Over half of the people accused of crimes in Harris County’s criminal courts are indigent, meaning they cannot afford to hire a lawyer and require a court-appointed attorney to represent them. Texas courts have claimed that defendants do not have the right to choose who their court-appointed attorney is, despite Supreme Court caselaw suggesting otherwise. This means the court’s process of choosing appointed attorneys is of utmost importance.
One year ago today, our organization launched a new name—and with it, a new vision for what justice can mean in Texas.
After 21 years—during the bulk of which we were called the Texas Criminal Justice Coalition—our staff, board, coalition members, and community came together in an important decision: it was time to change our name.
Every week, people in and around Houston (one of the largest cities in the US, with over 7 million people in the metro area) turn on their computers or televisions—and see bias and misinformation about the criminal legal system. It’s not just COPS and Law & Order, either. As TCJE’s recent research has found, false narratives run rampant in Houston-area TV news, especially English-language stations. And one of the worst offenders when it comes to misinformation about bond reform is “Breaking Bond,” a series on FOX 26 (KRIV-TV).
I’m sure you’ve seen the posts all across social media: it’s the time of year when people reflect. They’ll share their most heard songs (mine: “Jackson” cover by Trixie Mattel and Orville Peck, “Jerome” by Lizzo, “The Six” by the Six the Musical cast). Or they might note personal accomplishments from the year (mine: a lot of homemade empanadas and one truly phenomenal maple pecan pie).
Until now in this series, I’ve been focusing on the time that people unjustly spend in pretrial detention. Interviews with people like Lance* and George* (introduced in previous blog posts here and here) have shown first-hand the cruelty of present jail conditions and the confusion with which cases are reset and delayed.
Jail isn’t a great place. But it’s not supposed to be, right? It’s a “bad” place for “bad” people. That’s okay then; jails are what they’re supposed to be.
Dissecting the criminal justice system in a classroom always felt comfortably analytical. Built on a foundation of logic and reason with the end goal of order and peace, the system made sense to me. It seemed to be a desirable and right institution in a very chaotic and wrong world. But this sheen of reasonability hides the system’s creativity; its loopholes and bureaucracy work like snares against those whose wallets are too thin to cut themselves free. The webs of the system take years to unravel and understand, let alone remediate.
Each courtroom in the United States houses an American flag. When judges bruise their benches with gavels, it happens under the watch of our stripes and stars. Like all the other neighbors in my sleepy Iowa town, naivety and the protection of middle-class suburbia let me grow up believing that the threads of our flag are woven with liberty and justice. The ubiquitous message throughout my schooling and in my home was that I didn’t ever have to worry about jail. It was for “bad people” who did “bad things” and no one else.
The warnings and recommendations of health experts indicate that Harris County is not doing enough to mitigate the spread of coronavirus in its jail. A variety of local health experts have emphasized that jails are particularly vulnerable to an outbreak of COVID-19, as they contain optimal conditions for the spread of infectious disease. Holding thousands of people in close quarters, jails are unable to comply with CDC recommendations like social distancing and hand washing.