Sunday, August 28, 2011

Criminal judges ponder McLennan jail release policy

Philosophy of quick release has cost lives

Waco - Waco's four criminal courts - two District Judges and two Courts at Law - will ponder the replacement of McLennan County's appointed jail magistrate Monday morning, August 29.

Judge Raymond Britton is 75; he's not an attorney; he serves as the municipal judge at Bruceville-Eddy and Moody; he is paid $24,000 per year.

In the latest session of the Legislature, solons acted to disallow all but attorneys from appointment as jail magistrates. The decision is whether to keep the judge working, or replace him with an attorney who has been admitted to the Texas Bar. Judge Briton could continue to serve as a grandfathered official who was on the bench at the time of the new law's enactment.

Video conferencing infrastructure is in place to allow the Justice Courts to charge and arraign accused offenders from their offices, according to Legendary Reporter R.S. Gates. He says the position could be easily eliminated from the McLennan County budget.

But the judges' musings constitute a review of an entire philosophy of getting offenders charged, arraigned and released as quickly as possible to relieve jail overcrowding - a policy carried out by Sheriff Larry Lynch, his staff, the jail magistrate, Justice Courts, District and County Courts at Law, and the entire criminal justice apparatus. It's beginning to cost lives and detract from the public safety.

Times have changed. The McLennan County downtown Jail Annex at the Courthouse stands empty. Private contractor CEC (Civigenics) emptied it in favor of sending U.S. Bureau of Prisons inmates to the new Jack Harwell Detention Center, built at an expense of $50 million in revenue bonds issued by the Commissioners' Court. The Sheriff's Department has "lent" the corporation a number of inmates to half fill the 800-plus bed faciity. There is no such thing as an overcrowded jail in McLennan County.

The Legendary has carried numerous accounts of murder, rape and mayhem that took place both before and after perpetrators were released, many of them on personal recognizance bonds that cost them not one penny to assure the Court they would return for trial.

The judges are under tremendous pressure from activists, attorneys, law enforcement officers and political candidates to seek and get solutions to the problem.

In some cases, children have been raped or otherwise abused. (Click here for a report on such a case)

In others, elderly persons have been assaulted with deadly weapons.

Not all cases are equal. Though according to the U.S. and Texas Constitutions, bail is not to be set at an excessive or punitive amount, one violent offender may go free on a personal recognizance bond while another languishes in jail under a bond of $5 million.

A certified Master Peace Officer with 29 years on the job at Woodway, Captain Barney Witt is a candidate for McLennan County Sheriff who proposes to end all this if elected. He says that his officers no sooner get a violent offender charged and locked up before staff at the Sheriff's Department at the Highway 6 jail are working diligently to get the perpetrator in front of a video camera so the judges can set their bail - sometimes a personal recognizance bail.

In other cases, he says, judges turn down an application for a domestic violence protective order because the arrest was for a Class C misdemeanor assault. "I don't know of any "Class 'C' protective order," he told The Legendary in a candid and penetrating interview. Excessive worry over violation of an inmates' rights and resulting litigation is a sure sign that an official is in the wrong line of work, he says.

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