I have read about many instances of real judicial misconduct, and I have seen a few things in my time that I didn't think were quite fair. Today, I want to write about something that isn't exactly considered judicial misconduct. It's something instead, that is rightly described by Houston attorney Mark Bennett as being "mean."
Walk into any Texas court room and you will see something similar - nervous people awaiting their moment, with blissful attorneys buzzing on the other side of the rail. But it's what happens before you ever get into a court room that's a real problem in Harris County.
Mark Bennett tells the story of one of his clients, who the judge initially sentenced one year longer for the impardonable sin of...being 15 minutes late to court. His judge eventually recognized the embarrassment she'd presided over, but many do not. I've seen situations like that one play out with some variation.
Take the case of a woman charged with felony drug possession. She's managed to make bail, which sits at $10,000. Making bail when it's at that amount is difficult for poor prisoners, but with some help, a few of them can do it. They get to stay out of county jail for a few months while they await trial. This woman had two kids, both of them in elementary school. She had a job which she desperately needed in order to pay for those expensive kids. And today, she was late for the second time.
To understand the situation, you have to understand how criminal proceedings work. The most common motion filed the court is a reset form. Lawyers often need more time to do various things, and people have to come back to court every few weeks in some instances. This woman had been late twice, and today, there would be no mercy.
Above the sound of her tearful plea was the sound of the judge, revoking bail. He had her remanded to custody, and he set her new bail at five times the current amount. $50,000. To come up with that amount, she'd have to sell something or mortgage something else. Even if she made it, a $5,000 (it's common for defendants to have to pay 10% to a bail company) hit would spell financial disaster for someone in her position. More likely, she'll sit there and rot for a period of many weeks, awaiting trial for possessing a small amount of meth.
You might think to yourself - there's an easy solution to this problem. Show up on time and you won't have to worry about it. If only it was so easy. I work in the Harris County Criminal Justice Center every single day. I also possess a badge that gets me through security. I get to skip the line, and my morning jaunt through the court house is still hectic.
Before I got that badge, it was even worse. The Criminal Justice Center houses twenty floors, many of them holding multiple court rooms. All people must be there for docket call, which typically happens around nine in the morning. The building has two metal detectors, and all entrants must take off their shoes, belts, coats, and anything metal. Their bags are searched in some cases, and they scramble to put themselves back together. It's a small space in the lobby, and those would-be defendants are herded through.
On most days, when I arrive just before nine, the line stretches out the door in both directions. It wraps around the building, and it's not unusual to have a couple hundred people standing outside at any one time. A couple hundred more are in line inside, waiting for their turn going through the metal machines.
The fun doesn't stop there. Defendants, visitors, and lawyers alike have to use the elevators, which are woefully inadequate. Six small elevators service the top ten floors, where the felony courts are housed. Unless you're willing to push your way through, it's not unusual to wait for ten minutes before you get a ride up. And with hundreds of people all worried about getting somewhere on time, there are consequences to pushing your way through the crowd.
I average around twelve minutes from the door to my desk on the 13th floor. But I have a badge, and I avoid the entirety of the wrap-around line. I don't have to take the time to put myself together after going through the detectors. And my bag is never searched. It would not surprise me if a person going through the entire process has to spend 30 or 45 minutes, and that's on a good day. These people are also unfamiliar with the setup of the building, so they must take the time to ask the location of their particular court.
Perhaps more problematic is the fact that it's not always this way. If you come in at any time other than the morning, you will encounter no line. And on some days - when the court has a light docket - there won't be much of a line. This can create a difficult situation for a person who had reason to believe that giving themselves 30 minutes of lag time would be more than enough.
Harris County has designed a demonstrably poor system for getting people in and out of the court house. And when that system fails - as it inevitably will - judges look at defendants and say, "Oh well."
Mark Bennett asked the seminal question to the judge in his case - is 15 minutes worth an extra year of my client's life? Is 15 minutes worth the extra few thousand dollars of pain that the court transfers from the pockets of already poor people into the hands of already rich bail bond companies? Is missing the docket call by ten minutes enough to put a man in jail for months while he awaits a trial?
To me, it all feels punitive, as judges exert their power on the weak. Those judges, who park in private parking garages, enter the court unencumbered, and ride to their chambers in a private elevator, stand in absolute moral judgement of those hardened criminals who so clearly demonstrate their inferiority through their inability to account for Harris County's incompetent design and implementation.
I'm sensitive to the fact that judges have schedules and courts have dockets. And if everyone showed up two hours late, nothing would get done. But people aren't showing up hours late. They're on time, held up only by a building that fails to appropriately get people where they need to go. And the penalties for the crime of tardiness hardly meet the crime. A person with a $50,000 bail and a person with a $10,000 bail have fundamentally different profiles. The former will often have committed a violent crime and will have a long criminal history. The latter will lack those dangerousness indicators, and they'll pose no flight risk. For judges in Harris County, the crime of underestimating the sheer madness at the bottom of the court house is enough to transform one into the other.
And it needs to stop.