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Female, Mentally Ill Inmates Faced Worst Justice-System Delays Post-Harvey
Houston Press - 10/23/2017
She had been sitting in jail for three months when she was set to plead guilty to stealing two cases of beer, a felony offense since she had stolen several times since 1995. Houston defense attorney Vik Vij was hoping to get his client out on time served during a hearing at the end of August.
But then came Hurricane Harvey. Seeping through the walls of the Harris County Criminal Justice Center, the floodwaters destroyed the courthouse and all but shut down much of the judicial system for several days while judges tried to figure out how to get things back up and running in other buildings.
Meaning Vij's client wasn't going anywhere - for a lot longer than several days, that is.
"It was very frustrating to her, because she was going to plead for time served - and then she sat in custody waiting to get a court date," Vij said.
It would be another full month before Vij's client would finally have her day in court and take the plea deal, on September 26 - during the first week that Harris County finally had a regular court-hearing schedule for female defendants stuck in jail.
While delays have continued to plague the local criminal justice system, several defense attorneys, a DA's office staff member, judges and other administrators all described to the Houston Press how the delays affected some pretrial inmates worse than others. Namely: the females and mentally ill inmates on specialty dockets - the smaller populations of defendants, some of whom were stuck in jail for weeks without seeing a judge despite being ready to be released on probation or take a plea deal.
Staci Biggar, a defense attorney who specializes in mental health cases, listed several cases in which her mentally ill clients went three weeks to a month without being heard. A couple had just returned from a competency restoration stay at a state hospital (a process that itself can take several months) and were supposed to take plea deals the week Harvey hit - but did not end up seeing a judge until three weeks after the storm. Others, Biggar said, were arrested for violating terms of probation just before Harvey but were not seen until mid-September.
"Everybody was doing the best they could, but it was just overwhelming," Biggar said.
"Everybody was doing the best they could, but it was just overwhelming. And because we're small, it was like [the courts] were taking care of the bulk of the people they could take care of, and the smaller populations were just not reached until later," Biggar said. "I don't think there was maliciousness there. There wasn't a bad person who said, 'Forget them.' They just got overlooked in the mess."
Here's the source of the problem: With the courthouse closed, judges had to find a new home for their own courtrooms, now housed in the civil and family courthouses - but neither of those buildings were made for hearings with inmates and lack holding cells, leading judges and the Harris County Sheriff's Office to improvise other makeshift spaces near the jail where inmates could still see judges. The main challenges: Men and women can't have docket hearings at the same time; the sheriff can only transport a limited number of people at once; and given specialty mental health dockets are separate from regular schedules, at first, there were little to no openings to squeeze in those defendants on the regular dockets, Biggar said.
Clay Bowman, the head felony courts administrator, confirmed that September 21 was the first time the courts started having regular docket hearings for in-custody females, compared to weeks earlier for males; the Harris County Public Defender's Office said female inmates had at least two other opportunities before September 21 for docket hearings. The sheriff's office, the agency in charge of transporting the female inmates, acknowledged logistical challenges in a statement but did not answer multiple questions from the Press about how frequently they brought females to hearings in early September. Spokesman Tom Gilliland said "the simple reason that males had significantly more cases being heard at 1307 [Baker Street] was there was more of a backlog of male inmates than female inmates."
Judge Brock Thomas, who oversees the felony mental health courts, said he was able to start hearing on-bond cases regularly about two weeks after Harvey, but acknowledged it was possible others who were in jail may not have been heard until later in September. Pretrial inmates in the mental health specialty are being scheduled for court hearings on a more regular basis at this point, Thomas said. "Obviously it wasn't an optimal situation for anybody, and clearly it was different from the routines we had before, when we were back in the previous building and when we had a given day we conducted dockets," he said. "But folks are being seen."
Vanesa Velasquez, administrative felony judge, said that the females from each court are now seen regularly once per week Monday through Thursday. The six courts allowed to bring ten inmates each for a total of 60 women per day. (The sheriff's office did not respond to questions about why it is capped at 60.) If there are more than 60 women who need to be seen that day, they'll be prioritized at the next week's docket, said Harris County Criminal Lawyers Association President Tucker Graves.
Velasquez said that until the sheriff's office could open a separate building for the males to have their hearings-making things significantly smoother - not even the judges could know for sure what rooms they were going to be in on any given day.
"It was incredibly crowded and unorganized [at 1307 Baker at first]. It was just awful," Velasquez said. "We didn't even know where we were going, the DA's office didn't know where they were going to be, where all the files were. It was just a mess."
With that specific mess behind them, Graves said the ongoing mess is getting clients to trial as quickly as possible now that juries are back. Jury duty resumed October 16 for misdemeanors. Juries are back in felony courtrooms on Monday.
Since the jury assembly building was flooded during Harvey and largely destroyed, jurors are now meeting in the county administration basement - and have to use "luxury portable bathrooms" outside because there are not enough in the basement, which is the building's cafeteria.