A group advocating for criminal justice system reform is urging the Harris County Commissioners Court to dismiss “non-violent” felonies as a means to reduce both the jail population and a backlog of criminal cases in the county.
Earlier this month, in the final hour of a commissioners court meeting that stretched past midnight, commissioners heard a report from staff at The Justice Management Institute (JMI) on the status of the county’s jail and criminal courts.
In their report, JMI President Elaine Borakove and Program Director Thomas Eberly described the jail and court system as one in crisis and in urgent need for intervention.
“The criminal justice system is at a very dangerous point and requires immediate action by elected officials and justice system leaders,” said Eberly. “The justice system has been struggling since Hurricane Harvey…and now, since COVID-19, your justice system is on the verge of collapse.”
Eberly said his dire predictions were partially based on the jail population, which had been steadily increasing from a low of about 7,500 inmates in May, but could swell to 10,000 by Labor Day.
He expressed alarm about the possible spread of coronavirus, and lamented that 87 percent of inmates were coming from district courts under pre-trial detention and had “not been convicted of any crime yet.”
“Therein lies the problem with your criminal justice system, the district court is collapsing under the enormous volume.”
Eberly added that according to JMI analysis, there were more than 36,000 pending felony cases as of May 1, 2020.
Since they believe that even adding resources would not solve the problem quickly, Eberly and Borakove said the JMI recommendation would be to dismiss all low-level, non-violent cases older than nine months, with some exceptions.
They also suggested that in addition to a purge of older felony cases, the county should establish a new group consisting of judges who would be tasked with quickly moving all backlogged cases to disposition quickly, and that a similar procedure should be applied to county courts.
Finally, JMI advocated for expanding the kinds of offenses eligible for diversion programs but did not specify which criminal activities.
Commissioner Jack Cagle (R-Precinct 4) asked for clarification on how many cases would be dismissed, which specific crimes would be dismissed, and who exactly would be dismissing the cases.
While declining to provide specifics and saying the details could be part of an ongoing discussion, Borakove suggested dismissing “non-person” crimes that were state jail felonies.
Eberly estimated that somewhere between 30 and 50 percent of the pending “non-violent” felony cases could be dismissed.
“I know it’s uncomfortable, but you’ve got to cut your losses and deal with the backlog of cases,” said Eberly.
“So, we’re talking about 12,000 to 18,000…criminal cases that we’ve not defined yet what non-violent is,” asked Cagle. “And then you’re anticipating that they would be dismissed not by the commissioners court but by prosecutors, and defense counsel, and the judges working together?”
“Correct,” answered Eberly.
The letter JMI submitted addressed to Judge Lina Hidalgo and the commissioners is dated June 1, 2020, but at the June 9-10 meeting Commissioner Adrian Garcia (D-Precinct 2) told County Judge Lina Hidalgo, “This is the first time I’m hearing anything about this.”
Commissioner Rodney Ellis (D-Precinct 1) who added the JMI agenda item, said he had “a quick briefing” on the report, but Commissioner Steve Radack (R-Precinct 3) asked when the commissioners court had been given the information.
Harris County Justice Administration Department Director Jim Bethke said the letter had been provided to the elected commissioners only earlier that day. Earlier in the meeting, Bethke said he’d already provided the report and recommendations to the district judges and told commissioners “I am making a plea to you that we go ahead and take the action that’s needed.”
Ellis did not request action on the report at the June 9-10 meeting, but the published agenda for the upcoming June 30 meeting includes a request from the Justice Administration for additional funding of $888,469 and 12 new positions effective July 4, 2020.
As of June 25, there were a total of 8,051 inmates held in the Harris County Jail system. More than 6,300 were pretrial detainees, with the top three categories being Aggravated Robbery with a Deadly Weapon (29.03 percent,) Aggravated Assault with a Deadly Weapon (22.02 percent,) and Aggravated Assault of a Family Member (22.02 percent.) Another 563 inmates were being detained under motions to revoke parole.
A county Justice Administration Department Weekly Trend report provided to The Texan showed that as of June 5 there were also 911 jail inmates subject to Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) holds.
A footnote on the JMI letter notes that new felony filings in Harris County during the first four months of 2020 are on pace for their highest level since 2008.
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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.