Houston judges are indifferent to what the Houston Chronicle calls “a parade of poverty, homelessness and hopelessness” by summarily jailing defendants in video appearances, charges a group called the Texas Organizing Project. Videos released by the group illustrate allegations that have surfaced in a federal lawsuit that accuses hearing officers, county court-at-law judges and the county sheriff of violating the rights of misdemeanor criminal defendants by jailing nearly everyone who can’t afford bond without properly considering their ability to pay.
A group of nonprofits, including Equal Justice Under Law and the Civil Rights Corp, and the law firm Susman Godfrey filed the case on behalf of all misdemeanor offenders, saying their constitutional rights to equal protection were being violated. Videos of hearings show that each case takes a few minutes, sometimes only a few seconds. Almost no one wins pretrial release. Not the mentally ill. Not first-time offenders. Not people who dare to address the judges and request consideration because of poverty, jobs, or parenting duties. Hearings are not attended by defense attorneys; typically just prosecutors and hearing officers are present. Activists argue that Harris County should provide defense attorneys and alternatives to jail at bond hearings for the mentally ill and for first-time or youthful offenders, and expand the use of personal bonds. Yesterday, State Sen. John Whitmire filed complaints with the State Commission on Judicial Conduct against three magistrates based on how they were handling the cases.