Harris County to provide public defenders at bail hearings

Harris Co Bail

Harris County commissioners today voted unanimously to provide public defenders at bail hearings.

Two public defenders will be present at hearings where hearing officers set bail for criminal defendants, a process officials say results in the unnecessary jailing of thousands of defendants because they can’t afford bail or are unfamiliar with the legal process.

The pilot program approved Tuesday is part of the county’s effort to reform its criminal justice system that has come under intense scrutiny in recent years.

A federal civil rights lawsuit alleges the county’s bail system violates the rights of poor people by enforcing a rigid bail schedule that does not take into account that many poor people facing misdemeanor charges cannot make even nominal bail payments.

“It’s going in the right direction,” said Harris County judge Ed Emmett. “This is one of those things we needed to do.”

This story originally appeared 3/14/2017 in the Houston Chronicle.

People In Houston Are No Longer Going To Jail For Marijuana Possession

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Beginning on Wednesday, people who are caught with small amounts of marijuana in Harris County, Texas, will no longer earn a trip to jail.

Under the new policy, announced last month, police in Texas’ most populous county will instead offer four-hour drug education classes to anybody found with less than four ounces of marijuana. Harris County includes Houston, the fourth-most populous city in the U.S., with about 4.5 million residents.

Authorities will still arrest and prosecute cases when they find marijuana in school zones or in conjunction with other criminal behavior, and juveniles are not eligible for the program. But most low-level marijuana offenders will now avoid a trip to police station, won’t get booked into jail and won’t get a criminal record, as long as they complete the drug education course.

The classes cost $150, and financial aid will be available to people unable to pay. The county will pursue charges against those who fail to attend.

Officials say the new approach will save $26 million annually by lifting costs related to law enforcement, incarceration and the court system.

“When you have 10,000 cases on a 100,000-plus case docket that are simple marijuana possession cases, you look for smart ways to resolve those so that you can dedicate your resources to the really serious crimes,” Tom Berg, Harris County’s first assistant district attorney, told The Huffington Post.

The new policy will also mitigate costs that can pile up as defendants are caught in the legal system.

“Defendants don’t miss work, they don’t go to jail, they don’t have to make bonds, they don’t have to pay lawyers, the courts are not congested with these cases and the jail is less crowded,” Berg said.

The change comes as newly elected leaders in Harris County usher in a broader criminal justice reform agenda. District Attorney Kim Ogg and Sheriff Ed Gonzalez, both Democrats, campaigned on overhauling ineffective tough-on-crime policies and won their elections by substantial margins in November. Gonzalez and newly minted Houston Police Chief Art Acevedo, along with Houston’s Democratic mayor, Sylvester Turner, have expressed support for the new policy.

Harris County, an ethnically diverse and politically purple bastion in deep-red Texas, has previously taken a more lenient stance on weed than many of its neighbors. In 2015, then-District Attorney Devon Anderson, a Republican, announced a policy intended to divert nonviolent first-time marijuana offenders found with less than two ounces of marijuana to treatment.

But a report last year found that in the first six months of 2016, officers in Harris County had made more than 1,000 arrests involving people with less than two ounces of pot, 98 percent of them people in poorer communities.

Small-time marijuana charges still appear to be disrupting people’s lives. The Texas Organizing Project, a nonprofit that promotes social and economic equality, published a video last year that showed Harris County court magistrates making harsh assessments against defendants facing relatively minor charges.

In one clip involving a woman arrested for a misdemeanor marijuana charge, a judge doubles her bail from $1,000 to $2,000 after she responds to the judge’s question by saying “yeah” instead of “yes.” The woman has to remain in jail until the conclusion of her trial unless she comes up with $2,000, or a portion of it, to pay a commercial bail bondsman.

Harris County’s new marijuana program shows how activists can promote criminal justice reform through local elections, says Tarsha Jackson, Harris County director of the Texas Organizing Project. Her group and other civil rights organizations in the Houston area supported Ogg and Gonzalez in November.

“We’ve had the same administration here for over 40 years, and crime has not decreased based on being tough on crime, it’s only increased,” said Jackson. “Now we’re bringing in a fresh set of minds that are looking at crime a different way ― not targeting low-level offenses or oppressed black and brown communities.”

“If it can happen in Harris County, it can happen anywhere,” she added.

Local leaders’ reform-minded approach has also invited criticism from other officials in Texas, where police across the state made 70,000 arrests for marijuana possession in 2013, according to FBI data.

Last month, Brett Ligon, the Republican district attorney in neighboring Montgomery County, assailed Ogg, saying her plan would make Harris County “a sanctuary for dope smokers.” Texas Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick (R) has since employed identical language in his criticism of Ogg.

Berg says these attacks are motivated more by politics than policy, and are examples of GOP officials pushing back against progressive victories in Texas.

“[District Attorney Ogg] is being responsive to the people who elected her,” said Berg. “The political message from Republicans is different from actual criticism of the policy.”

Supporters of draconian drug enforcement tactics may find themselves increasingly at odds with their constituents. Polling last month found that 83 percent of Texans now support legalizing marijuana for some use, while 53 percent support legalizing weed for any use.

Houston City Council Member Dwight Boykins has been one of the most vocal supporters of the county’s new marijuana program. He launched a “2nd Chance” job fair to increase employment opportunities for ex-offenders, and believes too many people are getting funneled into the criminal justice system. Boykins says it’s a human rights issue, not a political one.

“We all make mistakes, but by the grace of God, a lot of us just didn’t get caught,” he said. “You can’t turn your back on people because of a mistake they made in bad judgment.”

This story originally appeared 3/1/2017 in The Huffington Post.

Texas county pulls out of program for local police to act as immigration agents

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Oscar Hernández recalls how his uncle paid a double price when he was arrested for failing to pay road tolls: local police in Houston handed him to immigration officials who deported him to Mexico.

In the years since, Hernández, also an undocumented immigrant from Mexico, has campaigned to end a program that deputises local officials to act as federal immigration agents, potentially turning a minor infraction into a life-altering event.

The 28-year-old community organiser with United We Dream celebrated a victory this week, after the Harris County sheriff’s office announced it would end its use of this program, known as 287(g).

The announcement from the county’s new sheriff comes as Donald Trump has escalated the pressure on local police to work more closely with immigration officials. In an executive order signed in January, he cited 287(g) to say that he would “empower State and local law enforcement agencies across the country to perform the functions of an immigration officer”.

Hernández said that 287(g) “encourages racial profiling, it keeps a system where if law enforcement only see undocumented immigrants as people they put in jail then it makes it very difficult for the community to trust law enforcement … If you’re undocumented then you become a target.”

The most notorious deployment of 287(g) was in the Phoenix, Arizona, area under the reign of former Maricopa County sheriff Joe Arpaio. His office’s participation was terminated after accusations by the US justice department that Latinos were racially profiled.

But Ed Gonzalez, a Democrat elected last November, nonetheless announced he would end the program because of its cost.

He told the Houston Chronicle that 10 deputies trained to assess the immigration status of jailed suspects and hold them for deportation by Immigration and Customs Enforcement (Ice) will be reassigned to other duties.

Gonzalez characterised the move as not politically motivated, but during his election campaign, he pledged to end 287(g), calling it not only a strain on resources but “a violation of due process rights [that] leads to racial profiling, the separation of families and a mistrust of deputies”.

Participants access databases to check the immigration status of suspects who are arrested even for minor offences like traffic violations, quickly receiving and passing on information so it is less likely that someone will be released before federal agents can take them into custody.

According to Ice, the program identified more than 402,000 “potentially removable” non-US citizens between January 2006 and September 2015. Currently, though, only 37 departments in 16 states are participating, down from 77 in 2009; three are in Texas.

With more than 4 million residents, Harris was the most populous county in the programme. “We’re elated by the decision by the sheriff,” said Mary Moreno of the Texas Organizing Project, a group that pushes for social and economic equality. “It did have a chilling effect in the community. Even though everybody who supported it said it was an inside-the-jail programme, its effects were definitely felt outside the jail.

Still, other new jurisdictions are likely to join the program at Trump’s urging. Five agencies have signed up since his election in November, and others have said they are negotiating with Ice about setting up a 287(g) agreement. Five agencies have signed up since his victory last November.

As well as promoting increased deportations of undocumented immigrants who have committed crimes, or are merely suspects, Trump intends to withhold federal funds from so-called sanctuary cities who do not cooperate fully with Ice.

Republican politicians in Texas, including the governor, Greg Abbott, are attempting to pass a law that would withhold funding from sanctuary cities. He has already cut $1.5m in criminal justice grant money from Travis County, whose sheriff, Sally Hernandez, is no longer complying with Ice “detainer” requests to hold immigrants in custody for pick-up by federal agents, except for those suspected of serious crimes.

Gonzalez told the Chronicle that he will still honour Ice detainer requests. But activists are optimistic that his action will lead to fewer people being deported after arrests for minor crimes, and boost relations with police among those in the community who perceive local officers to be in cahoots with Ice and so are reluctant to interact, for example to report crimes.

Still, as well as promoting use of 287(g), Trump’s executive order on border security and immigration last month also lays a path for the return of the Secure Communities programme, which operated from 2008-2014 and saw jails routinely send fingerprints of arrestees to federal agencies. It was scrapped amid concerns that it led to constitutional violations, the erosion of community trust and deportations of immigrants who had not committed serious crimes.

If it is reintroduced, Ice may swiftly be able to identify and collect undocumented immigrants from jails regardless of whether there is a 287(g) agreement in place or not.

“It remains to be seen what difference that will make – between the federal government issuing the detainers and police themselves issuing the detainers,” said Michele Waslin, a senior research and policy analyst with the American Immigration Council. “There is no ‘sanctuary’ in that police agencies do cooperate with Ice in multiple ways.”

Ultimately, Waslin believes, “we need to get back to conversations about national immigration reform. The fact that there are 11 million unauthorised immigrants is a symptom that there’s something wrong with our immigration system and we cannot just enforce our way out of it through this patchwork of enforcement mechanisms.”

This story originally appeared 2/27/2017 in The Guardian.