Specialty Courts In Harris County And Texas Under the Microscope

Harris County’s newest D.A. Mike Anderson comes from a background of specialty courts.

“I’m a former drug court judge, so I really believe in the specialty courts. I’ve seen them work and I’m committed to helping them in any way that I can.”

Anderson is such an advocate for the courts that after adding a second docket to the newly established Mental Health Court, he also created a Mental Health Division headed up by Denise Oncken. Her first job is to look at the court’s statistics to rate their success.

“There will be court dater tracking our defendants and doing a lot of our docket resetting, and so I’m sure that some of those numbers will be generated after a period of time to determine how successful we are with the referrals that we get in and the defendants that we’re dealing with.”

Governor Perry has two advisory councils doing the same thing on the state level: the Criminal Justice Advisory Council will look at the creation, staffing, operation and performance of specialty courts, while the Specialty Courts Advisory Council will look at grant funding.

Local attorney Pat McCann will be one of the members on the Specialty Courts Council.

“I really think that on a variety of topics whether its mental health or drug courts or veteran’s courts are excellent examples of trying to apply new and thoughtful approaches to very difficult problems that the court system wasn’t always designed to solve.”

The success of Harris County’s "Saving Ourselves by Education and Recover", or SOBER court has been chronicled by Sam Houston State University. Researchers found that 15% of DWI offenders are repeat offenders. A number which drops to 6% for people who’ve been through the SOBER Court program.

Dr. Gaylene Armstrong with Sam Houston’s Criminal Justice Department says this is just one of the courts they’re looking at.

“Currently we’re engaged in the final stages of an evaluation of a Harris County STAR Drug Court.”

It’s a court that deals with female offenders who have substance abuse issues and a history of some form of trauma.

“Really seen some positive improvements in their psychological wellness and we’re also seeing some very promising trends in terms of a reduction of arrests within that population. This court is also showing some very promising impacts on females offenders in the Harris County area.”

More studies are being conducted by Sam Houston State. These figures will play into Governor Perry’s decision on how to manage the growth of these specialty courts this 83rd legislative session.

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