Harris County Commissioners Court on Tuesday approved Commissioners Rodney Ellis’ and Lesley Briones’ holistic public safety investments package that includes a resolution supporting creation of new district courts, expansion of the public defender system’s capacity to up to 50% of indigent defense cases and scaling up successful health-based alternative programs.
“We need a fair and efficient criminal justice system that makes our communities safer and provides justice for all,” Commissioner Ellis said. “We have too many people who are getting stuck in our legal system for years before cases are resolved. That’s not justice for the victims or for the accused.”
Commissioners Court also approved Commissioner Adrian Garcia’s resolution to support the Texas Legislature’s creation of six district courts to address the backlog of criminal cases.
“No one disputes our court backlog or our unsustainable jail population,” Commissioner Ellis said. “But it would be naïve to think that adding more courts is enough to solve these complex problems. We must make investments that address the root of our case backlog and high jail population.”
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Said Commissioner Briones: “We must look at each part of the highly interdependent criminal justice system to continue making our community safer and enhancing the quality of justice. As a mother, victim of crime, lawyer, and former judge, I place public safety as my top priority. I approach public safety with a ‘both-and’ mindset – that’s why I am proud to both stand with law enforcement and advocate for indigent defense. We need both. These synergistic investments in data-driven solutions throughout the system will deliver on what we all deserve: to be safe, to have our rights protected, and to have access to justice.”
Commissioner Ellis said he is grateful to Commissioner Briones for putting items on the agenda and working with his team on a package of holistic investments so that the county sees reductions in the backlog and not just an expansion of the criminal legal system.
Reducing the overreliance on criminalization and incarceration for mental health, substance use, poverty and homelessness is a more effective way to reduce the number of cases in our system and make our communities safer, Ellis said.
One of the proposals include expanding Holistic Assistance Response Teams (HART), a program created last year to dispatch 911 and other calls to interdisciplinary unarmed, first-responder teams trained in behavioral health and on‐scene medical assistance.
In its first year, HART, managed by Harris Public Health, responded to almost 2,000 calls – far exceeding its goal of 750.
“By expanding HART, we can reduce the amount of time that officers spend on nonviolent social services calls,” Commissioner Ellis said, “and the chance that these cases end up in the criminal legal system at all.”
Another proposal includes a plan to boost the capacity of the county’s Public Defender’s Office to handle up to 50% of the indigent cases. The office now represents 20% of indigent defendants, while court-appointed attorneys handle the rest.
In 2022, the county paid court-appointed attorneys $60 million, and one attorney made over $1 million from Harris County appointments – despite the Public Defender’s Office having better outcomes for defendants.
“We need an indigent defense system that follows best practices to provide quality representation to indigent defendants – with caseload standards, holistic services, staff training, and solid operational structures,” Commissioner Ellis said. “In 2020, we called for investments so that the Public Defender’s Office could represent 50% of all appointed cases. We are far from that goal.”
Another measure calls for creating a fund to provide resources for judges who choose to implement innovative and best practices in case processing.
“By being strategic and holistic in our approach to public safety, we can make our community safer. That may not be the best headline, but it is the best approach,” said Commissioner Ellis.