Two Austin defense lawyers are demanding Travis County discontinue a misdemeanor court docket they say pressures indigent defendants to accept bad plea deals — and even plead guilty to crimes they did not commit — in exchange for their release from jail.
The Jail Reduction Docket is unconstitutional, perpetuates poverty and mirrors characteristics of the bond system that discriminated against poor people and was declared illegal in Harris County last year, attorneys Millie Thompson and Amber Vazquez say in a Feb. 12 letter sent to Travis County elected officials.
Already, the letter has spurred change, with the county this week prepared to launch the rebranded Bond Review Docket. Thompson takes it as a sign “the judges are trying to do the right thing and fix the problem. We want to work with them, not against them.”
Each day, roughly 10 to 15 inmates who were recently charged with a misdemeanor crime are taken to the courthouse for a special setting where they are introduced to their court-appointed attorneys and review any records and evidence available in their cases. Due to a variety of disqualifying factors, these defendants have previously been denied a personal bond and could not come up with money to bail out of jail. Thus, their only paths to getting released are to wait months for trial or to plead guilty, often in exchange for a sentence equal to the amount of time they’ve already served in jail.
Sidney Williams, president of the Austin Criminal Defense Lawyers Association, called the docket “abhorrent,” comparing the pressure on defendants to plead guilty to a high-interest credit card that ignores long-term consequences for short-term satisfaction. Criminal convictions can inhibit the pursuit of employment or housing, and in some cases trigger deportation from the country.
“It’s difficult for a poor person to sit in jail and fight for justice when they’re going to lose their job because they’re sitting in jail,” Williams said.
Proponents say the docket can be beneficial to inmates, who go before a judge within a handful of days after their arrests and get face time with their attorneys. It also gives them the opportunity to negotiate a lower bail amount or produce information for a personal bond that was not available when they first went before a magistrate judge after their arrest. Since 2014, there has been a 50 percent increase in defendants who have received a personal bond at Jail Reduction Docket, according to Office of Court Administration.
“We encourage lawyers to get personal bonds,” County Court-at-Law No. 7 Judge Elisabeth Earle said, adding that the five other misdemeanor judges who run the docket do the same. “Sometimes lawyers don’t want to present them.”
The docket once was large, drawing as many as 80 defendants some days, but has shrunk by 22 percent since 2014, according to the Office of Court Administration. Some defendants whose cases would have gone to the docket are getting diverted to other courts that handle mental health or family violence cases. Also, more defendants are posting bond after their arrest.
Additionally, the pay for attorneys who resolve cases in the jail reduction court was lowered in 2016 from $275 to $175. On a day last week, there were nine defendants in the courtroom.
County Attorney David Escamilla, who is in charge of misdemeanor prosecutions in Travis County, declined to comment, citing the threat of litigation that would require his office to represent the county in any lawsuits.
The letter from Vazquez and Thompson has changed how the court is managed.
For years, defendants were brought into the courtroom and positioned tightly together on pews, making it difficult to review the case with their lawyer without someone overhearing their conversation. Private rooms were available upon request. The court’s doors were secured by sheriff’s deputies, preventing family members from attending the proceedings and offering guidance about a plea offer, the letter states, calling it a violation of the defendants’ right to a public trial.
County officials agreed last week to bring each defendant into the court individually, while others are kept in a waiting area. Changes will continue this week with the new Bond Review Docket. Inmates who were denied a personal bond are encouraged to provide additional information to bolster their chances in a second request for a personal bond. Defendants who still do not qualify for a bond can plead guilty, if they choose.
These changes should cut down on the time it takes a defendant to go before a judge by two days, Earle said.
“I think there will be a lot more bonds presented to the court,” she said.
Attorney Betty Blackwell, who is board president of the Capital Area Private Defender Service, called the tweaks “a huge improvement,” but is convinced the docket should be dismantled.
“The change brought to JRD is out of continued concern for this indigent population incarcerated on minor offenses,” said Court-at-Law No. 6 Judge Brandy Mueller, who oversaw the docket last week, in a statement responding to questions from the American-Statesman. “A defendant can lose his or her job in the days that it takes to get the defendant to court on a minor offense.
“The consequences of incarceration are real and they should be, but unnecessary delay should not and cannot be part of the equation. I believe we need to work harder to get these defendants to court sooner. … I both appreciate and understand the criticisms of the way we have been doing JRD, but the process of bringing defendants into the courtroom gallery pews en masse, was done out of an effort to expedite things for the defendant.”
Mueller appeared to take aim at the parallels Thompson and Vazquez made to Harris County’s illegal bond system, noting that in the last legislative session state lawmakers lauded Travis County’s pretrial bond system and encouraged other counties to “adopt the tools we use to help determine risk assessment and release in regulating their jail populations.”
Vazquez said she’s going to wait and see before pushing forward with litigation, but is optimistic the problems outlined in the letter have been corrected.
“The changes being implemented are way more compliant with federal law,” she said. “I’m excited to see us making changes this fast.”