The Trib takes a look at how things are going at the flooded-out Harris County Criminal Justice Center.
Since Harvey hit Harris County in late August, one of the busiest criminal court systems in the country has suspended all jury trials. It’s just one of a slate of challenges facing the county’s justice system in the weeks since the storm, but defense attorneys argue that delayed trials — and in dozens of cases, prolonged detention — have the potential to infringe on their clients’ most fundamental rights.
Justice delayed, they argue, has begun to verge on justice denied.
The U.S. Constitution guarantees the right to a “speedy” trial, but the law offers no specific guidance on what “speedy” means. And it’s not entirely clear how that right might change in the face of unprecedented natural disaster.
Jury trials could resume in Harris County as soon as Oct. 16, when jurors will be summoned again to a host of makeshift assembly rooms downtown. But at least at first, the county will not be able to assemble nearly the usual number of jurors, and courthouse workers will have to ration those jurors across 22 felony and 16 misdemeanor courts.
This time, the damage has left a 20-story hole in the county’s justice system, taking out 40 courtrooms, the district attorney’s office and enough holding cells to accommodate 900 inmates. Partial occupancy may be possible in six to eight months, but county engineers say it will likely a take a year and a half — and $30 million — for the building to return to full capacity.
The bigger problem, according to local officials, sits a block southwest of the courthouse. The three-floor jury assembly building at 1201 Congress Ave. saw just as much damage, but the bulk of its business takes place below ground, where on the county’s busiest days, about 800 potential jurors can be assembled.
The subterranean floor was so damaged that it may not even be repaired. That means there’s nowhere to assemble the jurors that the county needs to take cases like Deras’ to trial.
As a result, hundreds of trials have been delayed, and about 100 defendants sit in custody awaiting their turn.
See here and here for some background. As the story notes, while the DA’s office is prioritizing cases where the defendant is in custody and disposing of them as they can, there are still going to be a number of people who will spend significant time in jail before they ever get to a resolution of their case. Even though that includes a lot of felons, given the ongoing litigation over bail practices it would not be surprising if that’s an issue for future appeals. And given that there was flooding during Alison as well as Harvey, the county is going to have to give a lot of thought to how to be better prepared for these events going forward.