Harris County Judges Should Approve More Personal Recognizance Bonds

701 Jail of the Harris County Sheriff's Office...

701 Jail of the Harris County Sheriff's Office - Houston, TX Español: 701 Jail ("Carcel 701") de la Oficina del Sheriff del Condado de Harris (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

More indigent defendants should receive PR bonds in Harris County Texas.  The poor accused must choose between taking a plea deal so that they can get out of jail and go back to work or to languish in jail for months on end waiting for trial.  Few innocent accused are willing to do that.  As a result, many undeserving people get saddled with criminal records that impact them and their families for the rest of their lives.

Houston Criminal Defense Lawyer Jim Sullivan ran unsuccessfully for judge of the 248th Criminal District Court in 2010.  Jim Sullivan ran for judge in order to reform the local system that ran contrary to other jurisdictions in the state and across the nation (see his Judicial Q&A).  Sullivan supported the granting of more PR bonds, pretrial diversions and a public defenders office.  Sullivan was endorsed by the Houston Chronicle.

Although many lawyers encouraged him to run for judge again in 2012, Attorney Jim Sullivan chose to continue his first passion–defending the accused in criminal and juvenile courts throughout Texas.  Jim Sullivan is Board Certified in Juvenile Law and has fought for the rights of fellow Texans and immigrants since 1994.  He has sought PR bonds for many of his clients and continues to urge Harris County judges to grant more PR bonds for defendants in jail.

Two years later, the local situation remains the same.  PR bonds are not granted often and accused continue to languish in jail.  In today’s edition of the Houston Chronicle, Patricia Kilday Hart published an article squarely on point.  Entitled “In Harris County, a guilty plea is often the best choice“, Hart wrote,

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. “It doesn’t look very good, does it?” observed Earl Musick, president of the Harris County Criminal Defense Lawyer’s Association. A former Houston police officer, Musick is well-acquainted with the tsunami of petty crime in our town, and yet he thinks our system shortchanges the rights of the accused.

“The pressure to do things rapidly should never get in the way of justice,” he said. “When you are taking someone’s liberty away, it should be more individualized.”

7.5% get personal bond

According to a recently released report by Harris County’s Pretrial Services Department, bonds are set for about 54 percent of jailed inmates charged with misdemeanors. Only 7.5 percent, though, are given personal bonds— the type of bond permitting someone to get out of jail on a promise to return to court, without having to put up cash. That statistic is why Musick and his fellow criminal defense attorneys believe that defendants are under pressure to accept guilty pleas— even when circumstances don’t support it.

“What is going through their minds is to get out of jail as quickly as possible,” Musick said of the defendants.

Staying in jail longer will bring a cascade of consequences from a minor criminal screw-up: They will lose jobs, or fail to make their rent or child support payments. They will lose their cars.

Besides that, attorney David A. Jones dryly observes, “That is not a good place to be, the Harris County Jail. They are willing to take anything. The whole thing is organized for the benefit of lawyers and judges.”

Expediency triumphs?

Jones participated in a recent report by Houston Ministers Against Crime, which concluded that the county’s bail bond schedule fails to take into account the dire economic circumstances that prevent a wide swath of Houstonians from posting a cash bond.

The report 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.”

Worse, the problem is old news. As Jones’ 2011 report pointed out, an October 2009 report by the Justice Management Institute noted that the Harris County Jail population is made up of mostly pre-trial detainees. In October 2010, the jail count showed 5,908 of the 10,401 county jail inmates were detained pending trial.

State law would have permitted many of those cited with tickets, released and required to show up in court at a later date.

In 2009, Travis County released 18,257 defendants on personal bond while Harris County, with a much larger population, released approximately 6,000.

Misdemeanor Court Judge Sherman Ross, who chairs the judges’ administration committee, cautioned me that I observed only the public part of the plea. Each defendant is assigned a court-appointed attorney who advises defendants of the ramifications of a guilty plea. Attorneys are allowed to represent up to seven defendants each day. “The attorney has to make sure the facts support the case and the plea bargain is such that this defendant is being treated in a manner that is just,” Sherman said. He believes there’s ample time for all that to occur and for defendants to choose the best course available to them.

Chews up the innocent

Like every judge in Harris County, Sherman presides over a courtroom awash with the bad decisions made with so many people living chaotic lives, anchored by drugs and alcohol. Steady employment and a clean lifestyle are underrepresented in the demographic showing up at the Harris County Criminal Justice Center.

But the criminal justice system can chew up the innocent along with the guilty. Right now, Harris County indiscriminately holds people in jail before they obtain trials, whether or not they are a threat to public safety. Until that changes, our courthouse will be the epicenter of misery, both self-inflicted and senseless.

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