“We need to invest in what works, not what’s designed to score political points or to make splashy headlines,” said Hidalgo.
Hidalgo and Commissioner Adrian Garcia (D-Pct. 2) held a press conference Tuesday morning to announce a proposal to create an emergency response docket including three visiting judges and related staff to serve for six months at a cost of $2.5 million. The temporary courts will be tasked with processing what Hidalgo said were about 1,000 of the most violent cases that had been pending the longest in the county.
“Alleviating our unacceptable and dangerous case backlog in the criminal courts is the most impactful thing we can do right now to reduce and prevent crime in Harris County, “said Hidalgo.
Harris County’s criminal case backlog has been reported to be as high as 140,000. Some of the backlog is due to closures and damage following 2017’s Hurricane Harvey, but the problem was exacerbated last year during the COVID-19 government-mandated shutdowns.
According to a 2019 Texas Department of Public Safety report, violent crime in Houston began to rise several years ago, but last year saw a dramatic spike — particularly in the homicide rate. Data from the Houston Police Department indicates homicides in the region have increased 42 percent from this time last year, and a whopping 91 percent since 2019, and the city now leads the nation in a spiking homicide rate.
Many residents and local leaders have been sounding the alarm on lax felony bail bond policies that the county’s criminal court judges began implementing after the 2018 elections. Crime Stoppers Houston reports that there have now been 127 people murdered by suspects who were out on multiple felony bonds.
Crime Stoppers victim’s advocate Andy Kahan identified the 127th victim last week as 29-year-old Tevin Watson who was fatally shot during a home invasion while he was with his two children. One of two suspects arrested and charged in the case, Qiriathiam Phillips, was out on seven felony bonds at the time of the murder.
Tuesday evening, Kahan also announced the discovery that on July 15, the county’s 185th Criminal Court under Judge Jason Luong had released murder suspect Brandon Andrus on a surety bond although he was already out on three other felony bonds at the time of the murder.
The commissioners court unanimously approved the temporary court expansion measure, which includes funding an online portal for the public to track the progress of the docket; something Commissioner Tom Ramsey (R-Pct. 3) said he and his staff had been “begging for.” Commissioner Jack Cagle (R-Pct. 4) noted that previously the county had posted such information, but that somewhere in recent years the portal had disappeared.
Democrat commissioners, however, adamantly opposed a proposed resolution from Ramsey in support of Texas Senate Bill (SB) 6 designed to address felony bond practices that allow judges to release repeat violent offenders on minimal bond amounts.
Introduced by Sen. Joan Huffman (R-Houston) in accordance with Gov. Greg Abbott’s special session call, SB 6 last week passed the Senate in a 22 to 0 vote that included support from four Democrats including Houston’s Sen. John Whitmire.
During commissioners court, speakers from the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) and the Texas Organizing Project spoke in opposition to Ramsey’s resolution and SB 6, but numerous residents voiced support, including several who took umbrage at Hidalgo’s earlier comments.
Citing the rise in violent crimes, Lindsay Aronstein said “These are not just ‘splashy headlines’ or to score political points; public safety should never be politicized. These are people’s lives.”
“I would not call the murders of 127 Houstonians ‘splashy headlines,’” said Harris County resident Cara Vann.
Alex Bunin of the county’s Public Defender’s Office spoke in opposition to the resolution and SB 6 saying that violent crime had not actually increased.
“A lot of what’s being said is anecdote, not statistics, anecdote.”
During legislative hearings on a previous version of SB 6, Harris County sent Colin Cepuran, who has advocated abolishing prisons, to oppose the bill, while District Attorney Kim Ogg testified in support of state action to quell the release of repeat violent offenders on bond.
At the very end of the commissioners court meeting, Garcia proposed a substitute resolution on SB 6 stating that rising crime was likely due to the COVID-19 pandemic and lambasting Abbott for signing constitutional carry legislation that “has put guns in the hands of criminals.”
The Texas legislature passed House Bill (HB) 1927 in May, but the new law does not take effect until September 1, 2021.
Garcia’s substitute resolution also called felony bond legislation political hyperbole and said the state should focus on the root causes of crime. The resolution passed 3 to 2, on party lines.
Earlier in the day Ramsey also proposed adding another 50 patrol officers to crime hotspots in the county but agreed to have the item referred to budget management for cost analysis.
Hidalgo said she preferred for staff to continue to analyze the issues and fund options that would have the highest impact, such as mental health or violence interruptions. The three visiting judges approved Tuesday are in addition to a county plan to appoint “associate judges” and staff on a temporary basis, and to fund body cameras and other equipment for existing law enforcement.
Regarding additional police patrols Hidalgo said she did not want to return to actions that might lead to “mass incarcerations.”
Newly appointed County Administrator David Berry cautioned that it might be difficult to find funding for permanent positions and noted that the county would be working to set county tax rates in mid-September.
Cagle suggested that Berry look at how additional patrols correlated with traffic issues allowing for consideration of Harris County Toll Road Authority (HCTRA) funds the county has been shifting into other projects.
A copy of Commissioner Garcia’s resolution can be found below.
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Holly Hansen is a freelance writer living in Harris County. Her former column, “All In Perspective” ran in The Georgetown Advocate, Jarrell Star Ledger, and The Hill Country News, and she has contributed to a variety of Texas digital media outlets. She graduated summa cum laude from the University of Central Florida with a degree in History, and in addition to writing about politics and policy, also writes about faith and culture.