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The Injustice That Cannot Be Undone


People say I am unforgiving. Sometimes that is true. When the damage done is for a lifetime and when it’s done to the poorest among us by those who should have known better, then I am unforgiving.

I am unforgiving to those who for a time sat on county criminal benches in Harris County. I am unforgiving of those who systematically denied PR bonds to the poor. For years in this county, fifteen county criminal court judges systematically denied PR bonds. The result was the “Plea Mill”. It worked as follows: The poor who were too poor to hire a bondsman to get out of jail, remained in jail. The poor remained in jail  because the fifteen  county criminal court judges  systematically  denied the poor PR bonds. The poor who were stuck in jail then  had a choice which was no choice at all; a Hobson’s Choice.

The poor could plead guilty and get out of jail soon or they could fight their case and sit in jail for months awaiting trial. Given this non-choice, the vast majority of poor people chose to plead guilty.They plead guilty to get out of jail sooner rather than later. They plead guilty not because they were guilty. They plead guilty as it was the quickest way to obtain their liberty.

Eventually, this vile plea mill system lead to the overdue and well-deserved federal lawsuit. Judge Lee Rosenthal found the system was rotten to the core. During the course of the lawsuit, under the leadership of Judge Darrell Jordan, things finally changed for the better. The newly elected Democratic county criminal court judges, implemented local rule 9.1 which favored the granting of PR Bonds. The new judges put an end to their predecessor’s systematic denial of Pr bonds and the resulting Plea Mill. Now poor people, charged in our county criminal court,  are given Pr bonds. They no  longer have to plead guilty in order to get out of jail. They get out of jail without first having to plead guilty to a crime they may or may not have committed.  Their lawyers have a chance to help them and they have a chance to walk away without a conviction. So why won’t I forgive the fifteen county criminal judges who imposed the plea mill? Why won’t I forgive the judges who systematically denied PR bonds? Because those who fell victim to the plea mill, have still not recieved justice. In fact, they are routinely re-victimized by the plea mill. As a direct result of the Plea Mill, many poor people’s criminal records  are forever stained with a conviction they do not deserve. They have a conviction for a crime they did not commit. While the system has changed, the undeserved convictions remain.

Thousands upon thousands of our mostly poor fellow Houstonians carry these undeserved convictions as part of their life. What is the impact? It is hard to say. No doubt many Have missed out on job opportunities. Those who are poor have a harder time pulling themselves out of poverty with a conviction on their record. Many have likely found themselves stuck in poverty because they cannot advance with the stain of a criminal conviction. This is particularly true for those with convictions for theft offenses or other crimes involving moral turpitude. Poor people who were not guilty of theft, but nonetheless pled guilty in order to get out of jail will pay for that choice for the rest of their lives. The Plea Mill, permanently damaged  the criminal records of many Houstonians. For these people, there  is no relief from  the injustice  of the undeserved conviction. To relate to this, how would you feel if your entire life you were stuck with a  theft conviction that you did not deserve? How would you feel if you were poor and when you applied for jobs, you routinely were denied  job opportunities  because of an  undeserved theft conviction? And what of the judges who systematically denied Pr bonds? What of the judges whose illegal and immoral  actions created and perpetuated the Plea Mill? Are their lives stained in any way?

No, of course not. Have they had to pay for their systematic denial of Pr bonds and the lasting negative impact it has had on the lives of thousands of poor people? No, there is no cost to them. So, I reserve the right to not    forgive these former judges for the injustice they inflicted on our fellow Houstonians. And periodically,  I will voice my disdain for them and my contempt for what they did. They disgraced their  bench  and they betrayed the oath they took. The  poor who ended up with undeserved convictions will continue to  be re-victimized by the Plea Mill, every time they do not get a job because of their undeserved conviction. So others may forgive and forget;  I will do neither.

Robb Fickman
Hooston, Texas

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