How Hurricane Harvey wreaked havoc on criminal justice

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Hurricane Harvey has taken a real toll on criminal justice in Harris County, officials say. (KTRK)

Hurricane Harvey left long lasting scars through downtown Houston, not the least of which was the criminal justice system.

The criminal courthouse is out of order, the jury assembly area won't look this way again, and the logistics have changed.

"We've had to change a lot of things with the criminal justice system," said Harris County Sheriff Ed Gonzalez, "how we operate with the courts. We're having to make do in a tough situation with limited space."

While those logistics haven't affected prosecutions per se, the storm itself did force District Attorney Kim Ogg to prioritize the crowded courts and she told us today some non-violent offenders were handled differently than they might have been before the storm.

"Harvey displaced our 700 employees out of the courthouse. It displaced the courts from the courthouse," she explained. "We dismissed some drug cases that had been lingering in the system that were small non-violent offenses. We focused on asking for high bails on all of the violent cases and even the looting cases that came through the system."

This information comes after a pair of weekend tweets in which Houston Police Chief Art Acevedo was critical of the adjudication of some violent offenders in Houston and Harris County.

"Too often we don't know what's going on in courtrooms," said Chief Acevedo, "and I think part of our job both morally and ethically is to make sure the community knows what's happening."

Eyewitness News spoke with the chief at a graduation ceremony for veteran law enforcement officers who just joined HPD and went through an accelerated academy.

Acevedo said he wants them to be safe, and while he's not critical of the district attorney, he doesn't like what's happening in the courtrooms.

"When somebody is committing more than one murder, that's a problem," he said. "When people are dying because we're not holding murderers accountable, that's a problem."

He doesn't believe this doesn't have anything to do with Harvey, but rather a longstanding practice he wants to see end. Harvey or not it seems there is a bit of discord over how the courts are functioning since the floodwaters receded.

The chief wouldn't give us specific cases, but he did say he'll be citing them in the coming days. He wants to see more of any effort to keep violent offenders behind bars.

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