1,100 turn out for event to clear criminal records in north Harris County
Keola Williams spent the past decade running from the law.
The 43-year-old Webster woman constantly feared a routine traffic stop turning into an arrest and jail time for open warrants.
She jumped up and down with elation and wiped tears from her eyes Saturday, as she celebrated handling eight misdemeanor warrants with penalties of more than $4,000 that had been hanging over her head since 2007.
“This is a blessing,” she said breathlessly in the main hallway of North Shore High School. “I just feel so much better. I feel like a weight has been lifted from my shoulders.”
She was among a record crowd of more than 1,200 at Saturday’s Make It Right! event, a collaboration between the Harris County District Attorney’s Office, the Public Defender’s Office, community agencies and volunteer attorneys. Participants with open warrants for low-level misdemeanor crimes got their cases resolved with no immediate financial cost and no risk of arrest. Some expunctions were performed on the spot to help unemployed people with low-level convictions clear their records.
Saturday’s combination job fair and free legal assistance drew the largest crowd since the DA’s office started the program in 2014.
“I’m thrilled. This is the culmination of a lot of work,” District Attorney Kim Ogg said. “It’s a great value for leaders in the criminal justice system who know that we want to hold people accountable, but we also need to use our resources for the most important types of crimes, for public safety.”
The free legal advice and services is valuable as hiring a private attorney to perform an expunction, for example, could cost hundreds or even thousands of dollars, Ogg said. It also helped unclog dockets that have been overburdened since Hurricane Harvey shuttered the county’s criminal courthouse last year, she said.
“The opportunity for a lot of people to get services while making their legal problems right has a real value to us, post-Harvey,” she said.
Cases that were eligible for resolution included: truancy; criminal trespass; criminal mischief or theft of less than $100; minor in possession of alcohol or tobacco; failure to identify, drug paraphernalia and public intoxication or disorderly conduct.
Suspects with open warrants went through several lines, the first to figure out how the volunteer lawyers could help them. Then they were diverted to different rooms, either for expunctions or to get misdemeanors dismissed, a process that included watching a 20-minute video stressing accountability and personal responsibility.
Williams, who had warrants outside of Precinct 3, said volunteer lawyers were able to take care of six of her eight warrants instantly and arranged for her to resolve the other two for $200.
“I’m now a ‘legal’ citizen,” she said with a laugh. “I’d rather take care of it openly than walk away in handcuffs.”
Williams, who spoke on condition that her now-expunged misdemeanor cases not be published, said she trusted that she would not be arrested at the event because Beacon Law was an organizer. She had worked previously with Beacon, a nonprofit charity that helps homeless and indigent people navigate the legal system with help from volunteer lawyers.
“The turnout has been amazing,” said Leslie Ginzel, program director for Beacon. “Most people are here because of traffic tickets. I’ve talked to so many people who say they haven’t had a driver’s license for four or five years and those tickets are the reason.”
For people with criminal charges, there also were lawyers from the Harris County Public Defender’s Office.
“It’s a great way to get it right, to ‘Make It Right,’” said Alex Bunin, the head of that office. “They can clean up their records so they can get jobs, get a place to live and won’t be falsely accused because people think they’re criminals.”
He credited Ogg with expanding a fledgling program, which started under former DA Devon Anderson.
“Kim Ogg has really gotten the word out,” he said. “That’s what made this one so much bigger.”
Justice of the Peace Joe Stephens attributed the big turnout to the event being held on a Saturday.
“Many of these people work during the week and they can’t take a day off, because they’re hourly employees,” Stephens said. “They can’t come to a Friday docketing court.”
The event also offered help with other legal matters, including immigration, child support and tenant concerns.
A 46-year-old mother and her son left the event because the warrants they wanted to take care of were not eligible. They were with the city of Houston.
“They gave us helpful information and we’re going now to get these warrants taken care of,” said Marlus Cerbellon, a 27-year-old who lives in northwest Houston. “Gotta get it done.”
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