April 06, 2008
The high cost of getting tuff on crime

Great article in the Chron about the decline of personal recognizance bonds in Harris County and the effect it has on the local jail population. You need to read the whole thing, as it really adds a lot to the discussion of why our jail system is so screwed up, but I want to focus on two aspects of the story.

Over the past 15 years, the use of personal bonds has all but disappeared in low-grade felony cases. Most Harris County district court judges say they would consider them for the right defendant, but the numbers suggest the "right" defendant rarely appears.

It has not always been this way. In 1994, personal bonds accounted for the release of almost 9,000 people from the Harris County Jail, including more than 1,800 facing low-grade felony charges, frequently drug possession.

A decade later, only 109 felony defendants were let out of jail without posting a cash bond. By 2007 that number was up slightly -- to 153 -- which translates into less than one half of one percent of the 36,176 people in jail interviewed by pretrial services officers.

Fewer personal bonds may be good for the bonding companies, as some people who once got them might be able to pay to get out of jail, especially if charged with a misdemeanor. But defense lawyers complain it is neither smart nor fair.

"What this means is that if you are really poor, you have zero chance of getting out of jail before your trial," said Pat McCann, president of the Harris Country Criminal Lawyers Association. "If you're a poor person in jail, you're screwed."

The basic purpose of a bond is to make sure a person charged with a crime shows up in court. Public safety is also a consideration.

The consequences are two-fold. Fewer personal bonds contributes to the Harris County Jail being filled beyond capacity, requiring local taxpayers to spend $9 million a year to house approximately 600 prisoners in a private Louisiana jail. And people who cannot post a bond are far more likely to plead guilty in order to get out of jail.

"It's just plain nuts," said state Sen. John Whitmire, D-Houston, who chairs the Senate's criminal justice committee and has talked with local judges and jail officials about the issue. "You've got to be smart as well as tough. If we better managed our current resources and only locked up those who posed a public safety risk, we would save millions of dollars."

So that's nine million dollars to ship inmates to Louisiana, plus however many millions hiring more guards and paying overtime, plus a failed proposition last year to spend $195 million on more jail space. All because judges - Republican judges, which is all we've had since 1996 - have decided that no-cash bonds are a no-no. For all the bitching and moaning that some local activists do about property taxes and spending on other programs, they're awfully quiet about the vast resources we pour into keeping mostly non-violent and non-felony offenders, many of whom are awaiting trial, in jail. Apparently, it's okay to spend tax dollars lavishly on some things, just not on things they don't like.

And I want to emphasize again, what we're doing here we're doing by choice. We don't have to do it this way. There's a huge opportunity to be more efficient, save money, and better serve the interests of justice, if only the people who get to make these choices wouldn't be so dogmatic about it. The remedy for that, since it's clear that what we're getting is what we'll continue to get as long as the same cast is in charge, is at the ballot box in November.

The interests of justice is the other item to discuss:

Almost half of the felony cases filed in Harris County in 2006 were resolved within 60 days, many of those at the first trial setting. No other urban county in Texas disposes of such a high proportion of its cases so quickly.

Whether that equates to justice is a different matter. Often the lawyers appointed to represent indigent clients end up recommending pleas for people they just met and whose cases they have not investigated.

"It's just insidious," said defense attorney David Jones. "Isn't the system supposed to be an adversarial system? What's guiding it now are the values of a bureaucrat. It has become a matter of processing."

So how many innocent people, rather than sit for months in jail because they can't afford a cash bond, plead guilty to something so they can get on with their lives? We've discussed this before, and it's a bit sobering to consider. What would you do if you were in that situation? It's a pretty nasty choice, isn't it?

The bottom line is that it doesn't have to be this way. We can choose to do things differently. And we will have the chance to make that choice soon.

UPDATE: Grits has more.

Posted by Charles Kuffner on April 06, 2008 to Crime and Punishment
Post a comment

(If you haven't left a comment here before, you may need to be approved by the site owner before your comment will appear. Until then, it won't appear on the entry. Thanks for waiting.)