For some Houstonians, Tropical Storm Allison was a bigger deal than Hurricane Katrina, which filled Houston with Louisiana refugees; Hurricane Rita, which filled area freeways with unnecessary evacuees; or Hurricane Ike, which filled insurance companies with windstorm damage claims. Allison shocked the area's criminal justice system, temporarily halting routine injustices there was suddenly neither the time nor place to inflict.
In the year 2000, the Harris County Criminal Justice Center ("CJC"), opened for business. As anyone who has visited it and a more functionally designed courthouse knows (See the older Dallas County Frank Crowley Courts Building or the newer Harris County Civil Justice Center) the CJC has a number of shortcomings, including, but not limited to:
- Failing to locate the busiest offices (clerks, collections, and pre-trial services) on the first floor;
- Failing to build escalators or public stairs to or between the busiest offices and/or courts;
- Insufficient elevator capacity;
- Indirect tunnel access from the other county buildings;
- Insufficient common area seating;
And, as discovered in Tropical Storm Allison,
- Large insufficiently (under the unique circumstances of Allison) anchored tanks of diesel fuel in an underground room;
It is a building only it's architect could love.
As a result of the last, a wave of storm water (so the story goes) flooded the basement and threw the diesel tanks against the wall where they ruptured. Then, the diesel fuel and storm water evaporated up through the twenty-story building. The flood subsided, but the fumes and water damage remained. Luckily, it was a non-smoking facility.
At the same time, the "old jail" next door lost power and running water creating inhumane conditions for the thousands of inmates within. Suddenly, a county known neither for its liberal pre-trial release policies or generous plea bargains had to operate a "tough on crime" system without a courthouse and half the jail capacity. It managed.
There was a rumor that the police were told not to arrest anyone for small amounts of drugs, i.e. no shake, roach, crack-pipe, or needle cases. Questionable
DWI's were supposedly off-limits, too. Arrestees were given reasonable bonds and court dates many weeks away. All the opposite of the normal Harris County practice at the time (and now, too, except for the residue cases).
Misdemeanor Jail Dockets were initially held in the old line-up room on the first floor of 49 San Jacinto. The inmates were shackled together and sat cross-legged in rows on the floor in in the viewing room, adjoining rooms, hallways, and anywhere else there was space. Lawyers, staff, and judges worked seven days a week in shorts, short sleeved shirts, and sandals. Everyone was hot, sweaty, and trying not to inhale through their nose. Plea bargains were made where the emphasis was on the bargain rather than the plea. Dismissals were a dime a dozen.
Felony dockets were held in a pantry sized courtroom on the second floor of the same building. The only stairway up was eighteen inches wide, rendering it inaccessible to many. Again, less serious and questionable cases were often resolved quickly and cheaply or went away.
The old jail cleared out fast.
Some might say Harris County defendants never had it so good. Unless, of course, they wanted to go to trial, then things got uncertain as no one knew when or where those would be held. Business for bail bondsmen and defense attorneys on the other hand...
Meanwhile, clerks pushed grocery carts full of files and computers from the CJC back to the old criminal courthouse a block away. The word on the street was it could be brought back online. It was. And inmates did the heavy lifting.
While the Criminal District Courts eventually made their way back to the old oak heavy chambers from which they came a year earlier, the
County Criminal Courts at Law had to share - two to a courtroom - for several months. Judges took the bench on a rotating basis. The doubling up made plea negotiations more fruitful and trials less frequent than when everybody had their own room and more jails to fill.
Unfortunately, when a new jail was completed ahead of schedule and the CJC reopened, things returned to what locally passes for normal.
They say necessity is the mother of invention, but for many Tropical Storm Allison was a sister of mercy.