Saturday, July 19, 2008

Special "Plea Rocket Docket" Sends 88 Inmates Home to Ease Jail Overcrowding

Yesterday, a court in Brevard County, Florida held a special "plea rocket docket" session. The special plea bargaining event was designed to quickly move 88 non-violent misdemeanor offenders off the dockets and out of an overcrowded jail. The judge conducting the event specifically reminded the participants not to accept a plea agreement just to get out of jail, stating, "We want to go fast, but we don't want to slaughter anyone's due process." 

Court appearances at the county jail usually are somber sessions filled with bitter hand-wringing and looks filled with regret. Friday was a little different.

A specially scheduled "rocket docket" meant to expedite plea deals between nonviolent misdemeanor offenders and the state -- before regularly scheduled court dates -- resulted in 88 inmates going home, as well as a standing ovation when Circuit Judge George Maxwell was finished at 10:42 a.m. There were lots of smiles.

. . . Chief Judge Clayton Simmons appointed Maxwell to oversee Friday's proceedings. Simmons said he ordered the special plea docket "in an effort to comply with federal mandates and reduce the population of the Brevard County Jail Complex."

"The special docket has been very effective in expediting misdemeanor cases and freeing up bed space in the Seminole County Jail, and we would like to replicate that success in Brevard," Simmons wrote in a July 10 memo announcing the special docket. "Again, let me stress this docket is intended for low-risk, misdemeanor offenders, who do not pose an identifiable threat to public safety."

While the county jail has long had a history of being over capacity, Simmons said the timing had to do with a special meeting soon among Middle District of Florida court officials regarding jail overcrowding.

We are all familiar with the "rocket dockets" used in immigration and patent cases to move defendants or petitioners swiftly through the federal courts, but the Brevard event, which included all manner of criminal offense, appears to be somewhat unique. 

So is this a good idea, and should courts around the country utilize such swift justice to clear the dockets and the jail cells? I believe it depends on the reasons for the use of such a system and the safeguards employed to ensure justice is served. In the misdemeanor context, defendants who cannot afford bail often remain in jail awaiting trial longer than the length of a reasonable sentence should they be found guilty. It is hard to argue, therefore, that these defendants should not be given the chance to plead guilty and go home as fast as possible. In the Brevard cases, the article notes that certain defendants were in jail because they could not afford to pay a $100 fine for having an open container. 

The "plea rocket docket," however, creates yet another penalty for those who exercise their right to be proven guilty at trial - namely, they would remain in jail awaiting trial while those who pleaded guilty would be released. (See my earlier post regarding plea bargaining differentials here). And this negative aspect of the "plea rocket docket" brings up yet another problem, this type of system creates an immense incentive for defendants to plead guilty even if they are not guilty of the charged offense. It almost defies reason to believe that anyone would volunteer to remain in jail awaiting some future opportunity to present his or her case to a judge when freedom is a simple guilty plea away. (See my earlier post regarding defendants pleading guilty to crimes they did not commit here). 

Nevertheless, I think this is an innovative process that should be seriously considered where it can assist indigent defendants who remain behind bars awaiting the opportunity to come before a judge. The decision then belongs to the defendant, even if the factors weighed in the decision are wildly one sided. The defendants in the article certainly appeared happy with the results. 

See the Florida Today article here.

2 comments:

Gritsforbreakfast said...

I think there are more profound implications than you've identified to the rocket docket in this circumstance:

"In the misdemeanor context, defendants who cannot afford bail often remain in jail awaiting trial longer than the length of a reasonable sentence should they be found guilty. It is hard to argue, therefore, that these defendants should not be given the chance to plead guilty and go home as fast as possible."

The purpose of bail is not to give prosecutors maximum leverage to extract plea bargains, it's to ensure people return to court. The expansion of pretrial detention for low-level offenses in the last 10-15 years is largely a function of maximizing plea leverage, not some new rash of people failing to show up at court. Personal bonds should be available for all but a few violent misdemeanors unless somebody's skipped before. The main reason not to give more personal bonds for misdemeanors - and to endure the high jail overcrowding costs that go with that decision - is precisely to pressure Ds into accepting time served. That's a recipe for false convictions and many other problems.

The rocket docket concept is used extensively in criminal courts in bigger Texas counties, especially for misdemeanor and state jail felonies (the equivalent of 4th degree felonies), where probation and/or time served is doled out liberally for anyone willing to plea.

Soronel Haetir said...

How can someone sitting in jail longer than a typical sentence under the charged offense not be a speedy trial violation?