TOP statement on Dallas County Bail Lawsuit

FC courts

The following statement was made by Tarsha Jackson, criminal justice director of Texas Organizing Project (TOP), on the lawsuit filed against the Dallas County bail system:

“We applaud the filing of a lawsuit that challenges the constitutionality of Dallas County’s bail system that requires people to buy their freedom, effectively punishing them before guilt has been proven beyond a shadow of a doubt, the cornerstone principle of our justice system.

“A majority of people in the Dallas County Jail are there because they can’t afford bail. Not only is this practice in violation of the Eighth Amendment, but it is costly to taxpayers and disproportionately hurts people of color. Even a couple of days spent in jail can be devastating to people already living on the margins of society.

“Also, keeping people in jail on excessive bonds serves to cover up deep and intractable societal problems including drug addiction and mental health.

“TOP and Faith in Texas are partnering to organize the community around bail reform and urge the county to settle this lawsuit because it is indefensible.

“We are confident that courts will ultimately stop Dallas County from keeping people in jail simply because they can’t afford to pay for their freedom. The main question left to be answered is how much taxpayer money will District Attorney Faith Johnson waste to defend this unjust practice?”

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Texas Organizing Project organizes Black and Latino communities in Dallas, Harris and Bexar counties with the goal of transforming Texas into a state where working people of color have the power and representation they deserve. For more information, visit organizetexas.org.

Ex-United pilot who ran Houston brothels gets probation and $2000 fine

SentencingHouston

A former United Airlines pilot who admitted operating a string of brothels throughout Houston pleaded guilty Thursday as part of a controversial deal that allows him to avoid jail time or even a criminal conviction.

The sentence by state District Judge Jim Wallace drew sharp criticism from civil rights groups, who said black and Hispanic pimps and madams are routinely sentenced to decades of prison time while Bruce Wayne Wallis, who is white, was not. Wallace, a Republican, is also white.

“It’s just another case of what African-Americans would call white privilege,” said Dr. James Douglas, president of the NAACP Houston Branch. “You get a break for being white and it’s something we’ve lived with all of our lives, especially in the criminal justice area.”

The judge ordered Wallis to spend five years on deferred adjudication probation, pay $2,000 fine and perform 150 hours of community service — which he suggested he serve at a woman’s shelter. If Wallis completes the probation, he will not have a felony conviction on his record and can keep his FAA-issued pilot’s license, with which he operates his other business, a flight school. He was suspended from United Airlines after his arrest.

Wallis, 53, was charged in 2015 with aggravated promotion of prostitution and engaging in criminal activity, accused of being the mastermind behind an illicit empire including about a half-dozen brothels in Galleria-area apartments and northwest Houston office buildings with six to 10 women.

Wallace said from the bench Thursday that he was satisfied that the pilot did not coerce any of the prostitutes.

“What you did was despicable,” Wallace said. “But you didn’t endanger any lives and you did not force anybody to do this.”

The pilot, in a black suit flanked by three lawyers, shook his head in agreement.

African-American activists were disappointed but not shocked at the lenient punishment for a large-scale commercial sex operation run by a white businessman.
“If that was someone who looked like me, they’d be under the jail right now,” said Ashton Woods with Black Lives Matter of Houston. “It appears that white men these days are getting off really easy. I’m not surprised, to be honest.”

The judge said Wallis suggested community service at a woman’s shelter to learn about the victims of sex trafficking.

The difference between prostitutes who agree to be part of a criminal enterprise and people who are forced to become prostitutes by traffickers has come under scrutiny in recent years. Many criminal justice reformers argue that no one wants to become a prostitute, and that the causes are more insidious than coercion.

To that end, prosecutors have largely stopped prosecuting victims of trafficking, but they continue filing charges against willing prostitutes.

In Wallis’ case, the prosecutor said he had sought up to seven years in prison in exchange for the guilty plea, but the judge instead ordered probation. The judge also ruled that Wallis could not fly commercially during the probation but could operate his flight school.

“The judge did a thorough review and determined that a deferred adjudication probation was appropriate in this case,” said Assistant Harris County District Attorney Lester Blizzard. “I asked for penitentiary time.”

Asked about disparity in sentencing between Wallis’ misdeeds and others, Blizzard said there was not a good way to compare cases.

“All cases stand on their own. All cases are different,” the prosecutor said. “So I don’t know if there’s a way to summarize or draw a line between any of these.”

Wallis’ attorney said the pilot was remorseful and admitted what he did, so probation was a just result.

“I think he learned that what he did was a crime,” said defense lawyer Dan Cogdell. “(The judge) did the right thing because it allows Mr. Wallis to accept responsibility and move forward and be a productive member of society.”

Asked about a sentencing disparity, Cogdell said the result was within the range of acceptable sentences.

He noted that early reports suggesting Wallis may have been using his position as a commercial pilot to move women, gold bars and millions of dollars in an international sex trafficking ring were speculation that turned out not to be true.

“When you recognize this for what this was, it certainly wasn’t a great idea, but it wasn’t the crime of the century that they initially made it out to be,” Cogdell said.

Court records show investigators believe the women advertised online and paid Wallis $400 a week. He was accused in court records of recruiting five women at a time and having sex with them before putting them to work as prostitutes. If convicted in a jury trial, Wallis could have faced a maximum of 20 years in prison.
The news caused criminal justice activists to speak out about other crimes involving prostitution and trafficking.

Tarsha Jackson, with Texas Organizing Project, said that while she does not like to see anyone put behind bars, the criminal justice system should be fair.
“This proves that our system is not fair,” she said. “I’ve talked to people who are charged with misdemeanors who got harsher punishments than this.”

Prosecutors noted that pimps who stand trial in Harris County are not typically sympathetic figures to citizens who judge them.

“Jurors have little mercy for pimps,” JoAnne Musick, head of the Sex Crimes Division at the Harris County District Attorney’s Office, said in a statement after Houston pimp Ronald Block was sentenced earlier this year.

Most of Harris County’s high-profile cases, however, have included allegations of sex trafficking or prostitution of underage victims.

Block, known as “Gorgeous Black,” was sentenced to 30 years in prison in May for forcing a teenage runaway into prostitution.

A registered sex offender who is black, Block pleaded guilty to compelling prostitution in an agreement that helped him avoid a possible life sentence. He admitted managing four prostitutes – including a 17-year-old runaway – from March to May of 2015.

Last year, the madam of a notorious brothel that operated in Houston’s East End for years was sentenced to life in federal prison for her role as the leader of an international sex trafficking ring that forced women and girls into prostitution.

Hortencia “Tencha” Medeles, 70, was convicted during a trial that exposed operations at Medeles’ three-building complex on Telephone Road. A cantina was located downstairs, and hidden doorways and staircases led to a brothel upstairs where 17 rooms were rented out for sex.

Earlier this year in a federal courtroom in Houston, a Harris County man was sentenced to more than 18 years in prison for the sex trafficking of a 17-year-old girl. DeAngelo Tate, a 27-year-old black man, also had to pay $20,000 in restitution to the girl in a plea deal in May. Tate pleaded guilty to one count of sex trafficking of children in December.

According to a statement by Tate, he posted classified advertisements on backpage.com promoting the prostitution of the 17-year-old female, but he said she was 19 or 22. Tate admitted he also rented hotel rooms in Corpus Christi and Houston to serve as the location for sex acts between the teen and male customers.

Some criminal justice activists said the trafficking allegations raise the severity of the likely punishment, but said there are other factors that can be detrimental to people of color in the criminal justice system.

Growing up in a disadvantaged neighborhood, for example, may lead to a minor criminal history that leads to the lack of steady employment. After being arrested for a serious offense, such as aggravated promotion of prostitution or engaging in criminal activity, a suspect with a criminal record and spotty job record may not be able to get bail. Stuck in jail, they lose money and family support that becomes crucial when a judge has discretion in a case.

Wallis, on the other hand had no prior criminal record and was able to make $15,000 bail.

“A lot of advantages that white defendants may have at sentencing tend to make them better candidates, reinforcing racial disparity at sentencing,” said Nicole D. Porter, a spokeswoman for the Sentencing Project, an advocacy group in Washington, D.C.

This story originally appeared 11/16/2017 in the Houston Chronicle.

Harris County bail case argued before federal appeals court in New Orleans

Bail presser

NEW ORLEANS — Amid a stream of pointed questions from the bench, lawyers for Harris County Tuesday asked panel of the 5th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals to toss a lower court ruling that the county’s criminal justice system violated the constitution by holding poor defendants on low level offenses simply because they could not afford bail.

The arguments challenge an April ruling by Chief U.S. District Judge Lee H. Rosenthal in Houston that the county’s bail system violated due process and equal protection by discriminating against poor misdemeanor defendants, when people with the money to could await trial at home.

A trio of appellate judges heard 30 minutes of oral arguments from the county, which has spent $4.2 million combating the lawsuit, and another 30 minutes from lawyers for a group of indigent defendants who languished in jail for days because they couldn’t afford to post bail.

Hearing the matter at the stately white courthouse on Layfayette Square were Judge Edith Brown Clement, a New Orleans jurist appointed by President George H.W. Bush, and two Texas judges, Judge Catharina Haynes, of Dallas, a former civil court judge in Dallas, and Judge Edward C. Prado, who worked for both the district attorney and public defender’s office in San Antonio, both of whom were tapped for the 5th Circuit by President George W. Bush.

Dubbed “the nation’s most divisive, controversial and conservative appeals court” by the American Bar Association, the New Orleans-based 5th Circuit, hears appellate cases from Texas, Louisiana and Mississippi.

The judges appeared to be questioning whether the bail hearings were substantive for defendants, whether the sheriff had the authority to release people on bond and whether 24-hour limit Rosenthal set for holding indigent defendants without holds or detainers was arbitrary.

Of the three, Haynes commanded the questioning throughout the morning, including when Chuck Cooper, a seasoned appellate lawyer who heads the Washington, D.C. law firm Cooper & Kirk, argued for the county that the bail hearings were not perfunctory.

Haynes interrupted Cooper mid-sentence, with a rhetorical question, “Now they know they’re under scrutiny so they add an extra sentence to their rubber stamp?”
To Alec Karakatsanis, director of the Civil Rights Corps in D.C, who represents the indigent defendants who sued the county, Haynes repeatedly asked about why the defendants needed to be released from jail by the 24-hour mark.

“I’m asking a very specific question you’re not answering,” she said. “Where in the U.S. Constitution does it say you’re required to release… within 24 hours.”
“It doesn’t,” Karakatsanis said.

Haynes also asked what’s the value of the affidavit inmates sign to swear they can’t afford bail.

“What if they’re lying on this affidavit–I don’t know, if they’re a millionaire or something?” she queried.

Karakatsanis said they could face further prosecution for contempt if they misrepresented their means.

The panel of judges is not expected to rule immediately.

Following an eight-day hearing, Rosenthal ruled on April 28 that the county’s bail practices were unconstitutional., and she ordered the county to release indigent inmates arrested on low-level charges within 24 hours if they do not have detainers, holds or competency hearings pending.

Rather than putting cash upfront, these individuals are now permitted to await trial on personal bonds.

The judge found defendants were exposed to rushed hearings and those who tried to speak were commanded not to, shouted down or ignored She said the judges did not do the analysis to conclude that cash bail is better than unsecured bail.

The case was initially brought on behalf of Maranda ODonnell, a young mother who was held in the Harris County Jail because she could not afford to post $2,500 bail after being arrested for driving with a suspended license. The class-action suit will affect other inmates in the jail.

Prior to the morning session, Elizabeth Rossi, an attorney with Civil Rights Corps, said she was ready for the appeals.

“We’re looking forward to answering the panel’s questions and explaining why this is a simple case that upholds fundamental principles of liberty enshrined in the constitution,” she said.

County Attorney Vince Ryan said the 24-hour timeline Rosenthal set was problematic.

“The judge’s order shifts judicial functions—the setting of reasonable bail and conditions of release for misdemeanors—to an affidavit by the defendant which must be accepted by the sheriff,” he said. “The order applies regardless of the number of times a person is arrested and fails to appear for court. A system that promotes speedy release without real accountability over public safety is not a system that Harris County can embrace.”

This story originally appeared 10/3/2017 in the Houston Chronicle.