Houston Federal Court Launches Program for First-Time Offenders

In one of the first programs of its kind in the country, the Pre-Trial Agency of Houston's U.S. District Court is holding informational sessions for people who are out on bond after being charged with a first felony offense. Those sessions cover how the federal court system works, how it differs from state and county courts, and what services are available to defendants. Senior Pre-Trial Services Officer Cynthia McMurray-Smith says it's information they may not get otherwise.

"Oftentimes that is what they share with us as officers, that their attorney may not have shared that information. So they are left a little clueless sometimes about what to expect in the procedures."

Dr. Karen Callaghan, Political Science Professor at Texas Southern UniversityDr. Karen Callaghan, Political Science Professor at Texas Southern University

And McMurray-Smith says they also provide information for families about what's available in the community in terms of housing and food assistance and counseling for children.

"Because they're looking at that potential loss of that particular individual in the home, if they have to in fact go and serve prison time."

An evaluation conducted by Texas Southern University shows the program is reducing defendants' fears about the process, while helping them face the seriousness of their situation. The evaluation team was headed by Dr. Karen Callaghan.

"I think it was a reality check, some people came in, they'd been in denial, they didn't want to deal with their situation. They came through the program and said, well, I'm less worried, but I know it's possible I may go to prison."

And Callaghan says research also found a higher level of trust from people who'd completed the program.

"Even if they're to be found guilty, as long as they feel it was a fair decision, in a fair, court, with a fair process, they're willing to accept their fate. And I think you'll see an increase in the likelihood that they won't return to prison again, if they trust the system that decreed their guilt."

Researchers say they may do further studies on how the program affects outcomes in court, as well as gathering opinions from family members as to whether they benefitted from the services.

Gail Delaughter, KUHF News.
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