For reformers on bonds, welcome to the party!

Recently I have heard rumors amongst our Harris County judges that they are considering, under pressure from reformers and the Harris County Criminal Justice Coordinating Council (HCCJCC), which wants access to the money from the MacArthur Foundation to feed into our criminal injustice system, some new reforms.

One of the suggestions to help relieve the chronic over-crowding in the jails and make a significant difference in poor people being coerced into pleas was to institute [re-institute, really] the practice of granting “personal recognizance” bonds. These are bonds, for you criminal practice folks who thought they were as extinct as the passenger pigeon, where the judge releases the person on…wait for it…their own promise to appear again. No surety bonds are needed; no cash bonds are posted.[i]

Instead of rotting in a jail cell while their employer hires someone else, instead of getting evicted from their apartment or house, instead of having their family forced to move away or become homeless, and instead of becoming sick due to the jail’s often inadequate medical care, these presumed-innocent citizens would be permitted to actually go back home and trusted to come back to their assigned court dates. Imagine, these folks can go back home, go back to work, and keep supporting their families. A shocking idea whose time perhaps has come again.[ii]

Well, to the judges, non-profits, and county officials who have finally seen this light-bulb go off in their heads that this might actually be a good idea…welcome. It has only taken you all two decades.

Back in 2006, Robert Fickman, then president of Harris County Criminal Lawyers Association, called for the rebirth of PR bonds. Articles in the Houston Chronicle noted the near-death of such bonds over the prior decade due to the sweep of Republican judges in 1994. Those articles appeared in 2005, 2007, under our current President’s first term in 2009, and again recently in the Sunday Chronicle. To be fair, the Democratic judges who came in to office in 2008 have been just as bad or worse on the granting of such bonds.

Seems like folks who actually pay attention to such things have been pointing out for quite a awhile that there are likely three thousand or so folks in the jail at any time who might benefit from such a bond. Now, again, judges have to weigh a decision on bond that also should include thoughts about public safety, so some of these poor folks who have records of violence will not get such a bond. Nor should they. However, when one looks at the historical statistics that show a LOWER rate of failure to appear on PR bonds than those who posted surety bonds, that seems to also indicate this is an idea whose time has come again. Lower numbers of people in the jail mean less cost to the county for their care, and for the lawsuits that result when overcrowding leads to illness, injury, and death. So PR bonds make sense for the accused and for the county, always have.

There once was an agency that used to evaluate and then recommend poor people for PR bonds. It was called “pre-trial services”. You folks now may recognize those people as the ones who monitor the often ridiculously expensive and draconian conditions of “pre-trial” supervision; such as constant drug-testing, interlock breath test devices on cars, no-contact orders that include moving out of one’s home, etc. By the way, these conditions are placed on people who have already put up cash and obtained a surety bond. Somewhere along the line, the former head of that agency and the district court judges got cross-wise, and they eventually forced her out and then decided this agency and others were far better employed administering urinalysis than in actually making recommendations on releasing the poor. As a result, the already almost dead-PR bonds died a quiet and [except for the families of those who were kept in jail because they could not afford to post often-high bonds] unnoticed death.

So now, the rumor is that our local judiciary, at the urging of the HCCJCC, is considering bringing back this “radical idea,” supported by the reformers who are dangling money in the faces of our county officials, and to try this “experiment” of granting the working poor a chance to avoid being forced into a plea or watch their lives flushed down the toilet. I want to encourage this, but I am frustrated because the simple good sense and money saving possibilities of this idea have been ignored for years due to this simple, ugly truth; the people the judges kept inside without bail over the last two decades were people who were never going to vote for them, so they did not care.

They did not care. Despite the fact that, based upon even an extremely conservative figure of one thousand PR felony bonds per year which could have been granted but were not, over twenty thousand people were held in the miserable conditions of the Harris County Jail for months without trial. Twenty thousand families were faced with the choice of waiting more months and losing their homes or asking their loved ones inside to end the misery and take a plea. It is likely the figure was much higher, but I cannot prove it, so we will go with that.

On behalf of those faceless twenty thousand who would have liked to have been given the option of going home, who would have liked to not have to choose between a criminal record and losing their jobs, homes, and families, I just wanted to welcome our judges and those who have discovered the idea of PR bonds to the party.

It is about damn time.

Read more about the HCCJCC grant proposal and lack of PR bonds from Houston Chronicle’s Lisa Falkenberg

[i] Clearly those who make their living as bondsmen are adamantly opposed to personal recognizance bonds and have been quite vocal in that position. See Houston Chronicle, September 9, 2012

[ii] And don’t forget, there is a hammer for breaking the promise to come back: they can be arrested and charged with bail jumping.

About P. F. McCann

McCann is a Houston attorney and a past president of the Harris County Criminal Lawyers Association and the Fort Bend Criminal Lawyers Association. His office can be found online at writlawyer.net.

Comments

  1. Robb FicKman says:

    One man smokes a joint and he is busted with a small amount of weed.
    Another man wears a robe. The man in the robe systematically denies PR bonds to people who cannot afford a bond. The man in the robe systematically perpetuates a Plea Mill which coerces poor people into pleading guilty to obtain their liberty.

    One man smoked a joint. The other caused thousands to be put in a position where taking a conviction was their only rational choice. In the greater scheme of things, the man in the robe poses a far greater threat to the Peace and Dignity of the state. The man in the robe who willfully perpetuates a Plea Mill is far more dangerous to society than the dope smoker.
    Robb Fickman

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