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Harris County: tougher punishment for poor/people of color

Mar 21st, 2014 | Category: Harris County, Jailhouse Stories, Reports

By Lise Olsen, Houston ChronicleSeptember 15, 2013

Johnnnie Mason, then 55, declared his innocence in March 2012 after his girlfriend claimed he hit her with a board. Mason, an African American who was homeless, was held without bond for eight months before being acquitted of felony assault charges. A new study shows that African Americans spend more time in jail prior to disposition of their cases in Harris County than other offenders. Photo: Houston Police Department

Criminal defendants too poor to bail out of jail prior to trial typically end up with a harsher punishment in Harris County than those with resources to pay for their freedom, according to a new study of more than 6,500 cases.

The study showed that the poor and others locked up weeks or months pretrial often pay in advance for alleged crimes – even when proven innocent – and usually end up with tougher punishments, too, according to an analysis by Gerald R. Wheeler, a Ph.D. researcher who served as director of the Harris County pretrial department from 1977-83. Wheeler and attorney Gerald Fry examined felony and misdemeanor cases processed in Harris County from January 2012 to June 2013.Many defendants unable to post bond spent weeks or months in jail awaiting punishment even for relatively minor offenses, such as possession of small amounts of drugs or misdemeanor charges like trespassing.

For example, first-time felony offenders who were unable to post bond spent an average of 68 days in jail before having their cases resolved, the study showed. Those who remained jailed for drug possession – a common charge among Harris County jail inmates – were much less likely to win dismissals or deferred prosecutions than those able to afford to bail out, the study showed.

“Regardless of age, ethnicity or color of skin of over 90,000 people annually arrested, what generally determines the defendants’ fate is his or her economic status,” Wheeler argues in the report, though he did not interview defendants about why they did not post bond.

Tougher judges

Other national studies have found that criminal defendants unable to post bond are generally poor and more often plead guilty or accept longer sentences for a variety of reasons. Many become depressed and lose jobs, homes or family relationships while being detained prior to being adjudicated, while those on bond often can better continue with their lives.

Hispanics, African-Americans and white defendants alike who remained jailed all received tougher punishments than defendants who were released on bond, the study showed.

However, African-Americans more often remained jailed pretrial, even when they faced similar charges and had similar criminal histories as Anglos or Hispanics.

Caprice Cosper, a judge who serves as director of the Harris County Office of Criminal Justice Coordination, declined to comment on the findings. But Cosper said the processing and pleas of first-time and drug offenders, the jailing of the mentally ill and other issues raised by the study have long been recognized by local leaders, who have created programs and continue to explore new ways to address them.

Harris County judges have long been recognized as being significantly tougher than judges nationwide on jailing defendants pretrial. Last year, judges agreed to release only 1 percent of those arrested on felony charges and only 7 percent of those arrested on misdemeanors on so-called personal recognizance. Most defendants released, therefore, had to pay bondsmen non-refundable fees.

By comparison, judges elsewhere released approximately 26 percent of felony defendants without requiring bond, according to a 2006 survey of 75 urban areas by the U.S. Department of Justice.

Some defendants who insisted on their innocence end up spending the most time in jail awaiting trials, 2012 data shows.

8 months in jail

In one case, a homeless man, Johnnie Mason, then 55, was arrested in March 2012 after being accused by an ex-girlfriend of striking her with a 2×4 board. Mason, who was held without bond, spent eight months in jail before being acquitted on felony assault charges when his attorney exposed oddities in the victim’s rambling account.

Mason’s attorney, Michael E. Trent, declined to discuss whether prosecutors offered Mason a plea deal. However, Trent said he has represented many others who felt pressured to plea after being jailed pretrial, including some with innocence claims or legitimate legal defenses.

Though attorneys and judges review potential consequences of guilty pleas, Trent said younger offenders often fail to grasp the long-term impact that even a misdemeanor conviction can have on the ability to win a scholarship, get a job or, for immigrants, avoid deportation.

In another case, Carlos Mathis, 42, an African-American from Houston with a history of minor drug and theft offenses, waited seven months in jail unable to post bond. Ultimately, a felony charge of drug possession was dismissed in March 2013 after an officer involved in his arrest failed to show up in court or produce a search warrant, court records show. Mathis’ attorney did not respond to a request for comment.

Wheeler found that some misdemeanor offenders who were detained longest prior to trial were found to be mentally incompetent. Some spent one to three months jailed after being arrested for minor offenses like trespassing before being transferred to institutions – including Sharon, a 57-year-old homeless woman who spent 35 days in jail before being found incompetent and transferred to a state hospital last year, public records show.

Floyd Jennings, an attorney in the Harris County public defender’s office who specializes in mental health cases, said he and his staff work with police and others to get non-violent mentally ill offenders freed from jail and into treatment as soon as possible.

However, he said delays seem unavoidable since some people become competent after receiving a few weeks of medicine or food. Added to that, competency tests can take 30 days to schedule.

Defendants declared incompetent can end up being shipped to mental hospitals as far away as San Antonio and Big Spring, Jennings said, because of a shortage of beds, and some get released too soon – and end up jailed again.


Crime and punishment

A new study of Harris County pretrial detention and punishment in 6,558 cases shows:

1 African-Americans more often remained in jail before their trials during felony cases compared to white and Hispanic inmates.

1 Those who couldn’t afford bonds also received tougher punishment. Most served about a month in jail pretrial and then generally got more time than those released on bond.

1 In drug possession cases, 55 percent of those who remained in jail got deferred prosecution or had cases dismissed compared to 83 percent of those who posted bond.

Source: Project Orange Jumpsuit, an evaluation of effects of pretrial status on case disposition of Harris County felony and misdemeanor defendants.


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