Tuesday, July 14, 2009

Squeezing the working poor

The working poor have long been the victims of a cruel trick when it comes to health care in this country - they make too much to qualify for government-funded health plans but too little to be able to afford to purchase private coverage.

Add access to justice to the hardships facing the working poor in Harris County.

Middle class and wealthy defendants can afford to retain the attorney of their choosing should the need occur. Those classified as indigent by the judges of Harris County may elect to have counsel appointed to represent them (see...). However, those who can post a bond, or who can find friends or family to post a bond, often find themselves in "no man's land."

If a criminal defendant in Harris County cannot afford to post a bond, he is considered to be indigent and is eligible for a court-appointed attorney. That's because the definition of indigency in the Harris County Criminal (In)justice Center is one who can't figure out a way to get himself bonded out of the county jail.

If you are able to raise enough money to post a bond, you must prove to the court that you don't have enough money to hire an attorney. One judge (on the 8th floor) tells those in street clothes asking for a court-appointed attorney that they must sell everything of value they own and then show him that they can't hire an attorney with the proceeds.
"The prime object or purpose of bail is to secure the presence of an accused upon trial of an accusation against him. It is not a revenue measure intended to be a substitute for a fine, but is intended to secure the trial of the alleged offender rather than turn his securities or those of his bondsman into a penalty." Trammel v. State, 529 SW2d 528 (Tex.Crim.App. 1975)
The judges in Harris County seem to have forgotten that every person charged with a crime is innocent unless the state proves them guilty beyond a reasonable doubt. Bail should be set at a level that is low enough for a defendant to post it but at a level that is high enough to guarantee his appearance in court.

The ability to post a bond, in and of itself, should not be the test to determine whether a person qualifies for a court-appointed attorney. Such a policy ignores the reality that many of the working poor that find themselves behind bars raise money from friends and relatives to post a bond so that they can go back to work to support their families. It also ignores the fact that our jails were not built not to house citizens awaiting trial but to house those who were found guilty at trial.

The Sixth Amendment guarantees the right to counsel for those accused of committing a criminal act. Harris County's policy is the state's way of short-circuiting the Constitution and forcing the working poor to accept convictions (and the consequences thereof) without the benefit of representation.

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