Saturday, August 5, 2017

The Inevitable Tragedy

One of the issues that I have not written about on the blog over the past several months is the epic battle being waged in the Federal Courts over the Harris County Bail Bond System.  It isn't because I don't find the issue important.  It is tremendously important and will have far-reaching consequences for the way all cases are handled in Harris County.

I didn't write about it because I didn't have a firm grasp on all of the details involved.  The information that I had on the issue, I largely learned from reading Meagan Flynn's articles in the Houston Press about the lawsuit.  I also heard concerns from some judges and prosecutors about what would happen after U.S. Chief District Judge Lee Rosenthal declared Harris County's bail bond system to be unconstitutional.

The primary criticism against Judge Rosenthal's ruling was that it basically handed unsecured bonds to people who were not likely to come back to court.  Since the ruling dealt with misdemeanor cases, and my caseload primarily consists of felonies, I wasn't really all that affected.  I did presume that a bureaucratic nightmare was about to ensue as the number of bond forfeitures were probably going to skyrocket in the County Courts.

And, I've heard, anecdotally, that this prediction was accurate.  I had one prosecutor tell me that in the course of one day, over 100 defendants had bond forfeited while on their unsecured bonds.  I don't know if that's true, but I wouldn't find it all that surprising.

The other concern to those who opposed Judge Rosenthal's ruling was the danger to society created by giving undeserving people unsecured bonds.  Somebody who hadn't previously been entitled to an unsecured bond was going to hurt somebody while out on bond.  I agreed that this scenario was bound to happen eventually.  It was just a matter of time.

As it turns out, it didn't take much time at all.

On July 5th, 2017, Jonathan Mendez was arrested for the offense of Driving While Intoxicated.  His criminal history was lengthy, consisting of many felonies and assaultive offenses.  On a previous felony case, he had a bond forfeiture thrown in for good measure.  Based on this, his bond was initially set at $5,000.

But, Mr. Mendez couldn't make that bond, and the Sheriff's office was forced to release him on an Unsecured Bail Bond on July 6th.    Mr. Mendez signed the paperwork and agreed to appear in County Court at Law # 12 on August 16th.

Unfortunately, on July 28th, Mr. Mendez was driving with a female passenger, Victoria Reyna, when he was involved in a minor accident.  According to court documents, he fled the scene of the accident at a high rate of speed, but lost control of his SUV.  He crashed into a tree and a utility pole, killing the female riding in the front passenger seat of Mr. Mendez's vehicle.

Following a blood test result, he was charged with Intoxication Manslaughter.

Like I said, it was just a matter of time before something like this happened.  That being said, it doesn't mean that Judge Rosenthal's ruling was wrong.  The entirety of the bonding system in Harris County has needed reevaluation for quite some time. The bonding system should never be used to hold someone in custody to induce a plea, nor should it be used in a way that penalizes the poor.   Both of those things were happening with regularity before the ruling.

But there are downsides to every tough decision, and tragedies will occur, like they did in this instance.  The bond system needs to be reevaluated and quickly, but its new incarnation needs to focus on those issues that bonds are actually designed for -- assuring that an accused appears for court and protecting public safety.  That plan is currently in the works for Harris County.

Unfortunately for Victoria Reyna, its arrival will be too late.


Anonymous said...

Ten prior felonies, not to mention misdemeanors. Where were the bond conditions? The interlock? Something?!

Anonymous said...

You think with a secured bond he wouldn't have run?

Anonymous said...

Murray, for as complex a process as it is, the whole thing boils down to this: the US Constitution guarantees reasonable bail and the Harris County system has long used a "one size fits all" approach that makes it tougher on the poor. As a result, a great many defendants find they can take a plea and hopefully keep their livelihood/job or they can languish in jail for months (or longer), "speedy trials" be darned.

As with anything in life, some make millions from this kind of thing and they aren't going to give it up without a fight, and some benefit indirectly in the form of campaign contributions from those that make all that money, we call them "judges". Can we really say that society at large is better off making the system the punishment or can we just be honest and admit that many of us use the "where there's smoke, there's fire" standard of believing everyone charged with a crime is guilty?

And if we're going to go all "Willie Horton" regarding what one person out on a PR bond did while waiting trial, we could just as easily look at all those who committed similar crimes when out on a monetary bond for a crime. Does the name Amber Willemsen strike a bell? She was out on bond for drugs and no stranger to the criminal justice system before she got plastered at her stripper job, drove in excess of 90 MPH and killed a police officer. This is nothing new but again, the entire basis for our laws tells us we must have reasonable bail.

If Harris County didn't keep dragging its feet on this whole thing, some reasonable policies could be enacted that most would agree upon but the judge gave his mandate after getting fed up with the constant attempts to undermine his rulings. For most misdemeanors, a PR bond for a first offense is reasonable and despite all the spin from bail companies and those who benefit from the former process, most people will show up to court. For a career criminal like Mendez, a different approach should be taken, the whole "we had to let him go" line of BS was because someone wasn't doing their job or were trying their best to sabotage reform.

On some of the local political blogs, you may be amazed to find the twisted logic of those who benefit from bonds and their willingness to make up statistics that would make Mark Twain roll over in his grave but ultimately, the county will cooperate to find the right balance between screwing the poor into submission and actual public safety. Short of illegally holding everyone until their trial, there are going to be cases where someone awaiting trial will commit another offense, or at least be alleged to do so. Using drunk drivers as examples really falls short of the mark since all the studies out there show most such cases involve someone that is going to drink and drive again, bail or no bail, and there isn't a condition around that will stop that from happening.

Anonymous said...

Follow the money. The bonding companies donate to the judges, and the judges give out bonds. When a pre-trial bail jumper flees, the bondsman goes to the judge and gets off the bond before he's declared a fugitive. Even if the bondsman is on the hook for the bond jumper, Harri County almost never collects the bond. Wash, rinse, repeat.

Anonymous said...

PR bond or not, alcoholics and drug addicts are going to get their fix unless they attend some type of rehabilitation program. Take HPD Officer James Combs, who while driving drunk killed a young father. And while out of jail on intoxicated manslaughter charges and a $100,000.00 bond, failed a urine test for alcohol and two breath analysis tests. And even then the judge in his case was prepared to allow him to remain free as long as he paid his bondsman a little more cash.

Anonymous said...

Anon:5:15 U bonds release defendants straight from the jail. The defendant sign a paper and "promise" to appear regardless of risk, criminal history or nature of the offense. The defendants never see a judge, magistrate, etc. There is no judicial person to give them conditions for the non existent bond.

Anon 11:36 if a defendant has skin in the game, ie a financial reason to show up, he is less likely to run or re-offend while on bond.

Anon 1:44, tell Victoria Reyna's family about "going Willie Horton." I am sure that will make them feel better about the avoidable death of their loved one.

Anon 7:55, under prior administrations, Harris County collected on bond forfeitures rather consistently thanks to Don Clemmer and Kathy Braddock.

Anon 11:34, you are correct, a high surety bond is not guarantee. It is a hell of a lot more likely to have an impact than an bogus unsecured bond.

Anonymous said...

Bail bonds in the county have long been a scam and its not been a secret.

Lee said...


Your belief that money has any place in the courtroom is outdated and skews the end results.

Lawyers have turned the once prudent lady justice blindly holding scales as a seeker of fact and truth into a prostitute with a tip jar.

Just like Robert Durst where will always be outliers in a set of data. We are trying to move away from a system addicted to money into a system that tracks defendants based on a risk management to a more subjective end. The point is in 2017 we can do better than mere money. We can learn and evolve. This is a step up and some fine tuning or maintenance will be necessary for the system to successfully change.

Money is not the answer to justice.

Anonymous said...

Anon 8:34, that you don't seem to believe the defendant has "skin in the game" by virtue of the fact his freedom and money are already on the line suggests you are tied to one of the bonding companies. Keep in mind that if a defendant uses a bonding company, he has already spent the money and isn't getting it back, that only works if he paid the full amount to the court.

Regardless of what some family of a crime victim thinks, the crime could've been committed if the defendant was out on a cash bond just as easily, it happens all the time. Hopefully, once Harris County stops fighting reform tooth and nail, a better system of risk assessment can be used to satisfy the Constitution. Argue extremes or cherry picked cases as you see fit to insure your likely stake in this measure but the fact remains that most people do not commit crimes when out on bond, cash or PR, and there just isn't enough jail space to warehouse people accused of misdemeanor crimes, even felony cases allowing too little supervision or control. Until they are convicted, they are legally innocent so making the process the punishment seems pretty un-American, maybe we should pass legislation where those found not guilty or who have their charges dropped will get all their money back from bonding companies, that might throw a wrench in your lavish profits.

Anonymous said...

Anon 5:11, Anon 8:34 here. First, so sorry for the typos in my first post. Hazards of portable devices.

A defendant on a "U" bond has no skin in the game. He has signed a piece of paper without ever going to court or spending a penny. That is not skin. The no show rate on U bonds is 30 percent. You can verify this. The previous combined no show rate for pretrial and surety bonded defendants on misdemeanors was 5 percent. So clearly skin in the game matters.

You are right that nothing insures that a defendant won't re offend while out on some form of release other than a U bond. But again, you can get the stats. The re offend stats show that defendants on a U bond re- offend at a significantly higher rate than U bond defendants. I don't believe that everyone should be locked up before trial but clearly some should be. The Constitution requires reasonable ball. Not bail that can be made..

Also, believe me, I have ZERO connection to the bonding companies.

Anonymous said...

Anon 8:34, this is Anon 5:11. Don't worry about typos, they do not impact the quality of discourse in most cases, those that interject them in arguments generally lack valid arguments to begin with.

That being said, my comment was that a defendant has "skin in the game" by virtue that he is charged with a crime in the first place. He could lose his freedom, substantial amounts of money in fines and costs, not to mention lawyer fees, and all of that constitutes "skin". He may delay putting that skin on the line by not showing up but eventually, something is likely to happen to them. Right now, the courts are ordering the county to make changes because truly indigent people were being faced with a dilemma of taking a plea or sitting in jail for months, sometimes many months, waiting for their cases to be heard even to the point where the likely sentence would be less than the time they served waiting. That's just not right.

What needs to happen is demanding the courts use a more intelligent risk assessment system to determine bail, conditions, and so forth instead of blanket cash bonds. What we've had since the judge's first ruling is county officials doing everything in their power to avoid this. Admittedly such assessments take some effort and expense but the baby steps being taken are more the result of the county not following the judge's orders so he takes firmer action each time it comes up, the 30 day statistic based on a very short window of time and not the advised system. In fact, the latest version of the process just started about a week ago and stats are not available for it either, any that are cobbled together are going to reflect the still flawed approach of the county rather than what needs to happen.

Ultimately, the old system was found unconstitutional so whether or not it worked just doesn't matter, I'm sure the great many who were stuck in jail waiting trial or just surrendering to take a plea would tell you it didn't work in the slightest. Most people show up, most people do not commit additional crimes when waiting for trial dates, and penalizing them further out of convenience just seems unfair. Even discarding the tens of thousands of people that were found not guilty or eventually had charges dropped because the case against them was so weak or even figuring those who pled to crimes they just did not commit in order to save their jobs, homes, or what have you, by keeping those people in jail, we had to let others go early, including those who committed horrible crimes for lack of space, the cost of adding more jail beds apparently more than influential conservatives were willing to pay. In many cases, that money could be better used for treatment programs or in the pockets of the tax payers according to that belief but changes are still needed no matter what cooked statistics are deployed.

Anonymous said...

I have no issue whatsoever with misdemeanor defendants having PR bonds, especially those with jobs. And maybe to insure they have some real skin in the game perhaps the legislature should increase the penalties for FTA. Who here hasn't witnessed the injustice of misdemeanor defendants losing their job because they lacked a few hundred dollars. A great example is what occurred with Sandra Bland, who was falsely arrested and committed suicide after not being able to raise bail in time to begin her new job.

Anonymous said...

Anon 2:10, I generally agree with you but surely you can find a better example than Sandra Bland, her extensive criminal history, her existing debt owed several courts to the tune of ~ $8 grand, and the charge of her assaulting the trooper, real or not, he mentioned it on the arrest video, all precluding her from a PR bond. Beside that, she did not have a "job", she had an interview for a summer internship to last about a month when her mental illness caused her to take her own life. There are many better examples than her to support better use of PR bonds.

Anonymous said...

First: The U bonds that Judge Rosenthal put in place are not PR bonds.

Secondly: Sandra Bland was a very troubled woman. Her death was tragic. It did NOT happen in Harris County. Sadly a PR bond might not have insured her survival.

Anonymous said...

People, surely we can all agree on this: it's "ensure" unless we're talking about actual insurance.

Also, the federal judge discussed above with all those male pronouns is actually a woman.