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Texas Hold ‘Em

Oct 31st, 2006 | Category: Lubbock County, Pretrial detention, Victoria County

By Diana Claitor, for The Lone Star Iconoclast,  2 Oct, 2006

Diane Wilson can’t forget the women she met in the Victoria County jail earlier this year. Four of the eight women who shared her cell had never seen a lawyer even though they had been incarcerated for weeks and even months. All were charged with misdemeanors—minor charges for writing hot checks or for possession of a joint of marijuana—but convicted of nothing. One clearly disturbed woman with both asthma and hives rocked back and forth. A young African-American named Jarena wrapped herself in her blanket and cocooned in a bunk, not getting up to eat or drink.

I was confused. Don’t they always provide counsel when you can’t afford to pay for it yourself? Aren’t you normally granted bail for minor offenses and non-violent misdemeanors? No and no, says Wilson, a fourth-generation Texas shrimper and mother of five. She herself had been convicted of criminal trespass—when she scaled a 40-foot tower at the Dow Chemical plant in Seadrift, Texas and unfurled a banner that read – “Dow Responsible for Bhopal” —protesting Dow’s refusal to deal with the aftermath of the deadly gas leak in Bhopal, India. Wilson was prepared to pay the $2,000 fine and serve the 120-day sentence, but she was not prepared for the despair she encountered.

When she encouraged the women to ask questions and find out where to write for information about their cases, a guard became furious and threatened to throw those asking questions into a “bad cell” with serious felons. Finally, Wilson wrote a seven-page letter to the local sheriff, calling attention to the sorry state of affairs in the Victoria County Jail and by extension, many of the state’s 255 other locally run jails.

One of her more important points concerned pre-trial detention, a sort of CANNOT-get-out-of-jail card handed out to people lacking money or connections. Since 1995, a trend toward pretrial detention has resulted in an increase in jail populations across the country. In Texas, however, the numbers are startling: more than 48% of those being held in country facilities are awaiting trial, according to statistics pulled from the Commission on Jail Standards. “Ten years ago, defendants would have been released on personal bond and taxpayers wouldn’t have to pay to house them,” says researcher/writer Scott Henson, the creator of Grits for Breakfast, a blog about the justice system in Texas. “This knee-jerk reaction to lock even petty misdemeanants up before trial can’t be justified based on what’s best for public safety—it’s just kind of mean-spirited and counterproductive showboating for gullible voters with little crime-fighting benefit.”

Diane Wilson’s letter about her experience underscores the inherent bias of pre-trial detention in our two-tiered justice system. “The women in this jail are predominantly African American or Hispanic and young and very poor,” Wilson wrote. “Most of their offenses are non-violent, for things like traffic tickets or soliciting or a line of cocaine—yet they are forced to remain in the cell without counsel for long periods of time.”

“No access to legal counsel” is a key part of the two-tiered system. There are many ways to herd people toward a prosecutor without giving them that lawyer we hear promised on TV shows. For example, Jarena (not her real name), the girl in the blanket, finally got a meeting with a clerk and explained that she was innocent and needed a lawyer. The clerk didn’t mention he was from the prosecutor’s office when he told her that the backlog would mean a long wait for a court-appointed defense lawyer—maybe as much as 60 more days in that chaotic, noisy cell. “That’s how you get people to admit to things they didn’t commit,” says Dominic Gonzales, director of the Fair Defense Project at the Texas Criminal Justice Coalition. “The vast majority of jailable misdemeanor cases in Texas are resolved by uncounseled guilty pleas,” says Gonzales, “They use pressure and persuasion and coerce defendants to waive the right to counsel.”

Nobody advised Jarena that a conviction on her record would make it very risky for her if she was ever brought up on charges again, that probation was very difficult and that there were about half a dozen other serious consequences of admitting guilt. She was desperate to get out of jail, and so she pleaded guilty to a crime she didn’t commit. With many Texas counties struggling to pay for new staff and facilities, it seems illogical to hold more people for longer times, but logic doesn’t always play a role, say Gonzales, who points to a multitude of reasons for the increase in pre-trial detention. One reason is a certain attitude—keeping people in jail proves that judges are tough on “crime,” always a good sell in Texas. Another reason is the high number of charges for small amounts of drugs. The magistrate is the judge who determines bail amounts, and if the magistrate in that particular county is hostile to defendants he will deny bond for any reason at all, despite the cost to the county. In too many counties, a magistrate will look at someone and say, “You don’t look to me like you’ll show up again, so no bail for you.” Bail or release on personal recognizance seems to be reserved for someone with light skin and the markers of a certain class. A Houston woman I know was arrested for smoking marijuana outside a club at 2 a.m. and was released on personal recognizance the next day. Not surprisingly, she was white, mature, and affluent.

One reason for pre-trial detention is simple: those without a middle class income often find it difficult to come up with the $1,000 you need for a $10,000 bond. In some counties, the bond bailsmen won’t even handle bail for minor offenses, because they don’t make enough money from them. One way to reduce pre-trial detention is for a county to train staff to find alternatives to incarceration, like Bexar County’s Pre-Trial Services program does, by using everything from electronic monitoring to various kinds of pre-trial bonds. Lubbock County devised a method by which the district attorney can refer misdemeanor cases that don’t warrant full prosecution to the High Plains Dispute Resolution Center. “Slashing a tire may be technically criminal, but it’s not worth badging a person for the rest for their lives,” says Asst. Criminal District Attorney Jobe Rogers. In the dispute resolution model, the misdemeanant is required to go through mediation and provide restitution, but the matter is worked out without lengthy incarceration, saving countless dollars and man hours for Lubbock County. This system, praised by law enforcement as well as county officials and the public, results in speedy disposition of cases and a chance for the defendant to start fresh.

Dispute resolution might have helped Ana, says Diane Wilson. The 22 year-old ended up in the Victoria jail after a neighbor filed charges on her, but the high school drop-out didn’t get any advice or information and ended up serving 92 days for a 30-day crime. In that period of time, she lost her car, her job, and the custody of her children. For no good reason.

Diana Claitor is a journalist/historical researcher and co-founder of  Texas Jail Project.

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1 Comment
Jim Butler
7 years ago

And to top it all off with. If you are indigent and are lucky to get a Court appointed Attorney, when you get out of jail in Montgomery County and are forced to pay it all back. If you fail to pay court costs and lawyer fees even thoough you are indigent, you get a one way ticket back to jail.

Is it just me, or does that not make any sense at all?

You get out and you’ve lost everthing you owned including your job and they want you to pay for something that they already determined you could not pay for. Duh!