The latest from Emily dePrang at the Observer:
It’s a Monday morning, a little past 9:00. Half an hour ago, this hallway on the eighth floor of the Harris County Criminal Justice Center in downtown Houston was swarmed with people. Now all the other courtrooms have opened, swallowed their subjects, and closed up again. Only the hall folk of Criminal Court at Law No. 2 remain, resigned citizens waiting at the gates of the Honorable Bill Harmon’s grim little kingdom.
Harmon’s court handles misdemeanors, though like all the cases heard in this building, the charges being leveled are serious enough to incur incarceration. A single day in jail can cost someone a job or create a child care crisis, but the consequences also activate powerful legal rights. The Sixth Amendment, as interpreted by several U.S. Supreme Court decisions in the mid-20th century, guarantees a right to counsel for all defendants charged with crimes punishable by confinement. Those who can’t afford an attorney shall have one appointed, the Court ruled in the landmark 1963 case Gideon v. Wainwright. “In our adversary system of criminal justice,” wrote Justice Hugo Black for the majority, “any person hauled into court, who is too poor to hire a lawyer, cannot be assured a fair trial unless counsel is provided for him. This seems to us to be an obvious truth.”
Most Texans hauled into court are indeed poor. Last year, the state appointed counsel in 71 percent of felony cases and 41 percent of misdemeanor cases, according to the Texas Indigent Defense Commission. More than 415,000 defendants qualified for indigent defense services in 2014, and nearly 65,000 of them passed through the Harris County Criminal Justice Center.
But an unknown number of defendants qualified for help and were denied it. Likewise, an unknown proportion of those who received appointed counsel were represented by attorneys too busy to do much more than communicate a prosecutor’s plea deal. In either case, defendants are deprived of the Constitutional guarantee to what the U.S. Supreme Court describes as a “vigorous defense.”
These injustices are hard to quantify for the same reason they’re easy to commit: The state exercises almost no oversight of indigent defense, and most counties still administer their programs through an antiquated process rife with conflicts of interests. Most counties, including Harris, pass the responsibility down to individual courtrooms. The judicial appointment system lets judges decide which defendants will receive appointed lawyers, which lawyers will get indigent appointments, and how many cases these lawyers will be assigned. There are plenty of little administrative rules, of course, such as attorney pay rates and minimum qualification. And, as required by state law, Harris County has an official indigent defense plan that codifies exactly how judges are supposed to evaluate whether a person is poor enough to be entitled to appointed counsel. It instructs judges to consider a defendant’s debts, expenses and dependents when determining indigency.
But that’s all on paper. Here in the hallway, inside the courtroom, and even in absentia, Judge Harmon makes the rules. And Harmon’s rules are among the harshest in Harris County, a place not known for its equitable criminal justice system. More than half the defendants now waiting for Harmon have come to court without an attorney, and many believe they’ll be appointed one. None of them will.
“The way it’ll work is, the [appointed] lawyer will talk to the [district attorney], the DA will tell them, ‘This is what the offer is,’ and they’ll go back and convey this offer to the defendant,” [defense attorney Robert] Fickman says. “It almost always boils to this: that they’re offering you X, which means if you plead guilty you’ll get out of jail in so many days. Or we can reset [delay] your case, if you want to fight it, and you’ll end up spending more days in jail. It’s a hostage choice — it’s not a choice at all. These are poor people who need to get back out and try to feed their families. So what do they do? They plead guilty. They’re not pleading because they’re necessarily guilty but because they’re getting their liberty. The horror, the horrible irony of this system, is that people are pleading guilty just to get their liberty. And it goes on every fucking day.”
Read the whole thing, and ask yourself ho you would feel if this were happening to you or to someone you knew. Judge Harmon is one of the lucky duckies who gets to run for re-election in non-Presidential years, meaning that as long as current turnout patterns remain the same, he’s set. Pretty sweet deal if you can get it.