The Harris County Courthouse was severely damaged during Hurricane Harvey and remains closed. When the basement flooded, pipes burst, causing water damage throughout the courthouse.
Houston Chronicle Reporter Brian Rogers says the closure has already created many logistical issues for the Houston court system and now officials are saying the building probably won’t be reopened for another two years.
“The District Attorney’s office is in 11 different offices all over Houston, including out by the Galleria, which is far from downton,” Rogers says. “The Public Defender’s office is in the old jail, which is next to the criminal courthouse. Apparently those conditions are just deplorable.”
In addition, court is being held in five different courthouses across downtown Houston.
The situation is far from just inconvenient. The displacement has caused the creation of what some are calling “Harvey deals.” These are quick plea deals that judges are giving out to clear their dockets, which are overwhelmed due to complications stemming from the closed courthouse.
“People who have low-level nonviolent drug offenses are getting pretty good deals,” Rogers says. “Defense lawyers will tell you off the record that they’re getting good deals, but they don’t want their names attached to the Harvey Deals.”
For people stuck in jail the closure is delaying their ability to meet in court and move their case closer to trial. Currently the judges only have a jail docket about once every two weeks. Also, people who are free on bail are being rushed to trial to meet the court’s hectic schedule.
“I understand from the judges point of view that they’re just trying to clear their dockets as quickly and efficiently as they can,” Rogers says, “Everybody is in this mess where they’re trying to get through the system and do the best they can and the facilities aren’t helpful to them.”
Some county officials see this as a chance to renovate a building that they believe had serious problems. Having the office vacant for two years could provide the opportunity to upgrade the building and create a stronger court system.
“If it’s going to be closed for two years try and make the best of it, even though it’s tough right now for everybody,” Rogers says. “Maybe at the end of the day it’ll be a really great system.”
Written by Jeremy Steen.