AUSTIN, Texas (CN) – In an address to state lawmakers, Texas Supreme Court Chief Justice Nathan Hecht asked for more judicial and courthouse security, improved access to the justice system, cheaper legal fees, elimination of so-called debtors’ prisons and bail reform.
Justice Hecht began last week’s State of the Judiciary address by telling the 85th Texas Legislature the story of the November 2015 attack on Travis County District Court Judge Julie Kocurek, who was shot and severely injured in her driveway as part of an alleged plot to kill her.
Travis County officials were supposedly aware of a threat but did not inform Kocurek. Though she recovered from her injuries and later returned to the courtroom, she was awarded a $500,000 settlement because of the county’s improper handling of the threat. The three suspected perpetrators of the attack are in jail and awaiting trial.
Hecht said the attack on Kocurek shows there is a need for statewide improvements in judicial security.
“Judges are not the only ones at risk; courthouses must be safe for staff, parties, lawyers, and jurors. Every threat must be taken seriously,” he said.
As a result, the Texas Judicial Council, which is the policy-making body for the state judiciary, proposed a new position, director of state judicial security, to oversee security plans and initiatives across the state.
The council plans to change existing laws to shield judges’ personal information from public access. Judges and their spouses would be allowed to delist addresses and phone numbers from public records. The council also asked for increased funding for courthouse security and for the personal security of judges who have been threatened or attacked.
The judicial council’s security recommendations are contained in Texas Senate Bill 42, which was introduced on Jan. 24. The council proposes that the bill be called the Judge Julie Kocurek Judicial and Courthouse Security Act of 2017.
Hecht also wants judicial salaries to be increased by the legislature.
“We continue to fall further behind federal judges and judges in other states—27th overall, and last among the six largest states,” he said. He suggested using a mathematical formula in which judicial salaries would be based on salaries of other judges, officials and lawyers, as well as cost of living increases.
Lack of access to the justice system is another pressing issue, according to Hecht.
“Justice only for those who can afford it is neither justice for all nor justice at all,” he said. “The rule of law, so revered in this country, has no integrity if its promises and protections extend only to the well-to-do.”
He wants lawmakers to continue funding basic legal services for military veterans, as well as sexual assault victims. He praised the role of legal aid providers and attorneys who provide pro bono services.
“Every dollar for legal aid thus provides many dollars in legal services. Every year, Texas lawyers donate millions of dollars and millions of hours. A million hours, by the way, is 500 work-years. Legal aid helps the poor be productive and adds to the economy’s bottom line,” he said.
According to the Texas Access to Justice Foundation, Texas ranks 47th among states in access to legal aid, with 5.3 million Texans qualifying for it. This means there is one legal aid lawyer for every 9,800 Texans who qualify, and only 10 percent of the legal needs of low-income people are being met because of insufficient funding.
Hecht similarly noted that the high cost of legal services forces people, such as middle-income families and small businesses, to represent themselves out of desperation. He calls this situation a “justice gap” in which those who need legal help and the lawyers who need work are not finding each other.
He mentioned that a planned statewide electronic court document system should allow for easier access to court records, thereby improving access to justice.
Another critical issue addressed by Justice Hecht was bail reform and pretrial release. He notes that three-fourths of the state’s jail population is sitting in jail while awaiting trial. This is because many who are arrested cannot afford a bail bond and stay in jail until their hearing. This has a damaging effect on society, he said.
“Though presumed innocent, they lose their jobs and families, and are more likely to re-offend. And if all this weren’t bad enough, taxpayers must shoulder the cost—a staggering $1 billion per year,” he said.
The high-ranking judge suggested the use of readily available risk assessment tools to decide whether people charged with nonviolent crimes can be released on their own recognizance without danger to the public or risk of flight. Five counties in the state already use such tools, he noted.
The Judicial Council also recommended changes to the state criminal code for more effective management of mentally ill criminal defendants and better procedures for their treatment, medication and restoration.
It says that 20 to 24 percent of the Texas inmate population has a mental health need. Adults with untreated mental health conditions are eight times more likely to be incarcerated than the general population.
The council is evaluating possible amendments to the code regarding increased bond availability for mentally ill, nonviolent offenders. It may also expand the jail diversion pilot program if it is proven effective. The program involves reducing recidivism and the frequency of incarceration among persons with mental illness.
The jailing of poor people for minor offenses, often referred to as a debtors’ prison system, was also a concern for Hecht and the judiciary. This practice leads to lost jobs, damaged families and costs to the taxpayers. The tacking on of extra fees for payment plans, missed payments, and the actual making of payments can drown a person in debt, he said.
“Judges must determine whether a defendant is actually unable, not just unwilling, to pay a fine. A defendant whose liberty is at stake must be given a hearing and may be entitled to legal counsel. For the indigent, the fine must be waived and some alternative punishment arranged, such as community service or training,” Hecht said.
In response to the judiciary’s recommendations on use of risk assessment tool to lower jail populations, a representative of the Austin Municipal Court told Courthouse News that magistrates get recommendations regarding whether personal recognizance bonds should be granted, as well as potential bond conditions. The recommendations are based on a thorough analysis performed by pre-trial services officers, and this system allows low-risk, nonviolent offenders to be released much faster than in other jurisdictions.
The Austin court has multiple options for people who can’t pay court-ordered judgments in full when they’re assessed. It also has a notification program for people with payment plans or extensions.
Hecht touched briefly on reforms to the guardianship and foster care systems. He asked state lawmakers to extend funding for the Office of Court Administration’s Guardianship Compliance Project, which was started in the last session as a pilot program. Likewise, the Supreme Court’s Children’s Commission needs state funding to make continued improvements to foster care, he said.
Hecht decried the impact of partisan politics on judicial selection and the fact that many judges lost solely because voters in their districts preferred a presidential candidate in the other party. He thinks removing judges from straight-ticket voting and the use of merit selection would help solve this problem.
“[W]hen partisan politics is the driving force, and the political climate is as harsh as ours has become, judicial elections make judges more political, and judicial independence is the casualty,” he said, according to a transcript of the speech.
Hecht concluded last Wednesday’s address by emphasizing that the courts and legislature must work together to serve the cause of justice.
“As important as it is for courts to be efficient, it is more important for them to get every case right. We are committed to making all our processes serve the cause of justice,” he said. “In that spirit, we ask your help with security and compensation, electronic access to court documents, and guardianship monitoring, and your continued help with access to justice for the poor and the middle class. We pledge to work with you to reform the bail system, the treatment of those with mental illness, and the imposition of fines, fees, and costs for minor offenses.”