instead we have this system that issues the poor single mom mentioned before an expensive ticket which will require her to pay ridiculous driver responsibility fees she can't afford on top of the fine for the ticket. On top of that we are going to tow her car and she will have to pay excessive tow and impound charges to get her old broken down car back so she can get to work so she can maybe pay the rent and buy food and diapers. When she doesn't pay the driver responsibility fees (because she spent that money on rent, food and diapers) we are going to suspend her drivers license. She has to get to work (again to pay the rent, buy food and diapers) and when she gets caught driving with a suspended license we are going to put her in jail. All of this just to protect the guy who drives a Lexus just in case the single mom happens to run into him. Am I the only one who thinks this is insane?

Clarence Darrow said it well:
“First and last, it's a question of money. Those men who own the earth make the laws to protect what they have. They fix up a sort of fence or pen around what they have, and they fix the law so the fellow on the outside cannot get in. The laws are really organized for the protection of the men who rule the world. They were never organized or enforced to do justice. We have no system for doing justice, not the slightest in the world.”

I don't think there was some grand conspiracy to devise a legal system that is used by the wealthy and powerful to oppress the poor and weak but that seems to be what our system has become.

Anonymous said...

Anon 4:25

Thank you for expressing my personal views so succinctly. Came about them in the same manner.

Anonymous said...

The excessive bonds in Harris County cause so much suffering on the part of low income people. They get arrested and can't get out to take care of their kids or their pets and pay the rent. If they don't have family, the pets starve, the kids go to CPS, and what few belongings they have go to the landlord, never to be seen again. They lose their jobs, their cars, the roof over their head, everything. I have seen people take pleas to get out of the HCJ and they walk out owning only the clothes they were arrested in. Judges don't give a damn about these people. No judge down there has ever been so broke they didn't have bus fare and has never been so down and out they had to sleep on the streets. Not only do they not know, they don't care.

Hook Em Horns said...

Gritsforbreakfast said...

Good point, neither HPD nor the Harris Sheriff have used the new authority granted them in 2007 by the Lege to give citations instead of arrests for low-level misdemeanors.

8/10/2009 12:22:00 PM
And this is because these holier than thou idiots don't know or understand anything but JAIL. JAIL JAIL JAIL. We are a society addicted to the damn jail. Enough is enough!

Anonymous said...

In response to 01:13:00

I have no earthly idea of what it is like to live in a neighborhood that requires carrying a gun, legal or otherwise for self preservation. Those neighborhoods are real and exist 24 hours a day, sleep well.

I’m fairly certain that those that do, can’t afford to pay the rent any place other than where they are, if that, let alone move to a safer neighborhood. The moving truck would probably be the first time in a while that they experienced something other than public transportation.

If by cleaning up the neighborhood you mean arresting people for drugs, which is the root cause for theft and violence in these neighborhoods, then thanks for being one of the ones responsible for endangering my children, our borders, and the continued proliferation of a black market enterprise that if not stopped will continue to flourish and affect the poor more so than any.

If you live in Houston, please by all means take a look at the public school provided for the poor compared to the one in your neighborhood, same tax dollars hard at work, just no play ground, no safety, and nobody that cares.

There are people in this city and lots of them that can make a hundred dollars feed six people for a week, less than that.

A tiny bit of humility can go a very long way toward humanity.

Pick up a conservative book, King James comes to mind, perhaps there’s hope for the poor, and maybe they will get an education, maybe there’s room for new ideas about what really should be done, God only knows. White folks like me sure don’t.

Anonymous said...

Perhaps another "judicial sweep" in Harris County would be in order.

Anonymous said...

Contrary to popular belief on this blog, the protection of the community is a legitimate (and legal) consideration in the setting of a bond amount. Just because someone happens to be indigent doesn't mean that person automatically gets a "get out of jail free" card.

The elitist (and naive) attitude on the part of many of the posters here continues to amuse. The fact of the matter is that most of the crackheads and petty thiefs who wind up in jail on these misdemeanor and low level felony charges are in fact guilty of the offense they are charged with. If released on bond, they will go right back into the communities--mostly low income--from whence they came.

People who live in low income communities have the same right to live in a safe and clean environment as the middle class in the suburbs and the wealthy in River Oaks.

Texas still has a growing population and you can expect there to be a corresponding increase in criminal behavior. It cannot be seriously argued that the increase in prison and jail space in the 90's did not significantly reduce crime in our state.

At the end of the day, in spite of all the feel good, touchy feely rehabilitation programs advocated on this site, the confinement of criminals is the most effective technique to reduce crime. Returning criminals to the street under the guise of "reducing jail overcrowding" is a recipe for disaster. It's also extremely unfair to those citizens who have to live next to these losers when they are returned to the streets!

Anonymous said...

10:49's attitude is exactly the reason we no longer have the presumption of innocence in our criminal justice system. I just hope 10:49 never finds himself falsely accused of a crime. He needs to ask himself if he ever found himself in that situation (yes, it can and does happen often and could happen to you, it's happend to me) would he want a jury that thinks like him. I've seen people wrongly convicted (look at the story on grits referencing the Texas Monthly article on the Mineola Swinger's Club Case). In these cases I think the jurors walked into the courtroom assuming the defendant was guilty. The presumption of guilt, which 10:49 and many jurors have leads to wrongful convictions. Ask Kerry Max Cook, Patrick Kelly, Timothy Cole's family (he's deceased), all the people from Dallas County cleared by DNA evidence and many other wrongly convicted persons if this can happen to you. If it does happen to 10:49 he better hope he has a jury like many of the posters here. If he gets a jury of people like himself he's screwed. He calls us naive? It's naive to think our criminal justice system is so perfect we no longer need constitutional protections as 10:49 seems to believe. He calls us elitist? Who's the elitist looking down his nose at others. There but by the grace of God goes he. He needs to remember that.

Anonymous said...

The OP Ed piece is indeed enlightening. Regrettably, Harris County has historically failed to take any iitiative to address jail overcrowding without the intervention of a federal court (Alberti v Sheriff). Today is no different....until the Justice Department or federal courts get involved in who is in jail, review the everday poor criminal justice practices that occur, address the abuse of discretion by officials, and overhaul the bail bonding and alternatives to incarceration programs in Harris County this issue will remain a growing crisis. Perhaps the public should find a way to hold elected officials - Sheriff, County and District Court judiciary, County Commissioners, County Judge, District Attorney, Justice of the Peace judiciary, and Constables - for actions that crowd the jail and the criminal justice system the problem will continue. I, as one Harris county taxpayer, will NOT vote for more jail space and plan to not support the majority of those elected to office. Those individuals need to be held accountable for their stewardship of the criminal justice system and the processes we have in Harris County today.

Anonymous said...

The war on drugs is a key player, and perhaps as this issue continues to heat up a boiling point may someday soon arrive.

The metamorphosis of construed deviant behavior to be seen as acceptable social behavior has time on its side as history has shown time and time again. The most recent right here in the United States with alcohol prohibition. Case in point, politicians can openly invite anyone over for a beer on national television and it’s perfectly acceptable.

In the overall picture America is a country founded upon the beliefs of freedom, life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.

Theoretically government holds the responsibility of maintaining social control. Social control in and of itself is what gives social order its power, no control, no power.

Big government is losing its control and rightfully so; in this instance they provide for the existence of a black market for unjust reasons and then seek to prosecute their own citizens for their failure to provide the reasoning behind it. “It’s illegal because we say so”, just aint gonna get it. The eventuality of what we are experiencing today is inevitable and it will not be tolerated in a free society. There has never been the possibility of spending enough tax dollars to combat a black market enterprise that is so widely exploited. Alternatives to incarceration and thoughtful discussion toward legalization are table items at every state legislative session in every state. Many issues come to light during economic disaster, and Americans are finally beginning to ask for answers.

Forums such as this and the existence of mass communication through the internet is quickly becoming the voice of citizens and our politicians can and will be replaced easily enough. Their campaigns and the (for and against) will be played out on You Tube. A person will be able to run for office based on issues, and the money that controls the lip service of professional politicians will hold less and less influence, it’s just a matter of time, and if they don’t start getting it right the life long politicians will be the exception not the rule.

Start lowering bail bonds, stop drug testing, and remember the accused is accused and not presumed guilty.

Anonymous said...

Yes, just look to the Roman Empire for an example of what happens when a culture and nation completely abandons all semblance of morality and reduces its standards of acceptable social behavior to the lowest common denominator. Now that's something to aspire to!

You people who constantly worry yourselves with idea of an overreaching government and being unjustly accused are probably the same people who voted in the current presidential administration that clearly aspires to socialize our healthcare system and CONTROL our individual choice in that regard. How paranoid and illogical!

Anonymous said...

The Sheep and the Goats
31"When the Son of Man comes in his glory, and all the angels with him, he will sit on his throne in heavenly glory. 32All the nations will be gathered before him, and he will separate the people one from another as a shepherd separates the sheep from the goats. 33He will put the sheep on his right and the goats on his left.
34"Then the King will say to those on his right, 'Come, you who are blessed by my Father; take your inheritance, the kingdom prepared for you since the creation of the world. 35For I was hungry and you gave me something to eat, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you invited me in, 36I needed clothes and you clothed me, I was sick and you looked after me, I was in prison and you came to visit me.'

37"Then the righteous will answer him, 'Lord, when did we see you hungry and feed you, or thirsty and give you something to drink? 38When did we see you a stranger and invite you in, or needing clothes and clothe you? 39When did we see you sick or in prison and go to visit you?'

40"The King will reply, 'I tell you the truth, whatever you did for one of the least of these brothers of mine, you did for me.'

41"Then he will say to those on his left, 'Depart from me, you who are cursed, into the eternal fire prepared for the devil and his angels. 42For I was hungry and you gave me nothing to eat, I was thirsty and you gave me nothing to drink, 43I was a stranger and you did not invite me in, I needed clothes and you did not clothe me, I was sick and in prison and you did not look after me.'

44"They also will answer, 'Lord, when did we see you hungry or thirsty or a stranger or needing clothes or sick or in prison, and did not help you?'

45"He will reply, 'I tell you the truth, whatever you did not do for one of the least of these, you did not do for me.'

46"Then they will go away to eternal punishment, but the righteous to eternal life."

Anonymous said...


Not sure what your point is. I'm totally for people helping the poor. Just don't believe the goverment should force us to do it.

Anonymous said...

5:53 If you don't get it I'm probably wasting my time trying to explain it. No one said anything about the government forcing you to help the poor. It's not about Obama's healthcare program (which I also believe is misguided). This is about a badly broken criminal justice system that is oppressive and unfair to many. It's about protecting the rights of "the least of these".

My point was that some need to examine how they see others (the least of these). Don't look down your nose at those who are less fortunate, who maybe haven't had the advantages in life that you have, those who have made a few bad decisions. Don't look down your nose at those in prison. I you had grown up in a different neighborhood or with different parents you could find yourself in the same situation. Or, if you simply found yourself in the wrong place at the wrong time you could find yourself falsely accused and facing an unjust and oppressive system.

I love how when people don't want to see the real issue they try to change the debate. Again, this isn't a debate about conservative vs. liberal politics. By the way, I didn't vote for Obama and still consider myself conservative in many ways. I voted for the most conservative candidate, Bob Barr. If you voted for McCain you can't seriously call yourself a conservative. But again, that is not the argument. Those who don't want to address the real issue try to distract by changing the debate to another issue.

Like I said I consider myself conservative in many ways. I have worked in law enforcement and other jobs dealing with the system. I have seen police officers lie. I have also seen the other side. I was the victim of a false and malicious prosecution initiated by a corrupt district attorney. I was taken before a bias and corrupt judge who set a ridiculous bond. You can call me paranoid but sometimes paranoia is justified. I've been there. I"ve been a victim of a corrupt and unjust system. When you find yourself in that situation your realize all of the constitution rights we believe we have are just words on paper somewhere. If you find yourself up against a corrupt system you realize you really have very few rights. You are at the mercy of those who don't believe in things like the constitution and justice. And, yes, it could happen to you.

Conservatives tend to say they believe in the constitution. But, they only seem to believe it applies to them. There is a constitutional right to reasonable bail but one conservative on here has said he doesn't believe in that. So, you can pick and choose which parts of the constitution you want to apply and to whom you want them to apply? No, a real conservative believes the constitution and the rule of law applies to everyone equally. Those of you who get on here and argue that oppressive and punitive bonds are acceptable and that everyone arrested are criminal scum and should be treated as such are not conservatives. I won't say what I really think you are because I don't want to get into name calling. I will say that I think if you believe in morality and the things you say you believe in you need to reexamine how you view others. Is it moral to deny someone their constitutional rights? Is it moral to deny someone a fair trial? Is it moral to continue to require people to face an unfair, unjust and often corrupt criminal justice system? One poster worried that we would go the way of the Roman Empire because we are losing our morality. I would agree. But, one of the things that endangers us the most is losing real morality to a false sense of morality. We can't continue to allow our criminal justice system to function as it currently does and call ourselves moral.
I have to break this in to 2 posts because it is too long.

Anonymous said...

True conservatives believe in protecting the constitutional rights of everyone, even "the least of these". True conservatives believe the system should be fair and believe in real justice. True conservatives believe that DA's, judges and others in power are not kings and should be required to follow the law.

I would ask 5:53 and those with similar opinions to examine your attitudes toward "the least of these". If not for the grace of God you could easily be one of "the least of these".

One poster expressed sympathy for those who have to live next to some of these people. I've worked as a social worker and a jailer. I've been in the homes of many of these people and spent a lot of time with people who are incarcerated. I would rather live next to some of those people than some of the wealthy snobs I know.

Another point, you want to look down your nose at those who are arrested. Many of your neighbors in that nice neighborhood you live in have commmitted as many crimes as those who are in the county jail. If we investigated and prosecuted white collar crime as we investigate drug crimes we would have many, many more middle and upper class people in jail. You probably have just as many criminals in your neighborhood as there are in the bad parts of town. Most white collar crime is never investigated let alone prosecuted. Don't believe me? Let's just consider one white collar industry, the mortgage industry. I have personally seen extensive fraud in this industry. Loan officers and mortgage brokers falsify documents and lie to get loans to go through all the time. This is criminal behavior that is rarely prosecuted. I've seen appraisals that are totally fraudulent. Again, never prosecuted. The Madoff scandal was a big deal and he was prosecuted only because he ripped off some rich people. There are people out there ripping off poor people left and right but they are never prosecuted. Look at some of these companies that say they will help lower credit card debt. Many of these companies take money from people who are already in bad financial situations and then do nothing for them. Total fraud. Again, never prosecuted. I know of a district attorney and a judge who have probably committed more crimes than most of the people in the county jail.

Just because you live in a nice neighborhood doesn't mean you don't live among criminals.

Those who talk about morality but don't care that "the least of these" are being oppressed by an unjust and often corrupt system are nothing but hypocrites.

Hook Em Horns said...

There is a great divide in Harris County between the jail "idiots", in other words, officials who WANT another jail and those of us who don't want another damn jail and don't want to hear about it. Make no mistake, the judges have NO DESIRE to reduce overcrowding, they never have. The only way jail populations will be reduced is if we, the voters, keep telling these jerks NO at the ballot box and the Feds step in.