Hundreds attend Civic Saturday discussion on criminal justice reform

County judge, commission host bring together community groups, law enforcement

HOUSTON – Harris County Judge Lina Hidalgo and County Commissioner Rodney Ellis partnered in hosting the sixth Civic Saturday event.

The event is part of Hidalgo’s "Talking Transition: Harris County” listening tour. Saturday’s event had the largest attendance so far, with more than 250 attending at the University of Houston.

“Not everybody can show up to the Commissioners Court, but the community feels and knows the issues. They know what needs to change, and they’ve got great ideas, so we’ve been doing a number of these events,” Hidalgo told KPRC. “Today we’re bringing them here to talk about criminal justice reform, about immigration, what they see, and we have learned so much in these events already.”

Hundreds packed the room at the University of Houston’s Student Center.

“It’s standing room only in a room at 9 in the morning talking about politics -- power and empowering themselves,” Jerold Labeaux, an attendee from southeast Houston, said.

Residents, community leaders, activists, the Harris County Sheriff’s Office, the Harris County Flood Control District and HCPS, were among the many community groups, leaders and stakeholders who came for this interactive discussion and workshop.

“Academics, we’re bringing activists, we’re bringing leaders in county government -- government of different cities and localities. It’s folks who are not normally sitting in the same room,” Hidalgo said.

“The theme is talking to transition. Before you can do anything, you have to talk,” Tammie Lang Campbell, a community activist, said.

Of seven topics selected by the judge for discussion, this sixth discussion was on criminal justice reform.

“This one was on criminal justice, and we know that touches a lot of families,” Mayor Sylvester Turner, who spoke at the event, said. “I give a lot of credit to the county judge. Opening up government, opening up the county. It’s about community engagement, civic engagement, bringing people in, giving them an opportunity to speak. ”

“We know there are deep disparities in our community. We know that our jail is the largest mental health facility in the state of Texas. There are disparities when it comes to the juvenile system,” Hidalgo said.

Through group activities -- large and small-group discussions, presentations and open networking, attendees had the chance to share their feedback.

“People are engaged. They’re engaging in the information. They’re engaging in giving the information back so they can be a more cohesive commitment to each other,” Labeaux said.

“Everything that affects the criminal justice system affects immigrants disproportionately, so we’re here to provide feedback,” Cesar Espinosa, with the nonprofit FIEL Houston said.

District Attorney Kim Ogg stayed for the event, hoping to encourage the community members to share their stories, especially victims of violence.

“I think they’re talking about real issues. About people being shot on the street, about how we respond as police,” Ogg said.

Stories like Yvonne Ferguson’s were shared. Ferguson is a mother who recently lost her son to gun violence.

“The main important thing is getting the guns off the streets,” Ferguson said.

Ferguson was not alone.

“Maybe community centers. Building community centers so they’ll have something to do,” Michelle Parker, a mother who also lost her son to gun violence, said. 

Parker’s son was shot in 2015. She is still looking for answers to his death.

Hidalgo said the goal is about letting people access the space to engage and share. The event provided some free parking and child care services.

“This was an experiment to see if we’re out there in the community, will the community come? Is there a desire to engage with your county government? And I’m finding that there is,” Hidalgo said. “It’s a new day in Harris County. We want to hear from you, we want to learn from you and we want to build upon these lessons.”

As for what’s next, Hidalgo said there is the seventh Civic Saturday of this event series. She said the ideas will be implemented into action.

“I’m very excited to bring this all together and use it to define what we’re going to do as a county,” Hidalgo said.

For more information on the next Civic Saturday: go to https://www.talkingtransition.us