POLITICS
11/18/2016 11:50 am ET Updated Nov 18, 2016

Judge Tells Woman That Jailing Her For Traffic Offenses Is Good For His 'Job Security'

The criminal justice system is locking people up because they're poor. A Texas judge says that's just business.

It was just another day at the office for Harris County Magistrate Joe Licata.

A row of defendants sat before him on a May afternoon this year, packed knee-to-knee on a bench in the Houston courtroom. With machine-like efficiency, Licata called them forward one by one to stand in a red square on the floor and hear him announce their fate.

Although Licata’s case docket was filled with low-level traffic offenses, many of the defendants he processed that day had already been in jail because they couldn’t pay the resulting fines. Licata released the few people who had paid off their debts, either with money or with credit from time served behind bars. Others were less fortunate.

One woman, seen in courtroom footage first published by the Houston Press, stood before Licata as he rattled off a list of charges: driving without taillights, driving without a license and having an expired vehicle registration. Licata determined she’d covered the fees associated with those offenses, but said she had a separate outstanding charge of driving without a license. She’d be jailed pending a hearing for that case, Licata said, unless she could pay $3,500 for bail.

“Oh, I’m always arrested,” she said, resigned and unhappy. “In and out, in and out, in and out. This is nothing to me. It’s everyday.”

Licata had no sympathy for her frustration.

“Nothing to me either,” he responded. “Job security.”

In an offhand remark, Licata had just underscored a key divide in an ongoing battle for criminal justice reform. Critics say the suffocating cycles of petty arrests, fines and incarceration that had ensnared this woman are unconstitutional. Civil rights groups have mounted lawsuits in Harris County and around the country challenging practices that keep defendants in jail just because they’re poor ― practices that effectively perpetuate a system of debtors’ prisons and help maintain a more or less permanent underclass.

But for many of the officials who operate these systems, these consequences aren’t controversial or worthy of scrutiny. Rather, they’re just part of the daily job description.

“So indifferent and desensitized have we become that we start to think about human caging as a matter of job security rather than of fundamental rights,” said Alec Karakatsanis, founder of Civil Rights Corps, a nonprofit suing Harris County over claims that its bail system is unconstitutional because it doesn’t consider a defendant’s financial ability to pay. Civil Rights Corps is bringing the case along with the Texas Fair Defense Project and the law firm Susman Godfrey.

The footage of Licata talking to the woman is part of a set of clips obtained by the Texas Organizing Project, a community-based nonprofit campaigning along with Civil Rights Corps for bail reform and other changes to the criminal justice system.

The organization recently published a video compilation of courtroom hearings that took place over the course of a week in May. The footage shows judges routinely treating defendants with callous indifference, making harsh, life-altering decisions in a matter of seconds.

And it’s not just the crushing weight of financial penalties related to petty offenses. The Texas Organizing Project says the video is proof that Harris County magistrates are using the pretrial process to punish poor defendants long before they’re ever actually found guilty.

In one clip, Magistrate Eric Hagstette determines there’s probable cause in a theft case involving $27.98 in merchandise from a Target store. Because it’s the defendant’s third offense, Hagstette assigns a bail of $15,000. That decision would have relegated the man to jail until the conclusion of his trial, unless he or his family had the full bail amount or $1,500 to pay a bail bondsman. For-profit bail bond companies usually charge a nonrefundable premium of 10 percent of the bond, which can be paid over time.

In another case involving a misdemeanor marijuana arrest, Hagstette doubles the defendant’s bail from $1,000 to $2,000 after she responds to a “yes or no” question by saying “yeah” instead of “yes.”

In a clip involving trespassing charges for an elderly man with a mental illness, Magistrate Jill Wallace assigns bail of $5,000. Wallace then asks if the defendant is requesting a court-appointed lawyer. The man appears confused and responds by stating his name, at which point Wallace sends him out of the courtroom.

It’s not hard to find egregious examples like these, said Karakatsanis, who was struck by how “utterly mundane and impersonal and short” the hearings are.

“This is just a random week,” he said. “This happens a lot.” 

Karakatsanis’ lawsuit names five magistrate judges, as well as the outgoing sheriff of Harris County, Ron Hickman. Civil Rights Corps filed the litigation on behalf of a handful of plaintiffs who spent days behind bars for low-level arrests, all because they couldn’t afford to pay bail amounts that judges in some cases seemed to set arbitrarily.

The lawsuit specifically calls out Harris County’s use of a bond schedule, which determines a standard bail amount based on the offense. At subsequent hearings, court officers can approve the original bail amount ― or increase or decrease it ― though they typically do so without considering whether the defendant can pay.

A review of the jail population in Harris County suggests many people have become victims of judges who set financial conditions for release even though they could safely release defendants without requiring them to pay.

As of March, 77 percent of all Harris County jail inmates had not been convicted of a crime, and were therefore still considered innocent under the law. Hundreds of thousands of un-convicted inmates are currently locked up around the nation, costing U.S. taxpayers an estimated $9 billion each year.

Although Harris County judges can release defendants on their own recognizance, under the promise that he or she will return to court, they almost never do so. Judges tend to be conservative when deciding release conditions, because it’s easier to keep a defendant in jail unnecessarily than risk having them commit a crime while they’re out awaiting trial. Injecting cash into the equation has made this an especially hard habit to break, as it’s given rise to a powerful private bail bonds industry that makes billions of dollars each year off the process.

“The status quo and the culture is just about money,” said Tarsha Jackson, Harris County director of the Texas Organizing Project. “It’s like a factory. It’s so inhumane, there’s no person or feelings there.”

The Harris County district attorney’s office did not respond to a request for comment.

Even just a few days of incarceration can have devastating effects. If defendants can’t show up to work, they may get fired and lose access to benefits. If they receive public assistance for housing, that can get taken away. They can fall behind on house or car payments, or be cut off from health care or family support networks ― whether or not they are guilty and regardless of the crime they’re charged with. All of those problems can increase the odds of future criminal behavior and incarceration.

In some cases, just getting booked into jail ends up being fatal. At least 11 people died in Harris County lockups in the year after Sandra Bland’s death, according to The Huffington Post’s data project. Bland, a 28-year-old black woman found dead in jail in July 2015, was being held in neighboring Waller County. She wouldn’t have been there if she’d had the money to make bail. 

The Texas Organizing Project wants to see a few immediate changes in Harris County. The group believes defense attorneys should be present at magistrate hearings, to ensure judges treat defendants fairly when setting bail. They also want the county to expand the role of risk assessments and the consideration of a defendant’s ability to pay bail, in order to reduce the number of people who end up incarcerated for low-level or nonviolent charges simply because they’re poor.

Activists are hopeful that recent elections will catalyze criminal justice reform in Harris County. Earlier this month, incoming District Attorney Kim Ogg defeated incumbent Devon Anderson on a platform that involved overhauling the bail system. Ed Gonzalez also toppled Hickman, the incumbent sheriff, running on bail reform and a promise to address persistent jail overcrowding, among other positions.

With support from new leadership, Jackson hopes they’ll be able to move quickly to implement policies to reduce the number of people who are in jail when they don’t need to be. Doing so wouldn’t force magistrates like Licata to find new jobs, but it might require them to rethink the way they work.

“Our system can function fairly when you have people who really focus on doing the right thing,” Jackson said. “It’s not about a power trip. It’s just taking into account that these are human beings, they’re people that have lives at home. They’re not bad people. They made a mistake.”

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