Waco – There's a new Sheriff in town, and the DA isn't making deals.
People accused of serious crimes get no plea bargain offers other than what the statute calls for if convicted by a jury trial.
|The Jack Harwell Detention Center, Waco's private jail|
Assault? 15 years. Burglary? Same same.
The DA is on record. “You pull a gun on somebody, I guarantee you. We're gonna dance,” he told a Republican Club meeting.
What happens? The accused are less than eager to plead out.
People who can't make bail sit in stir for the obligatory 90 days, and then their court-appointed attorney gets them released on their personal recognizance on a motion for a writ of habeas corpus.
McLennan County found itself in the unenviable position of ranking just slightly behind Rwanda (492) in its rate of incarceration of prisoners per 100,000 population - 480. Even worse, it's just slightly ahead of the Russian Federation, which sees fit to lock up 479 per 100,000 on any given day. That compares with some big, bad towns like Houston's Harris County at 218, Ft. Worth's Tarrant County at 179. True, Waco is behind the south Texas counties of Kenedy at 2,324 and McMullen County at 1,803, which outstrips its population of 851 by a huge percentage. Immigration woes near the Rio Grande can be pesky. No doubt.
Nothing strange about any of this, since the U.S. has an incarceration rate of 716, head and shoulders over Cuba at 510; and Texas locks up 632 per 100,000, in fourth place behind Louisiana at 865 and Mississippi and Alabama at 690 and 650, respectively.
Texas penitentiaries are hard time joints; the temperatures during summer months hover between 100 and 130 degrees, both night and day. Many defendants don't mind doing as much of their time as possible in an air conditioned county lockup near family, friends, and their lawyers.
It's also no surprise that all this is expensive.
As it turns out, the ministerial duty of holding inmates is a constitutional obligation of the Sheriff, acting in concert with what has been aptly described as the world's most benign form of anarchy, a well-tuned Texas Courthouse in the full-blown throes of the status quo. That is Latin for what a Texas Ranger once testified is “the mess we done got ourselves in now.”
When weekends come, the DWI crowd shows up to serve their time behind bars on Friday, Saturday, and Sunday nights, and the resulting overflow goes next door to a privately operated, publicly financed lockup at the rate of $45.50 per day. In a recent year, that expense exceeded its budgeted allocation of $1 million by 300 percent. This year, it's a line item of $5.4 million, following a recent budget transfer of more than $800,000 in “contingency” funds.
When the Commissioners Court raised the tax rate by 5 cents in an attempt to keep up with the unsustainable financial equation, members of the Tea Party showed up for the second year in a row to say that elected officials had better start finding some solutions - if they like their jobs.
There is a pressure point, a place where there is a remedy to be found, and it's in the chambers of the county's seven judges.
They held two meetings on Wednesday, September 25. The first, at 8 a.m., was to consider budgeting more money to ankle bracelet monitoring for the non-violent offender serving time for minor drug cases and DWI. At $7 a day for the indigent and $8.50 a day for those who have jobs, 88 percent of 239 offenders successfully complied with the terms and conditions of probation. That includes wearing a monitor that can detect the use of drugs and alcohol.
According to an official of the company that furnishes and monitors the bracelets, this practice saved taxpayers an estimated $600,000 during fiscal year 2013.
The judges didn't stop there. They scheduled a high noon meeting to consider a brand new way of disposing of serious cases in a more timely, less expensive way.
Matt Johnson of the 54th District Court acted on a tip from two fellow district judges, Gary Coley, who hears chiefly juvenile cases, and Vicki Menard, who sits on civil matters, and consulted a Midland County judge.
In that west Texas regional banking and finance capital, a twin city to the petroleum production hub of Odessa, the judges acted on the same need and found a successful reduction in jail expenses.
It seems that in the Permian Basin, the Sixth Amendment guarantee of a speedy prosecution applies to the People of the State of Texas, as much as to the accused.
According to Judge Johnson, about 90 accused offenders have languished behind county bars for more than a year. For the record, even more have stalled for many months while on bail. In Midland, local judges found a solution by creating a special docket, one that dictates a final call for balky defendants – no matter what.
In a letter, he told his four fellow District Judges and two County Court-at-Law judges, “Before the date of trial the State and Defense would be given notice of the cases to be placed on this special docket. The cases would be set for a Final Docket Call in which a plea offer, if any, would be placed on the record and if no agreement was reached the case was set for a firm trial date.”
His former law partner, District Attorney Abel Reyna, campaigned on the notion that he would take the fight against crime to the courts, that the main problem would be “finding a court to try the cases.”
No problem, according to Judge Johnson.
“On trial days, the 19th (criminal) Court and the 54th (criminal) Court, in full cooperation and with the approval of each judge, could send a felony case to a participating district court and/or County Court-at-Law. That would potentially give us 6 or 7 courts available for trial on selected weeks.”
What about defense attorneys who don't want to go along to get along?
There's a rumor going around. The judges are in charge of who gets appointed to defend which case, and attorneys are bound by ethics laws to act in the best interest of their clients.
It's a small, administrative matter for the Presiding Regional Judge to order judges of County Courts-at-Law or District Judges who typically hear civil cases to sit on criminal cases that have been placed on a special docket by order of the District Judges, according to Judge Johnson's reasoning.
The jury is still out.
The taxpayers and County Commissioners await the results of Judge Johnson's high noon meeting with his fellow jurists.
One may view a video of Tea Party reactions to the historic tax hike required to balance the books as a result of jail overcrowding by clicking here: