A proposal to reform the controversial practice of jailing key witnesses so they don't skip town before a trial is over is being worked on for the upcoming legislative session, state Senator Joan Huffman's office announced Friday.
The push for change was sparked by the story of a Houston woman who, after having a mental breakdown while testifying at her rapist's trial, was sent to the Harris County jail for 27 days after telling prosecutors that she was running away and didn't want to return to finish her testimony. The woman, who is bipolar and schizophrenic, spent ten days in the hospital recovering, but the Harris County District Attorney's Office has claimed that she had nowhere to go after being discharged and that her mother told prosecutors it was “too stressful” to take her daughter in.
So prosecutors obtained a witness attachment, as it is formally called, and took the woman— referred to as “Jenny” in media reports — to jail. According to a lawsuit she has since filed in federal court, she was placed in general population and was assaulted multiple times by both inmates and guards.
Huffman's announcement said she would be working with Harris County Sheriff Ron Hickman and Harris County District Attorney Devon Anderson to draft policy.
Anderson has said that she regrets the recent situation, but has stood by her prosecutors' decision to hold Jenny in jail. She said that the rapist had at least 11 victims and, without the rest of Jenny's testimony, the judge would have declared a mistrial and the rapist would have walked. “And this is a man we know. We know he will get out and do it again," Anderson said, "because he got out and did it to her.”
Still, the overwhelming response from mental health advocates, criminal justice advocates and the public has been outrage over what Jenny had to endure, leading Anderson to agree to rethink the witness attachment process. The 85th legislative session begins on January 10.
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“We’ve learned that persons with certain vulnerabilities in the criminal justice system must have access to advocacy and representation,” Hickman said. “I’m confident that working closely with Senator Huffman, we will be able to find a legislative solution that addresses this nuanced legal issue.”
It's unclear what these legislative reforms may entail, but at a press conference last week, Anderson said she wants prosecutors to petition the Legislature to write a new law providing jailed witnesses lawyers, who can perhaps continue working to find a better place for the witness to stay besides jail. She also said she would appoint an “inner office tracker,” whose responsibility will be to monitor all witnesses in jail as well as people in jail on bench warrants, meaning they were jailed in a different county but were extradited to Harris County so they could testify in a trial.
During an audit that Anderson launched following the outrage about Jenny's case, she found that one rape victim sent to Harris County jail on a bench warrant was accidentally sitting in jail two months longer than she should have. The woman had been serving a six-month sentence for drug possession, Anderson said, but after her sentence expired, prosecutors apparently forgot to let her out of jail.
Anderson said they're working to make sure they don't do that again either.