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During This Crisis, We’re Creating Solutions!

Oct 15th, 2020 | Category: Harris County, TJP Newsletter

Did you know that thousands of poor people are getting an extremely low quality of defense – no visits, no investigation, no research, no plan, no hope–in the Houston courts? Click below to listen to people in Harris County Jail telling us about their experiences with their court appointed attorneys:

https://twitter.com/TxJailProject/status/1314961594380685313?s=19

Join Texas Jail Project and a powerful coalition to change the way indigent defendants like this are represented in Houston! Please sign the Harris County Caseload Petition today so the county commissioners take action on this petition.

These are just a handful of the letters and calls Texas Jail Project is receiving from Harris County Jail about the poor quality of indigent defense.

In Texas, 81% of people charged with crimes are indigent, meaning that they’re too poor to afford an attorney, so they receive either a public defender or a court-appointed attorney.

For decades, Harris County has not limited the caseloads for attorneys representing indigent defendants, overloading attorneys with hundreds of cases, made worse by campaign contributions in a “pay for play system.”

Instead of providing an energetic, committed public defender, most judges appoint private court-appointed attorneys giving those private attorneys excessive caseloads.
This results in over 70% of felony indigent defendants receiving court-appointed attorneys who exceed recommended caseload limits. 

Texas Jail Project has seen this most recently with cases in Tyler, Abilene and Denton, where court-appointed attorneys don’t talk with their clients or discuss a possible defense but simply tell them to accept a plea deal–and if they don’t, warn them they’ll just sit in jail for months or years, awaiting trial.

Now, we have a chance to limit the caseloads of each court-appointed attorney. Please go to https://www.restoringjustice.org/caseloadlimits and sign the petition.

TJP’s executive director Krish Gundu & Gabriela Barahona processing letters from jails.

Bearing Witness: A Covid-19 Capsule:
Our team is reading the tremendous amount of mail pouring in and now accepting collect calls from county jails all over the state—helping people with crisis situations of all kinds! COVID-19 in the jails is creating unprecedented needs, and we are hearing more outcries every week. As we’re documenting all these experiences, we are actively creating solutions to ensure that these voices are heard! Here are a few examples of our actions:

1. Court-appointed attorney does not visit or consult/only offers a plea bargain and discourages defense.
TJP action: As part of our work in the Participatory Defense movement, we send them a list of questions to ask their attorney and respectfully offer to assist the attorney.

If there is no response from that attorney, we help file complaints with state agencies responsible for legal oversight.

2. The person is confined in a jail with dangerous/unhealthy conditions.
TJP action: We file complaints on their behalf, with the state agency monitoring jail standards: Texas Commission on Jail Standards (TCJS).

3.    The family reports that their loved one has been assaulted by jail staff. 
TJP action: We file complaints on their behalf with the FBI and the TX Rangers (TCJS does not address physical assaults or crimes against inmates.)

4.    The incarcerated person reports not receiving their asthma inhaler or seizure medicine or other essential medicine or treatment.
TJP action: We file a complaint with TCJS in an attempt to get immediate help, and when possible, we also help them report it to the Texas Medical Board.

5.    Some of those incarcerated in Texas county jails have no money for their commissary fund but are failing to get enough edible food or access to clean water and hygiene supplies, and they are desperately asking for help.
TJP action: With a direct aid grant meant to provide food, shelter and financial assistance for five counties in the Houston area, we can put money on the commissary accounts of indigent people. But we need public donations to help fund accounts of those outside the Houston area.

6.    A person who is medically vulnerable or disabled is in jeopardy because he or she cannot pay bail.
TJP actions: We are securing PR bond releases for individuals held in jails with COVID-19 outbreaks and we reach out to groups who have funds to bail out indigent and high risk individuals.

7.    An individual experiencing mental illness has not been found incompetent and there’s no indication of when that will happen, but they are decompensating after months in the jail with no visitation or programming because of COVID. They need help now. 
TJP actions: Coordinating with the family, we reach out to the Local Mental Health Authority caseworker, or to the Texas Commission on Health &  Human Services official and/or to their attorney, to find community-based options.

8.    Pregnant people, including those with high risk pregnancies, are being held in county jails on minor probation violation or minor drug charges–during the pandemic! Last month, TCJS reported a tally of 368 pregnant women held.
TJP actions: We connect these women with a residential rehab program with whom we have a long history; we make the attorney or the probation officer aware of community-based options.

9.    The Joint Committee on Access and Forensic Services and the state’s Behavioral Health Committee make important policy decisions but are not aware of many of the challenges people experiencing mental illness face while incarcerated in county jails, which differ widely across the state.
TJP actions: We have already brought about a dozen stories into public comment at their online meetings and these agencies are now seeking us out as informed sources for their policy decisions.

Texas Jail Project has taken on a huge workload during this crisis and this important work needs your support now. Can you help us achieve a goal of $5,000 by December 1st? 

Please help us help your fellow Texans by making an online donation or by mailing a check to:
Texas Jail Project
13121 Louetta Road #1330
Cypress TX 77429

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