Judicial Q&A: Judge Hilary Unger

(Note: As I have done in past elections, I am running a series of Q&As for judicial candidates in contested Democratic primaries. This is intended to help introduce the candidates and their experiences to those who plan to vote in March. I am running these responses in the order that I receive them from the candidates. Much more information about Democratic primary candidates, including links to the interviews and judicial Q&As, can be found on Erik Manning’s spreadsheet.

Judge Hilary Unger

1. Who are you and in which court do you preside?

Judge Hilary D. Unger, 248th District Court.

2. What kind of cases does this court hear?

Criminal – felony cases.

3. What have been your main accomplishments during your time on this bench?

First and foremost, we kept the courthouse open during the continuing renovation and repairs from Hurricane Harvey through the once-in-a-lifetime pandemic. All of the judges went back to the Criminal Justice Center before the renovations were complete and each of us had to share a courtroom. When we finally were able to get back into our courtrooms, we were deep into the pandemic and I came to the courthouse every day, just trying to help keep the system afloat. When we were finally able to start trying cases, we had to contend with both Covid and building related issues. We have had to share jury rooms and we still have to deal with Covid related setbacks; I’ve had to stop two jury trials because of Covid exposure. None of us complained and we all did what we had to do.

Since I’ve been the judge for this court, the number of probationers who have successfully completed probation has doubled; people are no longer going to prison for minor technical violations.

Individuals who come before me, and who are proven to have committed serious and violent crimes, are punished appropriately under the law, and I have meted out very harsh sentences where called for. However, it is my belief that the community is protected, taxpayer costs are reduced, lives are salvaged and the community’s productivity improves when recidivism is diminished. In appropriate situations, I actively engage with social workers, organizations, and community leaders in an effort to find alternatives to incarceration, with an eye towards rehabilitation, and a reduction in recidivism, while emphasizing an increase in community safety. I try to steer these defendants into programs where they can better themselves, and become law abiding and positively contributing members of society.

4. What do you hope to accomplish in your courtroom going forward?

I stay very involved with the people whom I have sentenced to probation/deferred adjudication. I will continue those efforts if I am re-elected for a second term. I encourage probationers, and I offer guidance when needed. I also stress to them the importance of education and trade certificates, and I frequently offer incentives to probationers who complete such programs. I believe that my efforts have worked as measured by the fact that the number of people who have successfully completed probationary sentences has doubled in this court since I took the bench.

I also would like to expand my partnership with the various organizations who work with defendants pretrial; these organizations include psychiatric medication providers, substance abuse treatment providers, and counselling providers. I would continue to arrange emergency housing for individuals as well as emergency mental health treatment, when needed. I would continue to
request assistance from the social workers at the Re-Entry program, which is located at the Harris County Sherriff’s Office, in an effort to connect defendants with services. Finally, I would continue to reach out to community organizations and leaders who have offered to help provide support for young adults who appear before me.

5. Why is this race important?

All citizens of the US, the State of Texas and Harris County deserve fair, and equal treatment before the law. We do not want to head backwards, to a climate where abuses in the administration of justice, notably in the manner in which the criminal justice system treated some members of society differently than others, were accepted as the norm in the 248th District Court. We have made great strides in removing some of the inequities, but certain pundits have tried to conflate the nationwide rise in crime with Democratic judges’ insistence on the preservation of due process rights for all; this revival of soft-on-crime rhetoric ultimately serves to perpetuate the lie that the current Democratic judges are weak or bad and that we do not consider the safety of victims, or of society as a whole. These accusations are simply false.

6. Why should people vote for you in March?

Since taking the bench in 2019, I have made it a priority to treat everyone who appears before me with respect and to ensure that due process rights are not forfeited for expediency’s sake. Yet, I am always mindful that public safety is of paramount importance.

I have criminal court experience as a DA and a defense attorney in two of America’s largest cities – Houston and New York. As a prosecutor, I prosecuted complex narcotics and conspiracy cases and as a defense attorney I represented clients in both state and federal courts. My experiences have enabled me to critically assess positions taken by both the State and the defense.

Although my primary practice area has been criminal law, the experiences that I’ve had handling CPS cases and civil involuntary commitment hearings have proven extremely useful in giving me perspective into how criminal cases affect families and children.

Through my work with civil involuntary commitment patients in mental health hospitals, I saw the devastating effects of mental illness and also how well medications help. I also learned about the unique challenges facing mental health patients. Given that the Harris County jail is the largest mental health provider in Texas, this experience has proven invaluable. Similarly, through my work with CPS parents and children, I saw firsthand, how addiction affects families and also about the long-term effects of trauma on the childhood brain.

All of these experiences have provided me with significant insights and extensive experience that my opponent does not have. These insights in turn allow me to better understand the needs and hurdles of those who appear before me as defendants as well as the particular circumstances, feelings, pain and loss of crime victims.

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