This is an issue that is near-and-dear to my heart. For a couple of years I did indigent misdemeanor defense in Galveston County. I always found jail docket to be dispiriting, for this exact reason — people with winnable cases would plead guilty just to get out of jail, even when I warned them.
I never did any work in Harris County, but this article makes me think that might have been a blessing in disguise:
No matter how a lawyer gets so many cases, he or she better work them fast. And the fastest way to clear a case is for the defendant to plead guilty.
And plead they do. The indigent defense caseload study found that appointed attorneys had strong incentives to pressure their clients to accept plea deals regardless of actual guilt. “High caseloads contribute to a ‘meet and plead’ system that can result in serious incidents of attorney error,” it notes.
Last year, defendants in 57 percent of Harris County’s 69,000 trial-level misdemeanor cases pleaded guilty, as did almost half of the 40,000 felony defendants.
In some cases, appointed attorneys have more than incentive to urge their clients to plead. They also have leverage: jail.
“The way it’ll work is, the [appointed] lawyer will talk to the [district attorney], the DA will tell them, ‘This is what the offer is,’ and they’ll go back and convey this offer to the defendant,” Fickman says. “It almost always boils to this: that they’re offering you X, which means if you plead guilty you’ll get out of jail in so many days. Or we can reset [delay] your case, if you want to fight it, and you’ll end up spending more days in jail. It’s a hostage choice — it’s not a choice at all. These are poor people who need to get back out and try to feed their families. So what do they do? They plead guilty. They’re not pleading because they’re necessarily guilty but because they’re getting their liberty. The horror, the horrible irony of this system, is that people are pleading guilty just to get their liberty. And it goes on every fucking day.”
If Texas ever does the just and right thing — to wit, establishing a functional public defender system — I may consider asking the State Bar to become “active” again.