Local agencies are working together to improve Harris County’s criminal justice system — a system that experts say is overwhelmed by a backlog of cases and discriminates against low-income residents and people of color.
The Harris County Court of Commissioners established the Department of Administration of Justice in 2019 to identify solutions and facilitate meaningful changes to the system.
“We seek to address the necessary systemic changes that need to occur [based on] Data [and] best practices so that the violence can be stopped, the trauma of this violence can be dealt with, [and] reducing racial and economic disparities can also be addressed while trying to minimize exposure to criminal justice as much as possible,” said JAD Acting Director Ana Yáñez Correa.
Since its inception, the JAD has created public dashboards featuring prison population data, county traffic stop demographics, indigent private defense attorney caseload data, and crime trends. comparing Harris County to other major counties in the state and nation.
This data and collaboration with other criminal justice agencies helps JAD officials develop recommendations for potential improvements.
“If our customers fall through the cracks, it’s often because we work with this system which is constantly flooded and overloaded. People get lost in the system, and if we’re able to look at those trends and identify where those gaps are and close them, I think we’d be much better off,” said Stephanie Truong, director of Beacon Law program, a program of The Beacon, a Houston-based nonprofit organization that serves local people experiencing homelessness.
Drew Wiley, CEO and founder of Restoring Justice, another Houston-area nonprofit, said when the organization was founded in 2016 that 97% of indigent cases go to private attorneys who juggled up to 10 times the maximum workload sought by the state. Six years later, that number has dropped as the county public defender’s office takes on more indigent cases. But Wiley said there’s still a lot of work to do.
“The hardest thing is that people in prison don’t feel the effects of everything that has been done by the actors in the system,” he said. “It’s still the court of the commissioners, in response to the George Floyd protests – they want to release these studies and these stories. And it’s good, [but] Show me a person in prison who has been positively impacted by the action you want to take.
JAD Special Projects Administrator Stephanie Armand said a series of disasters in recent years — from Hurricane Harvey to the pandemic — have put the county at a disadvantage.
Inefficiencies, such as judges sharing courtrooms and courts switching to Zoom operations for several months, led to a significant increase in the backlog of cases, Armand said. JAD recommendations to help reduce this backlog included providing additional space for jury trials and providing resources to help record evidence at the sheriff’s office.
Armand said the backlog of cases fell from 95,000 in June to 89,000 in November, attributing the Court of Commissioners’ investments in jury operations the most important factor.
“In a different world, [the JAD] would be an agency that can proactively review reports and do a lot of things that address issues that people care about, but in this world right now it’s about damage control, supporting the court of commissioners, d to help as many players as possible overcome some of these challenges,” Correa said.
Still, the JAD data highlighted challenges, including racial profiling in county law enforcement. A June report found that Hispanic drivers were more likely to receive citations and that black drivers were more likely to sustain bodily injuries from use of force than other racial and ethnic groups.
“I think it’s been proven over and over again by research and data that there is a problem with racial injustice in Harris County,” Wiley said. “I think things like this are what JAD brings together to hopefully convince more people…to start taking action to make a difference for individuals.”
Addressing public safety
In addition to investing in jury operations, the Court of Commissioners has taken steps to help reduce crime and alleviate system challenges.
In 2021, the court approved a $50 million neighborhood cleanup initiative in high-crime areas and launched both the Holistic Alternative Responder Team and the Gun Violence Interruption Program. Funding for law enforcement has also increased 22% over the past five years, according to county budget data.
Howard Henderson, professor and director of the Center for Justice Research at Texas Southern University, said the JAD’s work is helping the county rethink its approach to justice.
“I think the social work model that Harris County is implementing is the right thing to do because often times mental health cases and domestic violence cases turn sour unnecessarily just because we don’t have qualified personnel who take care of it,” he said.
Harris County Precinct 3 Commissioner Tom Ramsey announced in January the launch of a new crime task force to reduce violent crime. According to JAD data, the county’s overall crime rate has decreased by approximately 6% since 2015. However, crime increased year-over-year in 2019 and 2020, and the county’s crime rate Harris was higher than Los Angeles, Kings and Cook counties. during this time.
Harris County 4 County Constable Mark Herman said he thinks too many criminal cases are “arbitrarily closed”. In late 2021, he began refiling cases that had been dismissed by judges, he said.
“It’s a very bad message not only for our citizens, but it sends a message to criminals, and it has encouraged them to go out and commit more crimes and have them victimize more people,” said Herman.
Truong said Beacon Law received a $50,000 JAD grant last year to examine legal services from an equity perspective. The grant allowed Beacon Law to reach more clients by expanding income eligibility for services.
The organization works with clients who are chronically homeless, but it also serves clients who are living paycheck to paycheck and may be on the verge of becoming homeless.
“It’s a daily struggle for some people who have tried to fend for themselves and have done the best they can with the resources they have, but there’s definitely a lack of support and resources for people out there to break through. cycle and move on with their lives,” Truong said.
Implications for individuals
The JAD plans to continue conducting research and developing dashboards this year. A use-of-force policy report and a bond dashboard are expected to be released in the first quarter, Correa said.
“There’s a lot of talk about bond and surety reform, which from a system perspective is the most obvious example of ‘If you’re poor, you can’t get by.’ Being poor or rich is what drives justice there,” Wiley said.
Other areas of ongoing study deal with addressing inequities in the system; supporting survivors of crime; and addressing the root causes of crime and criminal justice involvement such as mental health, homelessness, substance abuse and poverty, Correa said.
Restoring Justice is one of the only indigent advocacy providers in the nation that also offers trauma-informed counseling, Wiley said, because he has found that trauma is often at the root of clients’ situations.
“The direct response to these evils, to these root causes, has been to throw someone in jail, and all of that just destabilizes and compounds the problem,” he said. “You could take a fraction of those dollars spent on the police system, the prison system, the prison system and do the initial treatment for mental health, homelessness, addictions … to avoid all that wasted money and help that person’s life as well as helping society.
Shawn Arrajj and Jishnu Nair contributed to this report.