Tuesday, January 8, 2019

Throwing in the towel (finally)

Now it's over.

Yesterday the lawsuit filed by the former Republican misdemeanor judges was dismissed on a motion filed by the 15 incoming Democratic judges. Judge Darrell Jordan was never a part of the original lawsuit - he was later joined in his opposition by Mike Fields, the former judge in Court 14.

The dismissal of the suit means that Harris County elected officials will stop wasting taxpayer money defending an unconstitutional bail system. The outgoing judges fought tooth and nail to walk back US District Judge Lee Rosenthal's order. They knew that the leverage the courts had over indigent defendants was based on a bail system designed to keep them behind bars.

Under the old rules the county magistrates (who preside over probable cause hearings at the jail) would take out a chart, look up the offense, check for priors and then find the corresponding bail amount. Never once did the magistrate bother to ask if the defendant could afford bail. Not once did the magistrate bother to ask what amount, if any, could the defendant afford. The defendants weren't represented by counsel and had no idea they could ask for a personal bond (not that any of the magistrates would have given anyone such a bond).

This system insured that indigent defendants would jump at the opportunity to dispose of their cases for a guilty plea and time served. Court-appointed counsel were only too willing to go along with this charade of justice - lest they piss off the court that was paying them.

The result was a plea mill. Defendants would be led into the courtroom like a chain gang and would stand in front of the judge. The judge would spend no more than a minute or two on each case and the chain gang would be led back into the holdover.

This system guaranteed convictions for prosecutors, fewer pending cases for the judges and convictions for the defendants.

Those days are now in the past. Defendants who couldn't afford to post bond in the past will now be released on personal bonds and will be able to assist in their defense. They will be able to sleep in their own beds, see their families and go to their jobs.

No longer will a misdemeanor defendant have to make that agonizing decision on whether to fight his case or cop a plea to get out of jail.

A tip of my hat to the new judges who made this happen.

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