Monday, January 26, 2009

Crowded house

Harris County officials seem to have finally seen the writing on the wall regarding jail overcrowding. With the inmate population of the Harris County Jail expected to rise to 12,600 this spring, the Sheriff, Adrian Garcia, the District Attorney, Pat Lykos, and the eight new criminal district judges are looking at ways to alleviate the situation.  Chief among the suggestions are the issuing of personal bonds for nonviolent offenders and the creation of a mental health court.

The Harris County Jail has been certified by the state to house up to 9,435 inmates but is currently housing close to 11,000 thanks to the state's authorization of 1,840 "variance beds." There are also nearly 1,000 Harris County inmates being housed in Louisiana.

As my colleague, Mark Bennett, stated, holding minor drug offenders in custody only encourages them to plead to cases before any investigation has been conducted on their behalf. He is correct in acknowledging that it is easier to defend a case when the citizen accused is able to function in a (somewhat) normal manner during the pendency of the case.

According to the Eighth Amendment "[e]xcessive bail shall not be required..."  The purpose of bail is to guarantee appearance in court -- not to punish.  If a citizen cannot afford to post bail, that is, by definition, excessive bail.  Continuing to hold that citizen deprives him of his right to confront witnesses and present evidence to the court, which, in turn, makes the presumption of innocence a cruel joke.

1 comment:

John_David_Galt said...

Yes, "the purpose of bail is to guarantee [a defendant's] appearance in court," but to accomplish that goal, bail must be high enough that the threat of its being forfeited can be reasonably relied upon to deter the defendant from fleeing. And there are bound to be some defendants who won't be deterred by any bail amount they can possibly raise, much less by any amount they can "afford" to raise.

I believe it would be much more productive of just outcomes to push, not for reduced bail amounts, but to an end to the practice of holding not-yet-convicted people in jail for a length of time that is a substantial fraction of, or even longer than, the expected sentence. I would like to see a federal court ruling that any person who has been in jail, before conviction, for one third of the average amount of jail time given to those convicted of the same crime in the same jurisdiction, is entitled to have his case dismissed with prejudice on the grounds that his right to a speedy trial has been violated.

This would also put an end to Texas' ridiculous practice of arresting people for offenses that don't even carry jail sentences.