“A nation’s greatness is measured by how it treats its weakest members.” ~ Mahatma Ghandi
Well Mahatma, I regret to inform you that Harris County, Texas ain’t too great.Many Harris County Judges rate themselves and their brethren and sistren by the size of their dockets. These Judges view having a small docket as most important. To keep their dockets small these judges are motivated to move cases as quickly as possible. The quickest way to move a criminal case is for the accused to plead guilty on the first setting.
Those familiar with the aptly named “criminal” justice system know that many judges push very hard to get quick pleas of guilty. The judiciary’s primary goal should be to provide a just forum . Too often, the judiciary’s primary goal is to move cases quickly in order to maintain small dockets.
In Harris County the judiciary is quite skilled in expediting guilty pleas. Over the years, The judiciary’s desire to move cases has lead to some very ugly policies and practices.
The Harris County “Plea Mill” is a direct result of these ugly policies and practices.The criminal justice system is skewed against the poor. We all know that. The “Plea Mill” is a part of Harris County’s “criminal” justice system. The Plea Mill constitutes the criminal courts’ institutionalized systematic abuse of the poor.
How does the plea mill work? Let’s say A citizen is arrested on Friday and charged with a non-violent misdemeanor. The citizen is too poor to make a misdemeanor bond. While in jail the accused citizen is evaluated for a Personal Recognizance (PR) bond. A PR BOND is essentially a low cost or free bond that allows the poor to get out of jail while they fight their case. Many poor people are good candidates for a PR bond. That doesn’t matter. These poor people are denied PR Bonds. It’s essential to the “Plea Mill” that the poor not be granted PR bonds, even if they are eligible. Consequently, the citizen who is too poor to make a bond, who qualifies for a PR bond, will likely be denied that PR bond. The citizen will remain in jail even though he qualifies for a PR bond.
Compliments of the judiciary’s policies to deny PR bonds, the citizen will sit in jail until his first court date. After sitting in jail a few days, the citizen chained to others in jail will be brought to court. The citizen will be placed in a dank dungeon-like holding tank. There the citizen waits.
In court, the judge appoints lawyers to represent the citizens stuck in jail. On any given day one lawyer may be appointed to represent 5-6 accused citizens.
The lawyer meets with the assistant DA. The assistant Da extends plea bargain offers to each of the citizens stuck now in the holding tanks.
The offers are designed to encourage pleas of guilty. A typical offer would be, ” ok if he pleads guilty today we’ll give him a week in jail with credit for time served.”
The lawyer conveys the offer to the citizen in the holding tank. The offer basically is this- you can plead guilty now and get out soon or plead not guilty and sit in jail a long time waiting to fight your case.
The choice presented is really no choice at all. It’s a Hobson’s choice. The only real choice is to plead guilty and that’s what happens every day. Every day accused citizens plead guilty, not necessarily because they are guilty. Every day accused citizens plead guilty to get out of jail and to obtain their liberty.
This is our system. It’s called the “Plea Mill”. Like a factory or mill, the courts produce endless pleas of guilty. The courts move cases and they keep their dockets small. The poor pay for those small dockets with their coerced pleas of guilty.The poor provide the grist for the “plea mill”.
The poor are saddled with criminal records they may not deserve. Their lives are made that much tougher. The conviction that they took to obtain their liberty may have gotten them out of jail; but that same conviction will Hamper their liberty all the days of their lives. It will rob them of the ability to obtain decent employment. They will suffer and so will their families.
The poor will stay poor.
What of the judiciary? They will drink coffee and smoke cigars and take great pride in their small dockets that the poor paid for.
There is a simple solution to the “plea mill”.
The solution is for the Courts to grant more PR bonds. The misdemeanor court’s own analysis shows that the courts could grant three times the PR bonds they currently grant. Restated, many accused citizens who qualify for PR bonds are denied PR Bonds. If the courts granted more poor people PR Bonds, the poor could get out of jail and fight their cases like the accused who can afford a bondsman.
If the judges granted the PR bonds that they should grant, far fewer poor would have to plead guilty to obtain their liberty.
Everyone knows the solution, but those in power refuse to grant significantly more PR bonds. To these judges, Maintaining a small docket, continues to trump being fair to the poor and providing a just forum.
Robb Fickman, Houston