Monday, April 23, 2012

Harris criminal courthouse called "Grand Central Station for Houston's misery"

Patti Hart at the Houston Chronicle has a column today describing the central dilemma behind a real source of innocents convicted of petty offenses as well as overcrowded jails. It opens:
I've come to think of the Harris County Criminal Justice Center as Grand Central Station for Houston's misery, an opinion that was only hardened when I recently spent a few mornings observing our courts handle jail inmates charged with misdemeanors.

Every day about mid-morning in Harris County's 15 Criminal Courts-at-law, a door swings open and six to 10 men wearing orange jail jumpsuits, usually shackled together in a long train, are directed by a sheriff's deputy to march in front of the judge's bench. (Women are handled separately, and often appear alone.)

Responding to a (frequently bored-sounding) judge who appears to be reading from a script, they all plead guilty. The question-"How do you plead?" - is a rhetorical one, of course. The judge, the prosecutors, the court-appointed lawyers, in fact, everyone in the courthouse knows that these criminal defendants have been offered a Hobson's choice. That is, no choice at all: Take a guilty plea, or sit in jail until you can have a trial and plead not guilty. When that time rolls around, you'll have spent more time in the slammer than if you pled guilty.
She points to a report published last year from Houston Ministers Against Crime which:
concluded that expediency seems to dominate equity. Instead of taking into account a defendant's economic circumstances, as required by the state "Harris County rarely deviates from its predetermined bail schedules." Jailing people who have not yet been convicted of even a petty crime is unjust - and costly to taxpayers, the report said. "The rigidity of these rules contributes to high pre-trial detention rates in Harris County and exacerbates the County's budget woes."
See the full report (pdf).

See also related Grits posts:


Anonymous said...

Or maybe they plead guilty because they, in fact, are guilty and they figure they might as well get the best deal they can. This would be especially true in the case of DWI offenders, misdemeanor possession of drugs/marihuana, Class "A" assault/family violence, Theft by Check, etc.

I wonder how many people in Harris County who are in jail on misdemeanor charges can actually make bond, but don't. I'd be willing to bet that a significant number of these defendants don't want to do probation and would rather just do their time. By staying in jail while their case is pending, they may wind up with a "time served" plea offer. At a minimum, they'll get credit against their sentence for the time they've been in jail. I wouldn't be surprised if some of these people chose to stay in jail even if they were offered some sort of P.R. bond.

Gritsforbreakfast said...

9:04, If they're pleading guilty only "because they, in fact, are guilty," then there's no need for pretrial detention, right? They'd all plead out anyway ... because they're guilty. Or am I missing something?

Anonymous said...

You're not missing anything. But if they'd prefer to just "do their time" and be done with it, what sense does it make for these offenders to get out of jail, go to court, plead guilty, and then go BACK to jail? I know you've commented before on this blog about how expensive probation is these days, especially on DWI cases. For misdemeanor offenders, if the prosecutor makes a low enough jail time offer, it's financially advantageous for them to just stay in jail and be done with it.

On the other hand, many of those who do bond out (who also know they are guilty) just don't show back up for court. Then you have the additional charge of bail jumping to contend with. Or they pick up a new charge while they're out on bail.

My guess is that in the overwhelming majority of these cases, we're dealing with people who are guilty and they know they are. If the police are even half-assed doing their jobs correctly, that's the way it should be. In many instances, we're also likely dealing with repeat and well institutionalized offenders. It's not a question of guilt. It's just a question of punishment. Unfortunately, we've created a system where there are now incentives for people NOT to make bond. I bet if you dig deeper into why people are staying in jail until their case is resolved, you might be really surprised at what you find.

Gritsforbreakfast said...

"in the overwhelming majority of these cases"

In other words, you're granting that in some non-insignificant minority of cases there are actually innocent people facing this "Hobson's choice." And you don't care, right? No problem, that, by your reasoning?

You say that, "in many cases ... It's not a question of guilt. It's just a question of punishment." But it's a big leap from saying guilt determination is irrelevant in "many" cases and saying they'll virtually never use personal bonds or make individualized bail determinations. The only reason for that approach is to coerce plea deals from the poor. If defendants were going to plea because everyone arrested is guilty anyway, as you'd like to pretend, there'd be no need to lock them up till they plea.

Anonymous said...

Ms. Hart's article is fraught with generalizations and assumptions that she doesn't support with data. Without some type of evidentiary or statistical support, it's just as easy to assume that everyone who pleads guilty is really guilty, as it is to assume that innocent people are pleading guilty.

I find it also interesting that Ms. Hart talks about the consequences of defendants remaining in jail unable to make bond (loss of jobs, income, etc.) and yet in the same article she says people who work and lead clean lifestyles are underrepresented in the Harris Co. Jail. Which is it?

As a general rule, I would bet that misdemeanor bonds in Harris Co. are not so high that the average arrestee with a job or family who halfway cares about them can't get out. There are no categories of misdemeanor offenses that are subject to a "no bond" order by the court.

I would venture to guess that what you're left with are a very large number of detainees who are repeat offenders and very savvy to how the system works. For these people, just "doing there time" is no big deal. They look for the quickest and easiest way to be done with their case. Probation is frequently viewed as more trouble than it's worth.

I don't know whether the number of innocent people who plead guilty to misdemeanor charges is significant or not. I've not seen any credible research on this point one way or the other. I do know that in order to build a system which is perfect, you're going to have to spend a lot of money. My question to you is this: Is it more cost effective to let someone just do 30, 60 or 90 days in jail and then be finished with their case? Or let them out on bond, plead them to a probation that they don't want to be one and are destined to fail, and then revoke their probation and then give them 30, 60 or 90 days--or more--in jail.

Like I said before, I bet you would be really suprised at the number of people who are in jail in Harris County who really don't much care if they make bond or not. I wish Ms. Hart had dug a little deeper.

Anonymous said...

Nobody gets arrested for a traffic fine. You get pulled over for a traffic fine...but you get arrested because you have warrants out for serious offenses. Why don't you take the Statesman story a step further and pull the criminal records of the 1000 deportees over the past three years. Not one of them were law abiding. The fact is Greg Hamilton is one of the best Sheriff's in the Country. His crime victims unit just won unit of the year out of 3000 units. He cares about families...that's why he has created early release programs to bring families together, and cite and release for marijuana and minor crimes to keep them out of jail. I am familiar with a single innocent person who has been deported. That's why it bothers me that the Sheriff's opponent keeps saying he's deporting "law abiding citizens." it's simply not true. Sisson is an opportunist who is likely to be your next sheriff if you don't do a little more research before publishing articles like this. I don't trust any candidate who runs as a true believer democrat despite never voting democrat in their entire life. Sisson has only supported Republican candidates. He didn't care enough to vote for Obama in ''08 and the last time he did care to vote it was for GW Bush in '04. But the Sheriff's job is about law enforcement and do I feel safe with Sheriff Greg Hamilton? Yes, of course. Would I feel safe with John Sisson as my Sheriff? Hell no! The man has no idea how to supervise. Why do you think his own colleagues (Austin Police Association) endorsed against him? Democrats are doing themselves a real disservice by buying into this issue.

Anonymous said...

Response to 4:23 1:11 pm
Mrs. Hart's article may have some generalizaions and assumptions, BUT it is based on observation. Now all she needs to do is select a random number of counties in Texas to observe and BAM! She's got a pattern that everyone knows exist. More hardened serious offenders are released on Personal Recognizance and on bond who are later convicted with a slam dunk. If your argument is that those who "know they are guilty" are being held, explain how those more hardened offenders who know they are guilty are released until trial?

Gritsforbreakfast said...

1:11 writes, "I do know that in order to build a system which is perfect, you're going to have to spend a lot of money."

The problem with that claim is that what I'm advocating - reducing the jail population by expanding use of personal bonds - would SAVE money, not cost more. Neither this post nor the Chron story says to spend everything it takes to achieve 100% perfection - that's the red herring you've chosen to argue against, but it doesn't reflect my stance nor what Patti Hart has written.

1:18, you commented on the wrong post but I'll still respond. I have no stakes either in Hamilton's career nor Sisson's campaign, nor do I care a whit who is or isn't a "true believer democrat." I am, however, glad to see Hamilton called out after misrepresenting federal requirements on Secure Communities. If he hadn't overstated his case on that and pushed for extra aggressive use of detainers, he wouldn't be in a position to be criticized now. But he did, and elections are how people are held accountable for such things, to the extent they ever are.

Anonymous said...

Grits, you were the one inferring at least that some innocent people plead guilty just to get out of jail. I think that's really the red herring here as you put it. Here again, if the cops are doing there jobs (and there doesn't seem to be much discussion out there in the literature concerning the number of people charged with misdemeanors who are actually innocent) then the vast majority of those housed in the Harris County Jail are likely guilty. And for some unknown reason, they are not making bond. My theory is that lots of them don't want to make bond or don't believe it's in their best interest to make bond. They just want to do their time and be done with it. I don't know that you can just assume that the system will make money by having them released pretrial and then possibly coming back to court (2 or 3 times) and then getting put on a probation that many of them probably won't successfully complete. And for those that do get out of jail but know that if they come to court that they'll probably be going back to court, do you think they're likely to show up as opposed to skipping bond? THEN, you have an new charge for bail jumping and two cases to dispose of. At a minimum, the police have to go out and rearrest these folks and then they're back in jail again. I think this problem is a whole lot more complex than you and Ms. Hart seem to think. The people who deal with these kinds of offenders on a daily basis will know exactly what I'm talking about. The problem is not as simple as just claiming that kicking more pretrial detainees out of jail equals saving money. There are too many other variables to this discussion that you really need to look at.

Anonymous said...

Before the DA can communicate
w/ an incustody inmate,
they must be magistrated
w/in 24 hours, with explicit
admonitions that they
have the right to counsel,
even if they are indigent.

During the plea (and preferably
the magistration) there should
be a recording or transcript
made of the proceedings.

During the plea, the judge
(a different one than the
magistrate) should again
go over all their rights
before they plead.

Written admonishments should
also be provided to the defendant.

If Harris Co. is following
the law, comlying w/
every step, then this should
not be problematic.

jdgalt said...

There ought to be some incentive for prosecutors to give these people their day in court, quickly enough for it to matter. I'd propose a rule like this: if any defendant has to wait in jail for more than 25% of the maximum sentence for the crime he's accused of, the charge should automatically be dismissed with prejudice and the accused freed.

RSO wife said...

To Anonymous 9:04: Are you always this opinionated without having facts or are facts immaterial in your esteemed opinion? I certainly hope that you or a family member do get arrested because if that happens you will have a completely different opinion and you won't be so quick to judge something you know nothing about.

My husband sat in the Harris County jail from April 9 to September 1 before being granted a hearing. Not because he couldn't make bail but because they refused it. We both wanted him out of there.

The court date was changed 5 times during this time period because the judge "wanted to check something" and she kept moving the date. The DA on the case kept changing. In fact they changed DAs 3 times during the course of these 5 months. Every time they changed DAs, they changed the court date.

And he didn't plead guilty because he didn't do what he was accused of. But that didn't stop the DA from prosecuting and the judge from sentencing him to 3 years in TDC.

If everybody that was arrested was guilty, we wouldn't have any need for lawyers or trials and we would put the Innocence Project out of business.

Anonymous said...

If the average bonds on these misd cases wasn't just a couple hundred bucks, more people would care. Except in extreme cases, anyone employed can make that kind of bond so the majority of people in the area are not going to be sympathetic. The idea is that if you can afford to buy pot, afford to drive, afford to have a checking account, etc., you can afford to make bond.

Gritsforbreakfast said...

3:28 writes that "there doesn't seem to be much discussion out there in the literature concerning the number of people charged with misdemeanors who are actually innocent"

I guess it depends on what literature you're reading. This author for example argues that "petty convictions are growing more frequent and burdensome even as we devote fewer institutional resources to ensuring their validity"

@6:53 who wrote, "The idea is that if you can afford to buy pot, afford to drive, afford to have a checking account, etc., you can afford to make bond." What about people who can't afford a car, don't have a checking account, etc.? Why do you assume that everyone entering the jail is in the same economic situation as you are?

Anonymous said...

You know, Grits, I was almost tempted to be intrigued by the journal article you linked to, until I scrolled down and noticed that the author had to crawl up on the racial soapbox. You liberals just can't help but turn every issue into a racial issue, can you? If you're opposed to tax increases you're a racist. If you're opposed to Obamacare, you're a racist. If you want the borders secured, you're a racist. If a large percentage of misdemeanor defendants are minorities, the system is racist. I'm sorry, but I think we're quickly getting to the point in this society where that "dog won't hunt." Why can't we have legitimate public policy debates in this country any more without every issue having to turn into a racial issue? Please find a slightly more objective source.

@6:28, if your husband received 3 years in TDC, he obviously wasn't in jail for a misdemeanor.

Anonymous said...

With the exception of a few Misdemeanor offense, they should all be fine only. This would save tons of money overnight and still have some teeth. If the offender did not plea guilty and pay the ticket they are waranted and arrested for failure to appear (which would result in being held in jail or bonded to ensure they show up for court). Of course that would mean all these huge jails would damn near be empty over night, Misdemeanor court generates savings due to efficiency, and taxpayers no longer pay for jail inmates at $50-$100 dollars per day. AND there is no discrimination based on income determining who gets to stay in jail and who gets to go home.

Gritsforbreakfast said...

9:16, you should get past your disdain for considering opinions you assume you'll disagree with before hearing them and actually read the article. IMO Natapoff is one of the best critical thinkers in the academy on criminal justice stuff. If your own political blinders prevent you from considering her views, it's decidedly your loss.

Anonymous said...

"What about people who can't afford a car, don't have a checking account, etc.? Why do you assume that everyone entering the jail is in the same economic situation as you are?"

I'd flip that around and ask you why do you assume everyone charged is in a worse economic situation than you? Bond amounts are very low on misd cases, especially first time cases. I'm a fan of using more PR bonds myself, the strings attached were I in charge of it being that if someone had a steady job, owned a home, had a stable residence history, or something else indicating a sense of responsibility, as a first time Class C, B, or A misd they should be eligible for a PR bond in most cases.

benbshaw said...

It becomes a question whether I want to read your thoughtful articles or avoid reading the mean-spirited and authoritarian comments of your many anonymous readers. Then I remember that I have lived in Texas all my life and that there is nothing new to me about your readers. They hold fast to their views based on dehumanizing people charged with crimes.
While not perfect, your blog is a refreshing change from the culture in Texas which seems to identify with power, not the powerless.
A society that doesn't love Justice will never know Peace, only the Law of the Jungle.

Thomas R. Griffith said...

Ms. Hart, please consider doing a series on this topic and include research involving probationers and (OTWs) outstanding traffic warrants as for the reason for arrest & subsequent plea bargain.

Any investigative journalist would already know to contact all of the Constable's Offices and inquire about the number of OTWs they have worked in a recent 90 day period. Compare this data to the number of defendants arrested for an OTW. Contact the Harris County Adult Probation Dept. & you' ll learn that the majority were on probation at time of arrest and that there is no record of any OTWs in the file.

FWIW, attorneys / lawyers will not investigate (no matter what they say) to see if there is an OTW. You have to do it yourself or have a family member contact the correct Constable's Office & they won't put it in writing. Thanks.

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