Thursday, August 16, 2018

A senseless death in the Harris County Jail

Debora Ann Lyons is the second inmate in the Harris County Jail to commit suicide in the last month. Ms. Lyons, who was taken into custody on July 22, 2018, hung herself on Tuesday night.

Ms. Lyons was arrested on misdemeanor theft charge. However, based upon her prior convictions, she was charged with a felony. Now, as an aside, I understand why the legislature allows prosecutors to enhance some offenses based upon prior convictions. The theory being that if you've been in trouble once or twice for the same offense the punishment needs to be a bit more severe. But, this doesn't work out so well on petty thefts.

I've had a client before who was charged with shoplifting toiletries from a drug store. What he did warranted no more than a Class B charge. But, since he had multiple theft convictions in the past, that little misdemeanor theft ended up landing him in district court with a felony charge. And I don't care how tough on crime you are, charging someone with felony theft over less than $100 worth of toiletries doesn't serve anyone's interests. Prison should be reserved for those who have done heinous crimes, sending someone to prison for petty theft is a waste of resources.

On the date she was charged, bail was set at $1,500. Ms. Lyons didn't have that kind of money -- but because the felony courts still rely on a piece of paper to determine how to set bond, that number was written down on a piece of paper without regard to Ms. Lyons' ability to pay.

Sound familiar?

It should.

This is the system which 14 Republican misdemeanor judges in Harris County are fighting to keep in place. Thus far they have spent over $6 million of taxpayer's money to defend a cash bail system that is unconstitutional. If US District Judge Lee Rosenthal's order applied to the district courts, Ms. Lyons would have been eligible for release on a PR bond within 48 hours of her arrest. Instead she sat in jail for nearly a month before she took her life.

The ultimate irony, of course, is that she was granted a PR bond on Wednesday -- the day after she hung herself.

So, even though this case was filed in district court as a felony, I still would like to hear one of the Republican misdemeanor judges defend the old system. It's the old system that killed Ms. Lyons. The last time I checked, the penalty for theft in Texas wasn't death.

It should come as no surprise to anyone that the 14 Republican misdemeanor judges who are fighting bail reform are all white. If you know anything about Harris County you also know that the vast majority of the people affected by bail reform aren't white. Racism, you see, plays real well out in the suburbs where the Republicans pick up most of their votes. And for all the talk you will hear from those judges, they aren't fighting bail reform to protect the public -- they are fighting it because the old system gave the state coercive power over minority defendants who couldn't afford to post bond. They were forced to plead guilty in order to get out of jail.

And, if they happened to get in trouble later, those convictions came back to bite them in the ass as their new cases were enhanced.

Ms. Lyons died because Harris County is doing everything it can to preserve a coercive system to force the poor to plead guilty regardless of the facts of their cases so they can get on with their lives.

In case you've forgotten the names of the judges who are fighting to preserve an unconstitutional system, here they are again:

  • Paula Goodhart, County Criminal Court at Law No. 1
  • Bill Harmon, County Criminal Court at Law No. 2
  • Natalie Fleming, County Criminal Court at Law No. 3
  • John Clinton, County Criminal Court at Law No. 4
  • Margaret Harris, County Criminal Court at Law No. 5
  • Larry Standley, County Criminal Court at Law No. 6
  • Pam Derbyshire, County Criminal Court at Law No. 7
  • Jay Karahan, County Criminal Court at Law No. 8
  • Analia Wilkerson, County Criminal Court at Law No. 9
  • Dan Spjut, County Criminal Court at Law No. 10
  • Diane Bull, County Criminal Court at Law No. 11
  • Robin Brown, County Criminal Court at Law No. 12
  • Don Smyth, County Criminal Court at Law No. 13
  • Jean Spradling, County Criminal Court at Law No. 15

The next time you see any of these judges, ask them why they are defending an unconstitutional cash bail system. Ask them why they are opposed to bail being set in a timely matter based upon the defendant's ability to pay. Ask them why they are wasting your tax dollars fighting bail reform.

Ask them why they haven't joined Judge Darrell Jordan and Judge Mike Fields on the other side of the coin.

Debora Ann Lyons was no angel. But she was someone's daughter. She was someone's mother. She had a family and she had friends. And she damn well didn't deserve to die in the Harris County Jail.

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