Wednesday, January 24, 2018

Is Harris County deliberately undermining a federal court order?

This past June an order from US District Judge Lee Rosenthal went into effect that drastically altered the way pretrial bonds are handled in Harris County.

In the past if a defendant charged with a misdemeanor couldn't afford to post bond or his family couldn't afford to hire a bondsman, that defendant sat in jail until his case was resolved. This put pressure on defendants to plead their cases even if there was no evidence or even if they were innocent, just to get out of jail.

Judges and prosecutors loved it. It cleared dockets. It meant fewer trials.

In light of Judge Rosenthal's ruling, defendants charged with nonviolent misdemeanors who can't afford to post bond are to be released on personal bonds - that is, on their promise to return to court on a certain date.

Many of these folks were placed on pretrial supervision in which caseworkers do what they can to ensure they return to court when scheduled.

But, according to this article in the Houston Chronicle, many of those who need supervision don't receive it and, subsequently, don't show up for their court dates.

Judges are up in arms because of the number of warrants they have to issue for defendants who miss court. County officials blame Judge Rosenthal for the problem.

Keep in mind that for decades in Harris County the jail was filled to capacity primarily with detainees who hadn't been convicted of anything. The county also fought, tooth and nail, to defend its system that denied the accused their due process rights by confining them absent a showing of guilt and absent a showing that they were a danger to society.

And, in what is most likely a deliberate attempt to undermine Judge Rosenthal's order, Harris County does not place those who most need supervision on pretrial supervision. This policy of neglect almost guarantees that folks are going to fall between the cracks. I suspect the county hopes that this policy will allow them to go back to the old system when they present "evidence" that the public was placed at risk by nonviolent misdemeanor defendants who failed to appear in court.

The judges want to return to the old system so they can move cases off their dockets. Everyone involved in the criminal (in)justice system knows that it's much easier to fight your case when you aren't behind bars. But having folks exercise their constitutional right to a jury trial gums up the works down at the courthouse - especially after Hurricane Harvey.

I know that judicial efficiency is a big deal for those wearing the black robes, but it doesn't - and shouldn't - trump the due process rights of citizens accused of breaking the law.

1 comment:

Lee said...

If 14 courts are not enough to handle all of these cases, does that mean that we have too many cases? Where do they all come from and why are there so many?

I would have thought that those operating the court system and jail would be happier with detaining fewer people because it is cheaper to do so and tax dollars are free to be used for more critical public needs.