Late Monday, Harris County filed an amended petition for the “Southlawn Safety Zone” gang injunction that seeks to ban supposed gang members from a community in southeast Houston.
The amended petition slashes in half the number of defendants the county wants to ban from the area, from 92 to 46. It also shrinks the boundaries of that area, now encompassing only a dozen or so blocks surrounding, primarily, Southdown Palms Apartments and Cullen Middle School, while before it stretched across 1,326 acres. And it also puts a four-year cap on how long the defendants can be banned from the area. If defendants want a way back into their communities before then, the petition now allows them to show that they have “rehabilitated” themselves.
But some attorneys representing the defendants take issue with the subjective nature of that provision.
Intended to “encourage rehabilitation and protect civil liberties,” this provision would allow for defendants to have a sit-down meeting with reps from the Harris County Attorney’s Office and District Attorney’s Office, where they’ll have to prove that they’ve made concerted efforts to become “productive member[s] of society.” To the county, this subjective standard means securing gainful employment, going to school or undertaking other “activities to demonstrate a willingness to not engage in gang-relative activities.” It’s kind of like the way a prisoner would have to convince the parole board that he deserves the chance to re-enter society.
But to defense attorney Jennifer Gaut, who, with her colleagues, is representing 30 men named in the injunction, there are several problems with this. The first one is, well, they aren’t prisoners. Local government, she said, can’t simply invent its own standards that would dictate whether or not someone can live in a certain community.
“This is subjective in that ‘these are the things we think are proper. These are the things we think will qualify you as a good citizen who we will let go back into their community,’” Gaut said. “Those just are not the standards we have to meet to live in America, that you can only live here or travel down certain streets if you’re a certain kind of person.”
She also pointed out the fact that these gang injunction defendants, in the vast majority of cases, are convicted felons. Does the county really think it’s going to be that simple for them to get a job or secure financial aid to go to college given their criminal records?
While it may sound like a good idea in theory, Gaut said, it’s simply not practical, nor does it reflect how courts even operate. And while she and other defense attorneys are happy to see the county making compromises, nothing in the new petition “changes our position that they aren't entitled to ban people from public streets and public roads and buses and from their homes.”
Terrence O'Rourke, a lawyer with the county attorney's office, said that his office has been paying close attention to the tricky balance between protecting a community without stepping on constitutional rights. As for the new provision allowing defendants to make a case for their removal from the suit, O'Rourke said it was modeled after a San Francisco gang injunction that went into effect, and he's confident it's within constitutional bounds.
"We are profoundly respectful of the power being exercised here," he said. "It is a powerful tool to protect a community and at the same time balance protecting the constitutional rights of people who are of color and frequently have limited economic means. We are acutely sensitive to that reality."
The county originally filed the lawsuit quietly last September. Earlier this year, as activists began catching wind, they criticized the county for targeting mostly black men and taking them away from their families. Of the 46 defendants the county removed, many were those who were already incarcerated, or those who hadn't committed a crime since 2013 or had committed a low-level crime, like trespassing or possession of a small amount of marijuana, in 2015.
If the court allows it, this would be the third injunction that the county has created in recent years, claiming it will reduce crime. "We simply can't let criminal gangs run the center of our city," O'Rourke said. "That's the core of what this is about."
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