A few weeks ago, I had the distinct displeasure of having a flight home re-rerouted through Chicago's Midway Airport. It had been raining all day in Chicago and most flights had been significantly delayed. The airport was packed from end to end with people waiting on their delayed flights. Finding a place to sit down was out of the question, and at one point, I texted my wife and told her, "I don't even have room to get out of the way!"
Luckily, I was prepared for these type of conditions because of the daily training we all receive at the elevator banks of the Harris County Criminal Justice Center. This Tuesday morning around 9:45 a.m., I was stuck at the elevator bank on the 10th floor for 30 minutes waiting on an elevator that wasn't already filled past maximum capacity and I found myself actually appreciating the spaciousness of Midway Airport.
The CJC is (and always has been) ridiculously overcrowded and the poor design of the facility aggravates that crowding to the umpteenth degree. This is not news. I've been writing about it for years. So have other bloggers. News media has covered it. The Fire Marshal has inspected.
So far the only thing that the building management has done in an attempt to "control" the massive crowds in the morning trying to cram into elevators is have the already inept security guards yell at people to move out of the hallways leading to the elevator banks. As far as I can tell, the only effect that has had is making an already angry crowd even angrier.
Unfortunately, since the CJC is a relatively "new" building, we are stuck with it (and the moronic security guards) for the foreseeable future.
If any meaningful change to the ridiculous (and dangerous) crowding situation is going to take place, it is going to have to be done by restructuring the scheduling of people who are ordered to come to court. As it currently stands, the vast majority of all persons charged with crimes in Harris County must report to court once a month at 8:30 or 9:00 in the morning.
Some judges (like County Court at Law # 6's Judge Larry Standley) are much more flexible about arrival times. Many more judges are not.
Earlier this summer, County Court at Law # 8's Judge Jay Karahan issued a new standing Order for his court that was designed to reduce the frequency that a person charged with a crime in his court must make an appearance. While in most courts, defendants must report once a month for settings that are more-often-than-not pointless (i.e., "Has the case been indicted yet? No? Then reset it for another month."), Judge Karahan's new docket order is designed to make those required settings be productive ones.
The docket order is one page long, but offers several common sense changes designed "to promote the efficient use of judicial resources." Some of the highlights include the Discovery Order being signed off on at the first setting. This gets the ball rolling early and forces both the prosecutor and the defense attorney to actually start getting the case together from the beginning, rather than waiting until it is time to decide if both sides want to go to trial.
More significant (and progressive, in my opinion) is that the Judge allows "complex" cases to be reset for up to 120 days before the next setting where the defendant's appearance may be waived. This is huge, because the County Courts handle the majority of all DWI cases and the results of blood alcohol tests can often take several months to arrive.
If all of the other 36 courts in the building followed just those two orders, we would be well on our way to doing something significant about the overcrowding.
Earlier this month, it was learned that some other changes were being made that could help, as several misdemeanor courts announced that they were going to start experimenting with 1 o'clock p.m. dockets.
The idea of the 1 o'clock docket is going to be controversial, because neither prosecutors nor defense attorneys are going to like it. Both sides are accustomed to the idea of being in court all morning handling normal dockets, but we usually rely on our afternoons being free to meet with our clients and witnesses or work on our cases. A regularly occurring 1 o'clock docket will throw a hugh wrench in that schedule.
Unless it is done correctly.
A 1 o'clock docket could be extremely effective if it is used for two primary purposes:
1. For First Appearance/"To Hire Attorney" (THA) Settings -- Any client that makes bond after being arrested is given a date to report to court and receive any statutory warnings that he may not have received before bonding out. If he doesn't have an attorney, he is reset to hire one. Usually, most misdemeanor defendants who bond out are scheduled to make their first appearances. Therefore, Fridays are usually the most crowded day in the courthouse.
The courts that are considering doing afternoon dockets are talking about making these 1 o'clock settings for those first appearances. Defense attorneys wouldn't be required to be there (because they haven't been hired yet) and each court would only need to send up one prosecutor (to read Probable Cause, if necessary).
In the meantime, the elevators won't be flooded with hordes of people in the morning who have very little chance of doing anything other than being reset.
2. Contested Motions/Revocation Hearings -- One of my pet peeves practicing in Harris County (and probably any other county) is when court comes to a standstill during morning docket while a Motion to Adjudicate or Motion to Revoke Probation hearing is being held in court. The prosecutors get tied up in the hearing. The judge is tied up. It is not entirely uncommon to have to wait for a couple of hours just to get a judge's permission to set a case for trial if they are in a hearing. Some courts won't even let you walk through the courtroom to get to your client in the holdover.
These hearings are different from jury trials, because only a judge presides over them. The same applies on Motions to Suppress and other pre-trial hearings. I understand when the judge is trying to be more expedient with a trial because there are twelve jurors waiting, but there is no good reason why making contested hearings in the afternoon can't be done.
The morning dockets would move more quickly and efficiently. Cases wouldn't be reset because the prosecutor was unavailable to talk because he or she was tied up in a hearing.
I'm glad to see that some of the judges are beginning to do what they can to alleviate the situation at the CJC. The building's structure isn't going to be changing any time soon.