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Michael McSpadden

If we need more courts, we should ask for more courts

I’m not sure why there hasn’t been more of a push to deal with this.

Harris County 1910 courthouse

As Harris County’s population continues to swell, more people means more crimes. And that results in more work for the county’s 22 felony courts.

But no court is busier right now than the 209th, which is overseen by Michael McSpadden, Harris County’s most senior felony court judge. He has a docket of pending cases that eclipses all other felony courts locally.

With a caseload of 1,159, McSpadden has 440 more pending cases than his colleagues’ average of 718, according to a report this month by the Harris County Criminal Justice Coordinating Council.

Judges and others say the larger the docket, the more every case is slowed down. That means suspects who are lingering in jail and the victims in those cases may wait years for the case to go to trial, plead out or get dismissed.

The correlation between the size of the docket and the quality of justice, however, is a hotly debated question.

[…]

The more than 1,100 cases in his court is a surprising number that even McSpadden says needs to come down.

“This is my 31st year on the bench and when I had one of the better dockets, I was criticized that I might be rushing cases through – putting too much pressure on attorneys to plead cases, which was certainly not true,” McSpadden said last week. “In the past three years, it has built up, and I have no idea why. I don’t think my attorneys are handling cases differently.”

[…]

“The best judge in the criminal courthouse has the highest docket,” said Todd Dupont, president of Houston’s criminal defense lawyer organization. “(McSpadden) doesn’t let fear of the size of his docket dictate the quality of the proceedings, which is where a lot of judges fall short in Harris County.”

Dupont, who practices in front of McSpadden, said the problem in Harris County is that other judges worry too much about docket sizes.

“Historically we have seen judges use that reasoning to encourage people to plead guilty,” Dupont said. “Who cares about the size of the docket? Conversations about dockets are meaningless unless you use it as a tool of oppression, and that’s just mean, and probably illegal.”

[…]

“The bottom line is we haven’t had a new court since 1985, and the filings haven’t slowed down and aren’t going to slow down,” [Presiding Judge Susan] Brown said. She said there is little hope of getting more judges, more courts or more money. “We’re trying to find creative ways to resolve these issues because we’re not going to get any help.”

Although the crime rate has fallen in recent years, the county’s population continues to grow, creating a net increase in criminal cases going through the system.

Since 1985, when Houston’s last criminal district court was created by the Legislature, the number of felony filings has doubled from 22,000 a year to 44,000. Courts that used to see 1,000 cases a year are now scrambling to deal with twice that many.

Well okay then. Maybe there isn’t much hope for getting more judges, but has anyone asked? If the number of felony filings has doubled since the last time there was a new criminal court added, then isn’t that some pretty strong evidence that there’s a need? I recognize that Harris County may not want to have to pay for more judges, but if everyone is so concerned about the quality of justice being dispensed in courtrooms with such overflowing dockets, isn’t it irresponsible not to ask for more judges? Complaining about it isn’t going to change anything. There’s a fundamental disconnect here.

I should note that there is another way to deal with this, one that doesn’t involve a legislative or financial solution, and that’s to file fewer felony cases. Though there was no breakdown of that “22,000 felony filings” number, I’ll bet that a significant fraction of them are drug cases, and that a significant fraction of those are non-violent possession cases, including the infamous “trace cases” that are now being filed as felonies again. As of a few months ago at least, that had not caused an increase in the county jail population, but that doesn’t mean there isn’t an effect. We could file fewer such cases as felonies, and we could push the Legislature to reform the laws that make drug possession and other non-violent crimes felonies. Again, though, complaining is not likely to bring about any changes.

Trace cases to be prosecuted as felonies again

So says our new DA.

DA Mike Anderson

Newly elected Harris County District Attorney Mike Anderson said Thursday he will prosecute as felonies drug cases that involve trace amounts of crack cocaine, reversing his predecessor’s stand on the so-called “trace cases.”

“If there is enough evidence to test in a lab, then we’ll take the charges,” Anderson said.

Anderson campaigned on the issue last year after then District Attorney Pat Lykos implemented a policy that treated cases with drug residue of less than 1/100th of a gram as a misdemeanor.

Lykos said her policy ensured that crimes prosecuted as state jail felonies had enough of the illegal drug so an independent lab could test it on behalf of the defendant.

She said it was more fair and noted that it reduced the population in the county’s overcrowded jail system.

[…]

The change was applauded by law enforcement and criticized by one court official on Thursday.

“They are felons, the state has said they are felons and they need to be prosecuted as such,” said Ray Hunt, president of the Houston Police Officers’ Union. “These persons, these crackheads are the people who are breaking in to motor vehicles to steal your laptop off the front seat, to grab the purse that’s visible, all those things they can sell for $25 to go buy another crack rock.”

He noted that state law is clear and said Lykos ignored it with her policy.

“If the legislators want to make this not a felony, then they can,” Hunt said. “But to say this is a felony and then have a district attorney say they’re not going to enforce state law is not the way elected officials are supposed to act.”

Harris County’s most senior criminal felony judge, Michael McSpadden, disagreed with Anderson’s change.

“I wish he would use his discretion to relieve the great number of cases that I don’t think are proper in felony court,” McSpadden said. “But I understand that the correct way is to address the Legislature.”

As the story notes, Anderson did make an issue of this, so having duly won the nomination and general election we should not be surprised that he is proceeding to do what he said he would do. It would have been nice to have had a debate about this for the general election, but after we Democrats Olivered ourselves, that wasn’t in the cards. Anderson says later in the story that he hopes many of these cases will be resolved by probation, so as not to overcrowd the jails. I hope so, too.

As you know, I agreed with Lykos’ policy on trace cases. You do get into some dicey issues when law enforcement officials start talking about what laws they will and will not enforce – witness all the idiot Sheriffs out there now saying they won’t enforce any new gun laws that they have decided are unconstitutional, because it’s in the Constitution that local law enforcement officials get to make that determination – but DAs do routinely exercise their discretion about what cases to pursue and what cases to move down the priority list. It is true that this is a job for the Legislature to fix, but until they get their act together – and in a 140-day session, they too have to prioritize – there’s a lot of people being needlessly jailed, labeled as felons, and not getting the help they need. This does not serve the public interest, and it puts DAs in this position. I thought Lykos took the right approach, but the point is that she shouldn’t have had to make that decision.

More on Lykos versus the cops

Here’s another Chron story about the recent dust-up between Harris County DA Pat Lykos and six Harris County police groups that don’t like her policy that trace amounts of crack will not be prosecuted as felonies. Two points that are worth highlighting from the story:

State District Judge Michael McSpadden has presided over Houston’s criminal cases since 1982. In that time, he said, the “War on Drugs” has been lost and he has changed his mind about his “get tough on crime” stance. He urges a policy of treatment and second chances for addicts.

“Pat Lykos and I are not close, and in fact probably don’t like each other, but she’s right about this,” the veteran jurist said this week. “Almost everyone’s in agreement except, I guess, the police unions.”

McSpadden said he, not Lykos, has led the charge to change how these trace cases are handled.

“No one respects law enforcement more than I do, but they’re wrong about this,” McSpadden said. “I want them out there going after the career criminals, the sex offenders, the people who pose a real threat to our society, and not someone who has a residue amount of drugs.”

I agree completely with this sentiment. Doing otherwise, which is to say what we have been doing all along, is unsustainable, unaffordable, and unjust. The effect of Lykos’ policy change is clear:

In November, Harris County Sheriff Adrian Garcia, Harris County Commissioner El Franco Lee and others tasked with criminal justice reform said Lykos has been instrumental in reducing the jail population, and her trace policy is the big piece of the equation. Statistics on how many trace cases are affected are hard to come by because possession of little baggies of cocaine or methamphetamine and small crack rocks fall in the same category as the trace cases once did: possession of less than a gram.

In 2009, there were 10,674 charges for that offense according tho the DA’s office. After the policy, the numbers fell to 5,942 in 2010 and so far this year are at 5,235.

And while police could count the number of paraphernalia tickets issued, officials say this number is not indicative of the actual number of stops because cops on the street are loathe to do hours of paperwork to issue a ticket punishable by a $500 fine.

According to numbers available through the county’s Criminal Justice Coordinating Council, authorities believe the policy means there are about 400 fewer inmates in jail on any given day, part of a 2,000 inmate decrease over the past two years.

The Harris County Jail is overcrowded and understaffed. We ship out inmates to other counties and to Louisiana because we don’t have any place to put them. We can spend a hundred million dollars building more jail space and millions more every year running it, an option the voters rightly rejected in 2007, or we can be smarter about who we put in jail. Like it or not, those are the choices.

By the way, the campaign of Mike Anderson, the Republican running in the primary against Lykos who sided with the cops on this issue, sent out a press release Monday announcing that he had received the endorsement of our old buddy Steve Hotze. I’m not sure why they have me on their press distribution list, but they do so you can see that release here. Those of you reading this who vote in Republican primaries, as far as I’m concerned you now have two reasons not to vote for Mike Anderson in March. Grits has more.