Pubdate: Fri, 19 Oct 2001
Source: Houston Chronicle (TX)
Copyright: 2001 Houston Chronicle Publishing Company Division, Hearst Newspaper
Author: Thom Marshall,


Sticks and stones can break my bones, but when a state judge called me
an idiot it struck me as pretty curious.

Of course this wasn't the first time an unpleasant name or label has
been tossed this direction. It is somewhat routine and expected in
this line of work. You learn to duck. You grow thick skin. You figure
everyone is entitled to an opinion.

I can think of several judges through the years who I'm pretty sure
would have liked to call me an idiot, but none other who actually said
it out loud to a group of people. I don't think this seems like very
judicial behavior, but then I'm probably not in a position to make an
unbiased call about that.

After learning about this from someone who was at the meeting, I
called up his honor to ask if I might come over to the courthouse for
an in camera meeting. We spent close to an hour visiting, and I
enjoyed it. I liked the guy.

He explained his reason for calling me an idiot was due in large part
to a column wherein a woman had complained that her son's probation
was revoked because he had missed a meeting with his probation
officer. The judge said he believes the mother was not telling the
whole truth about her son. He said that mothers are like that.

The Other Side Of The Story

The judge said the kid probably had committed other violations before
missing the meeting. For example, maybe he'd failed to complete his
GED, maybe he'd had a couple of dirty urine tests. ...

I understood the judge's point to be that our criminal justice system
does not lock people in prison merely for missing a probation meeting,
and I should not tell a mother's side without also detailing the
complete official list of the son's crimes and probation violations.

The judge obviously is quite proud of his role in the local criminal
justice system, which he said is known far and wide for its
efficiency. And there is no questioning the fact that Harris County
has racked up some attention-worthy statistics.

For instance, if the numbers I've seen are correct, we send more
people to prison than any other area of Texas, whether you measure by
percentage of population or by actual number. That would mean that we
also rate near the top -- if not in first place -- of the list for the
nation, and for the entire world.

But is that considered a measure of efficiency? I think Houston has
just as big a percentage of nice people as most other cities in the
world, and a far bigger percentage than many of them. So I don't
understand why we are locking up so many of us.

Prison isn't always the answer

And sending people to prison can be the most inefficient thing to do
in many cases. Far too many people wind up in prison because they
cannot get adequate treatment on the outside for medical problems such
as brain illnesses or brain injuries or addictions. We lock them away
in prison even though it would cost much less and benefit society much
more to provide the medical treatment that would let them function in
the world.

And if it is efficient for judges to control which lawyers get
appointed to represent poor defendants, the price of such efficiency
is too dear. A defense lawyer should not owe his job to the judge. A
defense lawyer should have free rein to work for the defendant.

It may be far more efficient to get clients to accept plea bargains
than let them have jury trials, but people who choose to exercise the
right to be tried by juries of their peers should not be punished for

I'm planning to visit a fellow in jail soon who has been there since
April 6, 2000. According to his father, the 21-year-old has been
holding out for a trial because he said he is not guilty and doesn't
believe it will be possible for the prosecution to prove otherwise.
But his trial has been postponed time and again against his wishes.

The judge who called me an idiot said he doesn't believe that many
people have to wait in jail for long periods if they want trials. But
I've heard many similar stories. I believe it happens.

I also believe that being a judge in these times must be about the
hardest job a person could sign up for. Errors are not acceptable, but
perfection is impossible. So I think that judge might have called me
an idiot out of frustration, as much as anything.
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