I’m using this as a sort of a benchmark to see where Harris County’s criminal and juvenile justice system ends up after this year. I may follow up in a few months, although it’ll probably be better to look in on things a little less often just to see what the longer trend may be. It's intended to be a big picture type of thing, but because the specific instances of Texas Justice(TM) are the things that get my panties in a wad the most often, I'll probably get into too many details.
Right now Harris County is awaiting the incoming DA, and not too many people are thrilled about it. She seems to have been more of a choice between several lesser evils, but for some reason many think she’s got plenty of evil to go around. Her inauguration in two days comes amidst complaints that she’s making ADA’s come in on a holiday to be sworn in with her, and while I think she could have shown more class and waited it appears that the ADA's are being babies about the whole situation as well. It also appears that all anyone can concern themselves with is why several ADA’s were fired, what they’ll have to wear to work, and why, oh why, did Almighty God not grace them with the likes of Kelly Siegler. She’s the female Jesus after all. Surely God has forsaken Harris County if they put a 60-something Greek woman in charge, as opposed to a fire-and-brimstone protestant who can convict virtually anyone (even if she does have to present the case to the grand jury over and over again...). So, needless to say there are things that need to be dne in Harris County that will probably not get done, because that office sounds lik eit's about to implode.
So, what needs to be changed? First of all, the top slots. And that’s a done deal. With Holmes and Rosenthal having closed-file policies that assisted ADA’s in hiding exculpatory evidence, one can only wonder how many times that’s happened in the past. And that’s a shame that we can only wonder, because Harris County has so far refused to invite the type of scrutiny that Dallas County has under Craig Watkins, whose work has already freed 19 men who were wrongfully accused under his predecessor. Being as how Houston sends a whopping 20% of the nation’s death-penalty cases to death row, I’d say we’ll find (assuming Lykos follows through on her promise to scrutinize questionable past convictions where DNA evidence is available) a margin of error that’s alarmingly high and completely unacceptable to all but the most devout Republican.
Second, we need to look at jail populations. Jails and their assorted service industries and employment opportunities appear to have become the Texas version of the military industrial complex that Eisenhower warned us all about. He proved more than prescient, and it appears that Texas is run amok with pro-jail fanatics. At the county jail level the most notable example is Smith County, where jail proponents have struggled to pass a jail bond four times in the last three years, the last time without disclosing the plans for the jail at all so that constituents knew not what they were voting for. Add to that the fact that the Smith County jail is currently below capacity and has even contracted to take in 50 out-of-county inmates for a fee! (This link to the County Jail Population will change monthly, as of today’s date Smith County is at 91% capacity with 50 out-of-county inmates.) Smith County is also currently housing 92 inmates pre-trial on misdemeanor charges and a whopping 141 post-trial (WHY?), and you can see that of their total jail population of 688, a full 34% are misdemeanors that shouldn’t be taking up a single bed. So, a full third of their jail beds are being taken up for offenses that rarely require jail time even after a conviction, they are voluntarily taking 50 extra prisoners, and they want to spend over a hundred million on a new jail? Something just does not compute. Same goes for lovely Harris County, where a recent jail bond issue was defeated in late 2007, just like other jail bonds failed state wide.
And of course, this is an issue all over Texas. Tarrant County has over 500 misdemeanants in jail. Bexar County has over 800! Brazoria County has almost 200, Dallas County almost 700, and Hidalgo over 400. In case you were thinking it’s limited to the larger counties, up and down the line there are small counties with fewer than 50,000 in population who have ten to twenty percent of their county jail inmates incarcerated for misdemeanors. Navarro County is one where much has been written about, primarily because they have been identified as one of the few counties in Texas in need of more judges. Those who want new courts and new jails in that county cite a large backlog of cases and are supported by the recent study showing the various case loads in courts across Texas. Opponents are quick to point out that the judge in that county has tried only one case a month for several years, and that since the new court idea was pushed several years ago absolutely nothing has been done to implement several logical alternatives . Same goes for Smith County, where an even more comprehensive list of proposals has been virtually ignored in the quest to build new jails instead of implementing alternatives. Harrison County (pop. 66,000) has more misdemeanants in jail right now (66) than felons (58). Ellis County fits in the same category as needing more judges despite the fact that its jail is only at 60% capacity, yet 15% of its jail population (about 50 out of 350) is made up of misdemeanants.
That’s what this benchmark is all about, to see what diversion techniques develop in Harris and other counties, and to gauge our progress by this time next year. I hope to be pleasantly surprised. Subsequent posts will probably (I say probably because I have no idea where these ramblings will end up) address the specifics in more detail. Specific county studies, or specific diversion issues. We’ll see.
There Goes a Man
10 months ago