Photo By: Center for Justice Research
Judge Hidalgo’s Civic Saturday: Working Together to Strengthen and Reform the Justice System in Harris County
Newly-elected Harris County Judge Lina Hidalgo’s sixth Civic Saturday focused on criminal justice reform on March 16, 2019. One takeaway from the event is the importance of importance of the community’s voice in justice reform. At the local level, racial disparity has been identified as a problem in Harris County through research conducted by the Center for Justice Research. Statistics revealing the extent of racial disparity throughout the adult criminal justice, juvenile justice, and immigration systems was presented Saturday to paint a picture of why reform is needed in Harris County. Although Harris County accounts for approximately 15% of Texas’ population, more than 25% of children are sent to juvenile prisons. In Harris County there are over 1 million foreign-born individuals, which is 25% of the county’s population. The topic regarding immigration was addressed broadly, and through the lenses of how the immigration and justice systems intersect through policing, private prisons, mental health, school discipline, and lack of legal representation.
Several types of activities were incorporated into the event in order to allow community engagement to tackle several justice related issues in Harris County. Several questions were proposed to the audience such as: What words do you associated with the criminal justice, juvenile justice, and immigration systems? How do the words fit with what you think the systems should be? What can be done to make the systems more like you believe they should be? The breakout sessions focused on several topics (criminal justice, juvenile justice, and immigration) with the intent of identifying solutions from the perspective of the community stakeholders. Negligent, ineffective, broken, separation, unjust, and hurt were just some of the words used to express how the community felt about the justice systems in Harris County. More diversion programs, teach and train, restore families, accessibility of programs and services, and funding for additional programs were responses for solutions to fixing some of the problems. One particular breakout session called, “Ensuring access to high quality legal representation and just sentencing” discussed the need for identifying “why” disparity exists in sentencing, and educating the community about the role of public defenders. Another breakout session titled “Improving the system of reentry” takeaway was the importance of rehabilitation versus harsh punishment; rehabilitation cannot happen if sentences are too long, tough, and expensive. The school to deportation pipeline, developing alternatives to detention, and increasing community-based alternatives to juvenile justice were additional topics discussed during breakout sessions.
After the public community engagement session, the afternoon continued with an action plan workshop.
It’s clear that the community is onboard for change in Harris County. By breaking down the large gatherings into small workgroups with classroom style lessons, it gives individuals a chance to have their voices heard. The last of the seven Civic Saturdays will take place on March 23, 2019 and focus on flood mitigation.