Two weeks ago, Harris County was sued to overturn an unconstitutional bail system that is jailing people just because they are poor. I stood with area leaders and advocates like the Texas Organizing Project and urged the county to work with all parties to fix the problem and settle the case – rather than use our tax dollars to defend this morally indefensible system.
It’s unfortunate that, despite repeated warnings and attempts to work with the County, this lawsuit was absolutely necessary. It’s necessary to protect the rights of Harris County residents who are kept in a modern day debtor’s prison – locked up because they’re poor. It’s necessary to save taxpayer dollars that are paying to ship inmates out of our overcrowded jail. And it’s necessary to spur needed reforms.
Click above to watch Sen. Ellis discuss needed bail reforms
The County’s failure to follow the law and principles of basic fairness when it comes to pre-trial bond and bail practices has translated into more than 70 percent
of the jail population consisting of people who haven’t even been convicted of a crime. The vast majority of those people are stuck in jail solely because they are poor – not because they are threat to public safety.
So we’ve created two separate systems of justice: one for the rich and one for the poor. A system that keeps the Sandra Blands of the world, arrested for minor offenses, locked in cages with their lives at risk. And another that lets the Robert Dursts, arrested for murder, walk free just because they’re wealthy.
It’s a violation of our basic constitutional legal principles and our moral principles of justice. It doesn’t have to be this way.
On April 25, I sent a letter to Harris County District Attorney Devon Anderson, Sheriff Ron Hickman, and Presiding Judge Susan Brown, urging them to advance more effective and efficient approaches to public safety that are proven to make our communities safer, reduce the County’s jail population creating significant savings for taxpayers, and result in fairer and more equitable treatment of our residents.
- Let’s implement a program like Seattle’s successful LEAD program, which diverts non-violent, low-level drug users to community programs instead of jail.
- Let’s reform our failed bail bond system so that we don’t have a jail where 70 percent of the inmates are sitting there merely because they can’t afford bail.
- Let’s increase the use of personal recognizance bonds so that folks can maintain employment and support their family before trial.
- Let’s actually take into consideration – like state law requires – the ability of someone to afford the bail amount before it’s set.
What was the response to this push for criminal justice reforms? Commissioner Steve Radack called me out by my name and told me to “shut up” about this issue.
Here’s my promise: as long as I have the privilege of public service, I’m not going to shut up. I’m not going to shut up about our broken criminal justice system and people dying in jail. I’m not going to shut up about a bail system that puts people in a cage just because they’re poor. And I’m not going to shut up about the fact that the attorney you can afford too often determines the quality of justice you receive.
I’m going to speak up for the people and the most vulnerable in our society, just as I’ve always done. And I will not be bullied by a Commissioner into going along to get along, regardless of where my public service takes me.
Click here to read several articles about last week’s events.
A new opportunity for reform: the MacArthur Foundation Grant
In late April, the Harris County Commissioners Court voted to approve a plan to reform the county’s criminal justice system, including accepting a $2 million grant from the MacArthur Foundation. As described by the Foundation, the grant is “part of the Safety and Justice Challenge, a national initiative supported by the Foundation with an initial $75 million to reduce over-incarceration by changing the way America thinks about and uses jails” and reducing racial and ethnic disparities.
I first brought the grant opportunity to the attention of the Harris County Commissioners Court via a March 10, 2015, letter to the late Commissioner El Franco Lee, then Chairman of the Harris County Criminal Justice Coordinating Council. In the letter, I urged Commissioner Lee to “consider taking advantage of this opportunity to build upon the progress you made improving public safety and the efficiency and effectiveness of justice in Harris County.”
The county’s plan is a first step toward improving our broken criminal justice system, but the plan disappointingly fails to address the most serious issues including smart-on-crime alternatives for low-level, non-violent drug possession offenses, our bail bond system, and pre-trial release reform.
As the largest county in Texas housing the fourth largest city in the nation, Harris County should be at forefront of advancing a fairer justice system that ensures the innocent are protected, the guilty brought to justice, and all its residents are treated equally and fairly under the law.
With the MacArthur grant, we have a unique opportunity to fix our broken criminal justice system. So let’s do more. I don’t want to sell ourselves short and end up with some of the same racial and income disparities that plague our system today.
Our region continues to be slammed with heavy rains, resulting in more flooding affecting thousands of residents. Those seeking federal assistance can receive help at one of four flood recovery centers in Harris County. These recovery centers will have representatives from the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) who can help people register flood damage, apply for aid, and answer questions. City and county officials will also be available to offer referrals to legal aid and local social services.
Please note that individuals must apply for FEMA Disaster Assistance by Friday, June 24, 2016, to receive aid. The four recovery centers will be open from 9 am to 6 pm Monday through Friday, and 9 am to 2 pm on Saturday. Please review the list below to see which recovery center is closest to you:
- Bayland Community Center, 6400 Bissonnet St., Houston, TX 77074
- Greenspoint Commercial Office Building, 16800 Imperial Valley Dr. Houston, TX 77060
- Cypress Creek Christian Church and Community Center, 6823 Cypresswood Dr. Spring, TX 77379
- Lone Star College Cy-Fair Library, 9191 Barker Rd, Cypress, TX 77433
Come prepared! Applicants will be asked to provide:
- Social Security number
- Address of the damaged primary residence
- Description of the damage
- Information about insurance coverage
- Current contact telephone number
- Address where they can receive mail
- Bank account and routing numbers for those preferring direct deposit of funds
Even if you are not 100 percent certain whether you qualify for aid, please apply. You can apply at the new recovery centers, by visiting www.disasterassistance.gov, or by calling 1-800-621-3362. If you or a loved one is hearing or speech impaired, please call 1-800-462-7585.
Do you need legal assistance?
The State Bar of Texas, American Bar Association’s Young Lawyers Division, and FEMA are providing assistance to survivors who need help dealing with issues related to the flooding but have no means to hire a lawyer. A confidential, toll-free hotline (1-800-504-7030) is available 24/7 to help low income individuals with legal assistance on issues such as:
- Life, medical, and property insurance claims
- Landlord-tenant problems
- FEMA and other government benefits available to disaster survivors
- Help with home repair contracts/contractors
- Replacement of wills and/or other legal documents lost or destroyed in the disaster
- Consumer protection issues such as contractor scams
- Mortgage-foreclosure problems
Additionally, Lonestar Legal Aid is offering free legal assistance to those who qualify. Please review criteria for obtaining free legal aid by visiting www.lonestarlegal.org or calling 1-800-733-8394.
Texas Workforce Commission Unemployment Assistance
Individuals can apply for benefits by calling a TWC Tele-Center Monday through Friday between 8 am and 5 pm at 1-800-939-6631.
Additional resources can be found at www.houstonrecovers.org.
For many students, the end of May indicates the conclusion of a school year and the start of summer vacation. But for some lucky students, the end of their school year is especially exciting because they will soon be graduating from high school. I was extremely pleased to learn that 7,884 students in Senate District 13 will be graduating this year. I congratulated these accomplished youths by sending each graduate a congratulatory certificate applauding them for their hard work and dedication.
Along with the certificate, I included a voter registration card to encourage them to exercise their right to vote. I want to make it one step easier for people of all ages in my district to exercise their constitutional right to vote and have their voice heard at the ballot box.
I’m so proud of these students for accomplishing the important milestone of high school graduation. Congratulations to all of the graduates across Texas!