Harris County, Texas, appears to have the distinction of not being the best place in the world to get arrested. While it is hard to believe there is a good place anywhere, the problem in this county is that the majority of defendants, whether the charge is shoplifting, robbery or drug use, remain in jail because they cannot afford to post bail.
The judges in Harris County are known to be on the conservative side and it is for this reason primarily that they are reluctant to grant no-cost personal bonds, which have become very popular in other parts of the state.
In the words of Mark Hochglaube, the trial division chief of the Harris County Public Defenders Office:
“There's no good reason for it…I can't speak for what they do in other counties, but I can tell you the general sense of the culture here is one that is opposed to pretrial release. I wish it weren't, but it's as basic as that.”
Hochglaube firmly believes that some defendants feel pressured into a guilty plea due to the current bond practices because they'd rather accept a plea deal and a short sentence than spend months languishing in jail awaiting trial. In some instances, defendants have awaited trail for a longer period than the maximum sentence they could have received.
According to a report created by the Harris County Pretrial Services office last year, just 5.2 percent of slightly more than 94,000 people arrested by Harris County police agencies got out of jail on no-cost personal recognizance bonds. The Office of Criminal Justice Coordination determined that this past July 65 percent of the county’s 9,133 inmates were pretrial detainees rather than convicted criminals serving sentences.
Chris Tritico of The Harris County Criminal Lawyers Association states that this rate is “digustingly high” and that so many people who could be out supporting their families and making a living while awaiting their day in court are trapped in jail because they can’t afford a lawyer and a bond.
Some believe that personal bonds are a threat to public safety because those defendants who don't appear in court are not tracked down. But 209th District Judge Michael McSpadden said that most defendants who ask for a personal bond are charged with a non-violent crime, and most are rejected due to the fact that they have a previous conviction that increases their risk factor.
Keeping defendants in jail renders them much more likely to accept a plea bargain than if they were out, working, and hiring competent counsel.
Is this really an unspoken conspiracy of sorts?
No one will say, but everyone can guess.