As part of Harris County’s ongoing effort to reform its criminal justice system, the county has now turned its attention from the perpetrators of crimes to their victims.

Following Harris County commissioners’ split vote at the July 30 meeting, which settled a three-year-old lawsuit that deemed Harris County’s bail bond practice “unconstitutional,” the Commissioners Court opted to take a similar re-evaluation when it comes to assisting the victims of those crimes.

“Our county spends millions of dollars in the realm of criminal justice, and we voted last session to add potentially another $97 million to look out for those who are arrested for committing crimes in our society,” Precinct 4 Commissioner Jack Cagle said during the meeting. “But there is a great deficit in these reforms in that we have not been looking out for the only unwilling participant in the criminal justice system, … the victims.”

Cagle, who placed the item on the agenda, proposed a type of victims assistance council be created to coordinate existing efforts by nonprofit organizations that already provide services to victims countywide. He also suggested the court refer the items to the county’s attorney and budget offices.

Precinct 1 Commissioner Rodney Ellis recommended the court direct the newly formed justice administration department to conduct a survey of existing victim services in Harris County, to identify potential service gaps and possible solutions for those gaps—particularly for victims of domestic violence—and to complete a review of restorative justice models and identify what would be required to establish a similar program in Harris County.

Restorative justice

Representatives from several assistance organizations across the county as well as Pasadena Police Chief Josh Bruegger and Judge Genesis Draper, who presides over Harris County Criminal Court at Law No. 12, spoke in favor of pursuing a coordinated effort to help victims of crime during the meeting.

“I think crime victims—I believe unintentionally—have been overlooked as of late,” Bruegger said. “I understand, as do you all, that the criminal justice system is far from perfect. We should always seek ways to improve this system while balancing the rights of the accused without hindering the victims and overall public safety. Public safety should be a nonpartisan issue; we all want to be safe.”

Draper argued that restorative justice—a concept that focuses on repairing the harm caused by a crime and involving those most affected by the crime to be part of the process of coming to a resolution—reduces recidivism and should be practiced in Harris County.

“Restorative justice addresses the needs of all parties involved—offenders, victims, community members and anyone else impacted by criminal behavior because as we all know it’s not always a crime that has a direct victim, sometimes it’s the community at large,” she said.

Drew Wiley, CEO and founder of Restoring Justice, a nonprofit working to establish restorative justice principles in Harris County, agreed with Draper, stating restorative justice gives all parties a seat at that table.

“It’s an adversarial system that we’re in right now—it is a punitive system, and this idea of restorative justice changes that from punitive to restorative and ... allows for everyone to work together,” Wiley said.

Shelter bed shortage

Representatives from Harris County-based assistance organizations—including Cypress Assistance Ministries, Mercy House, Care Net Pregnancy Centers and Focusing Families—emphasized the need for shelters and safe houses for victims of sex trafficking and domestic violence, particularly in northwest Harris County.

“We want to be involved, we want to be part of this reform [and] we want to make sure that people get their needs met. ... Right now, at least in northwest Harris County, it’s not happening,” CAM Executive Director Maratha Burners said. “The closest shelters to us are in southeast Harris County, … [and] they’re looking at an hour- to two-hour-long drive to get a woman or man who’s been battered to a shelter. In a county this size, that’s unimaginable.”

Dennis Mark, executive director of Redeemed Ministries, which works exclusively with victims of domestic sex trafficking, echoed Burners’ sentiments.

“We have six beds right now in our safe house, and we just had one bed open up. ... We have nine applicants for that one bed, so we have to determine who is the worst of those nine,” Mark said. “So, to say this is just an issue is tragically inappropriate.”

Debbie Johnson, president and co-founder of Hope Center Houston, which serves as a day center and assistance provider for homeless individuals along the FM 1960 corridor, also said the homeless need to be considered when assessing the needs of victims.

“At least half of our individuals that come in have either been assaulted, shot or raped,” Johnson said. “We need to have the victims [involved] because the homeless do not have a voice because they try to fly under the radar because, let’s face it, they live in encampments and that’s illegal. But housing is few and far between.”

The court unanimously voted to refer the items to the county attorney’s office, county budget office and the justice administration department to evaluate and bring recommendations back to the court for further consideration.

“It’s time to step forward, and let’s demonstrate in Harris County we can lead the nation when it comes to helping victims,” Precinct 3 Commissioner Steve Radack said.