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Houston mayor rolls out $44M plan to reduce crime

The mayor said a key to the initiative is reducing the backlog of more than 100,000 criminal cases in Houston-area courts.

HOUSTON (CN) — With more than 40 homicides already in 2022 and three police recovering after a gunman shot them last week, Houston’s mayor on Wednesday unveiled a $44 million plan to reduce violent crime in the city.

Roland Caballero, 31, is in jail facing three counts of attempted capital murder of a police officer and two other felonies. He was arrested Thursday hours after he allegedly sprayed bullets at three Houston police as they arrived to investigate his car crash with a handgun authorities say had been illegally modified into an automatic weapon.

Those shootings followed the murder of Harris County Precinct 5 Constable's Office Corporal Charles Galloway in the early morning of Jan. 23 in southwest Houston by a man who opened fire after Galloway pulled him over.

“The city of Houston, like most major cities across the country, is experiencing a surge in violent crime,” Mayor Sylvester Turner said Wednesday at a press conference at City Hall, joined by Houston Police Chief Troy Finner and representatives of the FBI, Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives and Crime Stoppers of Houston.

Turner said the Covid-19 pandemic is partly but not solely to blame for the rampant bloodshed.

“Other factors … include widespread social anxiety, economic uncertainty, mental health concerns, the increased presence of illegally owned firearms and a strained court system plagued by criminal case backlogs that impact the pretrial release and prosecution of violent offenders,” added Turner, a Democrat in his second and final term as mayor.

Stressing the need for a holistic approach to crime reduction, Turner announced a wide-ranging $44 million program funded by the American Rescue Plan Act of 2021, a pandemic stimulus bill passed by Congress last March with bipartisan support.

Key to the initiative, Turner said, is reducing the backlog of more than 100,000 criminal cases in Harris County courts.

The county’s prosecutors fell behind on their dockets in 2017 after Hurricane Harvey flooded the criminal courthouse downtown in the county seat Houston, forcing them to relocate their offices and conduct proceedings in the civil courthouse and even the basement of the county jail.

“We literally were knocked of our feet and out of that building. And about the time we started to get back Covid hit. Crime didn’t stop,” said Texas state Representative Ann Johnson, D-Houston, who in 2017 was chief human trafficking prosecutor of the Harris County District Attorney’s Office.

Late last year, Johnson introduced a bill to add three new felony courts in Harris County.

“If we stay where we are now it will take us 15 years to get out of the backlog that’s been created by those unexpected, uncontrolled events of Harvey and Covid,” she said, speaking alongside Turner at the press conference.

A sore point in Houston’s criminal justice system is a recent rash of violent crimes committed by people with histories of such offenses following their release from jail on bond.

But a report last October by the Houston Chronicle found even when judges set bail at high amounts to keep felony defendants in jail, many were securing their release by cutting deals with bail bond companies.

The companies are increasingly accepting less than the customary 10% of bail from people facing felony charges to post their bond and get them back on the street.

Turner is angling to snuff out that practice. He called on the Harris County Bail Bond Board – made up of bail bondsmen, attorneys, judges and county officials – to pass a regulation that would require bail bond companies to charge defendants at least 10% of the bail amount set by courts.

If the board does not, Turner said, he will ask City Attorney Arturo Michel to craft an ordinance setting 10% as the minimum bail payment for consideration by the City Council.

Dubbed “One Safe Houston,” the city’s plan allocates $1 million for a gun buyback program.

Councilwoman Abbie Kamin, an attorney who chairs the city’s Public Safety Committee, focused her remarks Wednesday on the nexus between domestic and gun violence.

There were 81 domestic violence-related homicides in Houston last year, up from 54 in 2020, according to the mayor's office.

“Access to a gun in a domestic violence situation makes it five times more likely the victim will be killed," Kamin said. "Last year domestic violence incidents increased over 50% from 2020 [in the Houston area]. And if I read the numbers correctly there were 330,159 incidents of domestic violence reported from 2021 year to date."

She urged Houstonians to stop leaving their guns in cars, as 3,600 were reported stolen from vehicles in the city last year.

The biggest chunk of the $44 million plan is $21.3 million for mental health crisis intervention, followed by $9.6 million to address domestic violence and $5.7 million to place an additional 125 Houston police on patrol per day through overtime payments.

“These additional officers will be deployed primarily based on data-driven, evidence-based analysis of when and where the most violent crimes are occurring and to provide more visibility towards crime deterrence and rapid response to crimes in progress,” Turner said.

The initiative also allocates $1.9 million for the city to hire another 15 park rangers.

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