Friday, August 2, 2013

A Simple Solution on Bond Forfeitures

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.


Tom Moran said...

The building doesn't have elescators because the footprint of the building is too small. To get the elescator would be too steep to be safe.
As for the number of elevators, well, as I understand it, Bert Graham was the DA's rep at the building design conferences. He's back with the DA's office. Chat with him.
And, one of the reasons for the crowds is the large number of assistant DAs dragging boxes of case files to court. Maybe they could be told to be in court by 8:30. That would help some.

jeremy said...

i think that's a fine idea. it seems like it would work.

you know, in dallas we don't even have docket call. no, seriously. the clients sit outside the court room and wait on their lawyers, who come in and reset the cases if they need to be reset or whatever else. there's no 9am stand up when you're name is called. bond forfeitures are called at 1pm in most of the courts. so simple.

we also have America's Team, so we've got hat going for us.

Anonymous said...

It is beyond peradventure that the simplest way to reduce the traffic in CJC is for our citizens to reduce their criminal activity. Since that is not going to happen until at least Hell freezes over in the meantime other avenues need to be explored. One of the things that always exacerbated me vis-a-vis the morning traffic is that there were two elevators in the building receiving minimum daily use - those elevators assigned to the judiciary. These elevators could be used to reduce the traffic of county employees, including the infamous Assistant DAs and their packing crates, in the public elevators. Since arrows have been unfairly targeted at Bert though my recollection is that Bert 1) wanted more elevators in the building and 2) his involvement primarily concerned the design and the protection of the space that was to be allotted to the DA office. The judiciary bears the bulk of the criticism on this matter and they should be the ones now sympathetic to the snafu created. The judiciary was more concerned, however, with the safety purportedly offered by private elevators, notwithstanding their vanity license plates, and the view to be offered from their chambers by being on higher floors in the building, including who got the best view of the new ball park than how people got to court. Therefore, I do not know who had the sanity to permanently fix the location of the various courts instead of the musical chairs which always had occurred in the past following elections or when a new judge assumed the bench. At least the "cattle courts" though were put on lower floors - I guess being a district court does entitle one to some
Calvin A. Hartmann

Anonymous said...

I love the solution you have given..and, it won't cost a dime. So, why is it that coordinators can ride on the "Judges elevators" but other court staff to include probation officers, court clerks, and D.A.'s (all of whom have carts with many files) etc., cannot? We work with these people (judges). Much of the traffic can be reduced just getting the rest of the court staff using a "non public" elevator such as the "Judge's elevator". No, they would rather talk about having late dockets, keeping everyone else working late hours to finish entry, filing, etc., while they get to go home. I mean, are WE (us who work in the courts) REALLY THAT BAD?....

Anonymous said...

The solution seems too easy not to have been considered; If the system requires the docket
call, unlike the Dallas system, why not stagger
the call in thirds. Each court should call 1/3
of their cases at 9, 1/3 at 9:30, and the last
1/3 at 10:00. Therefore reducing the complete
rush for 9:00 and, yet having the total docket
in place by 10:00. Also, allowing other court
officials access to "judges" elevators would
surely ease the problem. Why not?

Anonymous said...

Although staggered docket calls at first blush would appear to be the perfect solution to the dilemma there are two impediments to be overcome: 1) receiving agreement among the judges as to who has which docket call and 2) the laws of gravity - i.e. "what goes up must come down." Staggered docket calls merely would increase the volume at the back end of the system. With the proper inducements maybe the judicial imbroglios could be solved, but the "gravity" issue can only be addressed by the reduction of the warm bodies in the building and hence the elevators In the "old days" the biggest contributor to the excess of people was the meaningless resets which really served no other purpose than one or more of the following 1) allowing the defense attorney to see his client, 2) allowing the defense attorney to collect a portion of his or her fee, 3) allowing the court appointed attorney to rack up one more appearance. I suspect nothing has changed. To reduce the population of CJC there should only be three settings: 1) the initial appearance/plea, 2) motions/plea, 3) plea/trial. Reducing the number of non-issue settings would readily reduce the number appearing each morning at CJC. Moreover, if a trial was desired and the State had provided appropriate discovery and there was no dispositive motion to heard (e.g. motion to suppress) the motion/plea setting could be waived. The non-issue reset is a tool foreign to the federal courts - perhaps this is one area where the federal government has demonstrated a bit of sense.
Calvin A. Hartmann

Anonymous said...

Good to know there is a PIO now. Maybe he can get the word out that Mike has been coming to work. He is in plain sight on six more and more each week.

Anonymous said...

What is moronic is that the judges' elevators do not have access on floors 2-5. So the clerks and DAs would still have to get to an accessed floor. That they don't stop on 3 for the clerks is really dumb. I don't think the deputies are even supposed to use them per some "rule."

Anonymous said...

What is asinine is that the courts are using all 20,00 peace officers to manage their caseload by issuing a criminal arrest warrant for BS courtroom housekeeping. Nobody has time to chase real crooks when you are tied up arresting some mope that just missed his court date wasting outside or pizzed off his probation officer, or his bondsman got nervous because he didn't answer the phone.

Anonymous said...

Have a DA Investigator do the 'eye in the sky' task. What else are they good for?

Anonymous said...

There is never a line at 7am.

Anonymous said...

It is beyond peradventure that the simplest way to reduce the traffic in CJC is for our citizens to reduce their criminal activity.

Crime rates are down, sporty.

Staggered docket calls merely would increase the volume at the back end of the system.

Where there is currently almost no volume at all? Yeah, that's kind of the point.

The problem with the backlogs in both the criminal and family courts is that the judges all have the "that's how we've always done it" mentality. On top of that, the DA's overcharge and the judges use bail tactics to coerce pleas in cases on a volume-basis.

When they start concerning themselves with justice, they'll see the back log reduce. Until then, they leave it the way it is because that's the way it's always been--and oh yeah, the bigger their case load, the more secure are their jobs in the system.

Anonymous said...

Revoking bonds is docket management in Harris County. Egotistical judges competing for smallest docket, fewest trial setting, quickest trial setting. It is absolutely disgusting. Judges act like some ones fate is a game and it is sickening.

Anonymous said...

Or at 8.