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Hazel Jones

The felony judges who abused the bail system

Shame on them all.

Three sitting judges and eight former district judges in Harris County were publicly admonished by the State Commission on Judicial Conduct in response to complaints that for years they violated state law and judicial cannons by ordering hearing officers to deny no-cost bail to thousands of poor defendants.

But the actions this week came too late to affect most jurists’ behavior on the bench. Seven left their district seats last year either because they didn’t run or lost elections. One lost re-election back in 2016.

The misconduct probes of all 11 judges began in February 2018, when the Houston Chronicle obtained copies of memos and notes that showed that for a full decade most of Harris County’s felony court judges had provided different types of written or verbal instructions to the county’s hearing officers to routinely deny no-cash bail to all or most newly-arrested defendants.

The agency’s findings confirm most bans were in effect for years and largely went unnoticed and unchallenged until 2017 when Harris County judges and other officials were civilly sued in federal court for allegedly violating the rights of poor defendants by routinely failing to provide no-cost bail in many misdemeanor as well as felony cases.(The county is now in the process of settling that lawsuit).

In its August disciplinary orders, the commission concluded that through various actions all 11 Harris County district judges willfully violated judicial cannons and also “failed to comply with the law and failed to maintain competence in the law” by instructing hearing officers not to issue personal bonds even though under state law the hearing officers had the authority and duty to do so, the orders say. Under state laws and ethical cannons, the hearing officers are supposed to consider each defendant’s case and circumstances individually.

Let’s be clear here: These judges were found by the State Commission on Judicial Conduct not just to have violated rules of conduct that they are expected to follow, they actually broke the law by systematically denying personal recognizance bonds to poor defendants. This is serious stuff.

You may say “but these are FELONY defendants!” Sure, but it’s still the case that some number of them will never be convicted of a crime. Some of them will agree to a plea deal for a misdemeanor or lesser felony for which the sentence includes no jail time. Some, regardless of how their case gets adjudicated, represent little to no risk to public safety. How big a risk they are to public safety is completely unrelated to how much cash or collateral they can scrape up to buy their way out of jail. Again, Robert Durst got bailed out. There remains a bail lawsuit in Harris County over the practices in the felony courts, and there’s a similar lawsuit in Dallas that’s working its way towards a resolution. Standard practices are going to change, because they have to change.

The judges who were admonished included former longtime Harris County District Judge Michael McSpadden, who retired last year after many years presiding over the 209th District Court. The commission found McSpadden had, like many other longtime judges, issued blanket instructions to deny all personal recognizance or PR bond requests from Nov. 20, 2009 to Feb. 1, 2017. McSpadden had previously written a letter to the Houston Chronicle in March 2018 where he admitted that “it is true I have instructed the magistrates not to grant these bonds in our felony cases to all defendants, never specifying a certain race or gender.”

McSpadden told the Chronicle on Thursday that he stands behind his decision to deny PR bonds even if it violated the law.

“I have great respect for the work of the commission. But I still feel the same way. I, as the elected judge, would like to make the decision on free bonds for accused felons rather than turn those important duties over to the magistrates. And it would take one more day to do this,” he said.

[…]

The three active Harris County District Judges who were admonished were: Hazel Jones, of the 174th District Court, Herb Richie of the 337th District Court and George Powell of the 351st District Court.

Michael McSpadden’s first duty as a judge was to follow the law. He did not do that. I don’t give a crap what his feelings were. He failed to do his job, and I am glad he is no longer on the bench.

I am not happy that three Democratic judges were also found to be doing this. All three are up for election next year, and there are no more Republican judges on the district or county courts for Democrats to aim for. But we can still perform upgrades, and these courts are at the front of the line for that. Democrats with a criminal justice background, an interest in becoming a judge, and a commitment to following the law, should look here first.

(Obligatory copy editing nitpick: A “cannon” is a big gun. A “canon” is a fundamental principle or general rule, and is the thing that these judges violated. Spelling counts, y’all.)

Endorsement watch: Continuing a trend

The Chron makes their criminal district court endorsements, and in doing so they stick to a pattern.

HarrisCounty

174th Criminal District Court: Hazel B. Jones

In this race to replace Judge Ruben Guerrero, voters should go with Democratic candidate Hazel B. Jones. The former criminal court judge has the necessary background to step onto the bench and administer justice without a learning curve. A Howard University School of Law graduate, Jones was elected to office in 2008 but lost her seat in 2012. She has also served as a federal and Harris County prosecutor, and now practices criminal defense law. Jones, 50, vows if reelected to be aggressive with respect to the use of personal recognizance bonds.

176th Criminal District Court: Stacey W. Bond

This first-term Republican judge was one of the most impressive judicial candidates that the Houston Chronicle editorial board met during this election cycle. Stacey W. Bond, a graduate of the University of Houston Law Center, had a crystal clear vision of the problems facing the Harris County Criminal Justice Center, which often does more to punish the poor than the dangerous.

177th Criminal District Court: Ryan Patrick

At age 37, Judge Ryan Patrick says that he’s the youngest district court judge in Texas, and after four years on the bench he’s developed a reputation as a fair and well-respected judge. A graduate of the Houston College of Law (formerly the South Texas College of Law), Patrick, a Republican, told the editorial board that the county needs to give more funding to pre-trial services so that fewer people have to wait behind bars. He’s also a self-described “tech geek” and serves as chairman of the executive committee that oversees the Harris County Criminal Justice Center’s management system.

178th Criminal District Court: Kelli Johnson

As Judge David Mendoza steps down from this bench, voters should back Democratic candidate Kelli Johnson.

Johnson, 44, has been a Harris County assistant district attorney for 17 years, and over the past eight years she has served as felony chief prosecutor in the trial bureau. If elected, the Houston College of Law graduate promises to increase the use of personal recognizance bonds and speed up the appointment process for court-appointed lawyers.

179th Criminal District Court: Kristin M. Guiney

Republican incumbent Kristin M. Guiney, 41, is an able jurist who deserves a second term. The University of Houston Law Center graduate is board certified in criminal law and enjoys overseeing her probation docket because it grants her an opportunity to witness lives transform. Guiney reports a gradual shift in the criminal courts toward rehabilitation, which she believes is appropriate.

337th Criminal District Court: Renee Magee

When she met with the editorial board, first-term Judge Renee Magee, 57, made an argument for herself with two statistics: She said that she has the second-most cases in the courthouse but the lowest number of people in jail. The 21-year prosecutor accomplished this by focusing on drug rehabilitation, getting people off probation who don’t need supervision and refusing to let prosecutors delay their cases. Magee, a Republican, is also one of the four mental health judges.

338th Criminal District Court: Brock Thomas

It sometimes feels like the Houston Bar Association judicial qualification questionnaire tells you more about prosecutors’ opinions than judicial performance.

Nevertheless, it’s worth mentioning that Brock Thomas received more “well qualified” votes than any other candidate for criminal district court. The University of Houston Law Center graduate, who was first elected in 2002, lost in 2008 and reelected in 2012, has a passion for criminal justice that is evident in his volunteer work.

339th Criminal District Court: Maria T. (Terri) Jackson

In this hotly contested race, we endorse the Democratic sitting judge, Maria T. Jackson, over her court’s former chief prosecutor, Mary McFaden, a Republican.

Both have had an inside seat as to the other’s performance and neither candidate thinks highly of the other’s abilities. After listening to both sides, we believe Jackson, 52, who has been on the bench since 2008, deserves another term.

351st Criminal District Court: Mark Kent Ellis

Although he has served on this bench for 20 years, Mark Kent Ellis has demonstrated a willingness to learn and evolve on the job that should earn him another term. During our screening, the Republican judge heralded the Michael Morton Act for improving the criminal justice system and ensuring that the defendants get needed material from discovery. The Houston College of Law graduate has used his institutional knowledge to compel change by instituting and continuing to improve the Harris County Mental Health Court, which works with people diagnosed with mental illness to assist them in completing probation.

The pattern is that as with all but one of the civil district court races, they either endorsed the incumbent, or the candidate from the same party as the departing judge. Elaine Palmer and the appointed judge on the new County Criminal Court at Law #16 bench are the only exceptions. One way to look at this is that for all of the sometimes justified bitching people do about our system of electing judges, we must be doing a pretty good job of it here in Harris County, since nearly every single one of them was found to be worthy of the Chron’s endorsement for re-election. It seems likely that some of these judges will get booted from the bench anyway, for reasons beyond their control, but the Chron likes the challengers in most of these races, too. So maybe our system doesn’t suck quite as much as some people would have you think. Just saying.