Where does the criminal justice system stand post-Harvey?

Harris County forced to reshape itself overnight amid Harvey disaster

HOUSTON – When Hurricane Harvey's rains washed over the city, one of the hardest hit areas was downtown.

Floodwaters filled the streets and swamped the Criminal Justice Center. The lower levels of the courthouse flooded, and the building's pipes backed up, forced onto almost every floor. The building was, and remains, shut down.

“I've learned the justice system, thank heavens, is flexible,” said Harris County District Attorney Kim Ogg.

Ogg used the word flexible because the criminal justice system in Harris County had to reshape itself overnight.

“It's logistically challenged,” said Ogg.

 All 700 employees at the DA's office had to move out, courtrooms were shut down, trials were halted and jury duty stopped for six weeks.

Jury duty was halted because the underground jury assembly room also sustained massive flooding.

“We know it's temporary," Ogg said. "We know that everyone has suffered and we're all sacrificing together."

The DA's office employees are now spread across 10 different buildings in different parts of the city.

“In one area we have 80 lawyers in one giant room,” Ogg said. “They look more like telemarketers than lawyers.”

County commissioners recently approved spending $400,876 to lease space from the South Texas College of Law until Sept. 30. Ogg said the space at 1301 Caroline St. will house the appellate, post writ conviction and legal services divisions.

“It will get our remaining employees still working at home or in makeshift offices around the city into one place,” Ogg said.

Potential jurors now pass a small waterfall as they head to an assembly room in the County Administration building's cafeteria.

Criminal court judges share courtrooms with judges in the family and civil courthouses.

“You got like civil lawyers in the elevator with guys who have face tattoos. It's pretty funny,” said Tyler Flood, defense attorney and past president of the Harris County Criminal Lawyers Association.

[PHOTOS: Harvey's impact on criminal justice system]

Flood said his biggest concern is delays in trying cases can put undue pressure on some defendants.

“People who are in jail and they say, 'I'm not guilty. I don't want to plead guilty, but now I know I can't go to trial for months,'" Flood said. "That puts a tremendous amount of pressure on them to plead guilty so they can get out of jail."

Neither the DA's office nor the district clerk's office can provide exact numbers on cases delayed due to Harvey. However, steps have been taken to clear out the backlog.

Flood said criminal court judges have now staggered docket calls to 8:30 a.m, 9:30 a.m. and 11 a.m. Flood said this has created a more orderly process. A frequent complaint of attorneys before Harvey was docket calls were at 9 a.m., forcing throngs of people to flood the courthouse at the same time every day.

“If anything, it seems like there is less chaos because we're splitting things up,” Flood said.

Many routine matters like bond hearings or plea bargains involving jail inmates now happen at the jail instead of in a courtroom. Prior to Harvey, inmates were shuttled to court via a secure tunnel system.

“We never had to move inmates outside of the secure tunnel system,” said Chief Deputy Darryl Coleman, with the Harris County Sheriff’s Office.

Harvey caused a small amount of damage to one of the county’s jails on Baker Street. The inmates at this jail, called “Little Baker,” were moved to other larger jails. The county then decided to hold hearings for inmates facing misdemeanor charges at this jail.

“We literally have to put inmates on a bus, drive them down the street and get them to this location,” Coleman said.

Coleman said they handle hearings for about 300 inmates a day at the location. When KPRC Channel 2 News recently visited the location, Judge Larry Standley said his court dealt with 145 cases in a day in a room of an old cell block. The hearings involve everything from dismissals to plea deals and ruling on motions to revoke probation.

Coleman said the basement of the jail on San Jacinto Street is used to hold hearings for close to 400 inmates a day who are facing felony charges.

 “We have lawyers working next to prisoners, next to bailiffs, next to clerks in the jail,” Ogg said.

The DA’s office is also trying to dispose of low-level misdemeanor drug cases faster to help eliminate the backlog. Ogg said these are cases that typically clog dockets and tie up resources. The term "Harvey Deals" has been used around the court complex.

“We reduced the offers on plea bargains on some drug cases, especially during the storm,” Ogg said. “Our focus is on crimes against people and property. I don’t want our lawyers to rush those cases or sell them short.”

Ogg said if there is one silver lining to the disaster, it’s a realization that technology is king.

Since she took office, Ogg has said she wanted to make the DA’s office paperless.

“(It) doesn’t require us to carry the cases in boxes from building A to courtroom B,” Ogg said.

Ogg said having prosecutors spread through the city, shuttling boxes of files back and forth to court has sped up the timetable for this endeavor. Ogg said she hopes to have the office paperless by the end of next 2018.

“Why waste a disaster? Let’s go paperless,” Ogg said.

The County Engineering office does not yet have an estimate of how much it will cost to repair the damage to the Criminal Justice Center. Once that is complete the estimate will be submitted to the Federal Emergency Management Agency for reimbursement.

Ogg said the last projected date she was shown for the building being reopened was July 2019.

“It’s a long time from now, but like most of life, it will probably get here faster than I thought it would,” Ogg said.

About the Author:

Award winning investigative journalist who joined KPRC 2 in July 2000. Husband and father of the Master of Disaster and Chaos Gremlin. “I don’t drink coffee to wake up, I wake up to drink coffee.”