As we have addressed time and time again on the blog, the Harris County Criminal Justice Center -- as a building -- is horrible. It is the classic definition of poor design and architecture. Whichever brain child came up with it never comprehended the mass of humanity that would be trying to cram into twelve elevators every morning. From the floor layout and selection (i.e., having the courts on the top floors and all the other offices below them) to the lack of stair or escalator access to the lower floors, there is pretty much nothing right about that place.
Throngs of people are routinely lined up around the building, futilely hoping that they are going to make it inside, past security, and up the elevators in time for their 9:00 a.m. docket call.
Obviously, a large chunk of them fail to get there on time.
Many (if not most) courts call docket at 9:00 a.m., and if a Defendant's name is called with no answer, a prosecutor will dutifully call out: "State moves for bond forfeiture, your Honor."
And, depending on the Judge, that motion for bond forfeiture will usually be granted.
Now, the reality is that the Defendant who has been stuck waiting at the elevator banks for the past thirty minutes won't actually have his bond forfeited. Usually, the Judge will call up the tardy defendant and admonish them with something that sounds a lot like this:
"Now Mr. Bynum, you know what time court starts and you know that you have to travel through traffic and long lines to get here. In the future, you will need to plan to leave earlier to arrive here on time. I'm going to make a notation on the docket sheet and the next time you are late, I'm going to grant the State's motion to forfeit your bond."
To truly avoid large amounts of people being late for docket call, the majority of them would need to camp out at the CJC overnight like they were waiting in line to get tickets to a Springsteen concert. Even then, the doors to the building don't open to the public until 7:00 a.m., so those early arrivers would still have to wait before the flow of traffic into the building got started.
Some judges will have the late defendant sit in the jury box for a period of time as their punishment. Usually they have to sit their until their lawyer shows up and is able to relay their tardiness explanation to the judge, who will then release them to the general audience. For some reason, that has always cracked me up.
Is the goal to publicly shame them by putting them in the penalty box? If so, shame them to who? Are we really expecting someone in the front row who is also charged with a crime to be judgmentally thinking: "Man, I may have shot a stranger in a road rage incident, but at least my happy ass wasn't late to court!"
Some more practical judges don't bother calling docket until they are satisfied that the crowd has died down.
In essence, the whole thing is like a big game of musical chairs. The clock ticks, just like the music plays, and when it reaches 9:00 a.m., everybody needs to have their butts in a seat, or they lose the game.
Those judges who would defend the calling of the docket, despite the clearly visible crowd control issues, say that to not do so would be to get taken advantage of. The guy who didn't roll out of bed until 10:15 in the morning before leisurely driving to court isn't held accountable. I get that, but in most cases, that person probably isn't coming into court at all that morning.
So, after all that ranting, here's my simple solution:
What if the Harris County District Attorney's Office initiated a policy across the board where NO prosecutor in ANY court will move for bond forfeiture until the massive crowds in front of the building are gone. The judge can call a defendant's name repeatedly, but if no prosecutor says anything, there will be no motion.
The execution of such a plan would be pretty easy, if you think about it.
At 9 a.m. every morning, have someone from the Office walk over to the balcony on the 2nd floor that looks down into the entry lobby of the CJC. (NOTE: Maybe Mike Anderson could make that new McShan guy do it as part of his initiation.)
If it is absolute chaos (as usual), send an office-wide e-mail that says "Due to a large backup in the security and elevator area on the first floor, all Assistant District Attorney's are instructed to refrain from moving for bond forfeiture until notified."
Then have that same person monitor the situation until the crowd clears out. Once the crowd has actually dissipated, go back and send an office-wide e-mail that says, "All prosecutors are now instructed to move for bond forfeiture on all defendants who have not yet reported to court."
It could be just that simple.
There are other efforts by the judges, as we speak, to make the overcrowding situation more bearable through docket management. But for now, something this easy could be the solution.