“My name is Michael McSpadden, judge of the 209th District Court. The court is going to read the charge against you. Please do not respond in any way…”
Thus began a series of ritual playlets between one of the longest-serving judges in Harris County’s criminal courts and a chain of accused men and women, most of them black, with their hands cuffed behind their backs. Typical of the county’s felony court dockets, charges that March morning included murder, aggravated assault, rape, robbery, burglary, indecency with a child—crimes worthy of significant punishment. But, as almost always, the charges against several defendants were for offenses a majority of the judges in Harris County’s 22 district courts do not believe should be a felony: possession of less than a gram of a controlled substance such as cocaine, methamphetamine, heroin, or dozens of derivatives and synthetic analogs.
At an intermission in