Nov. 8, 2016 – Human rights lawyers from across the state recently presented their thoughts to the United Nations Working Group on Arbitrary Detention during a meeting at the University of Houston Law Center.
The U.N. Working Group on Arbitrary Detention is a collection of attorneys from around the world, and is part of the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights, which is the primary human rights agency in the international body. Members who attended included José Guevara of Mexico, Seong-Phil Hong of South Korea, and Leigh Toomey of Australia.
The group was hosted by Sandra Guerra Thompson, Alumnae College Professor of Law and director of the Law Center's Criminal Justice Institute.
"It was an honor for the University of Houston to host the U.N. Working Group on Arbitrary Detention," Thompson said. "The meetings provided the Working Group with informative reports on some of the most pressing issues currently facing the criminal justice system in the United States."
Satinder Singh, an attorney with the American Civil Liberties Union of Texas, opened the discussion with the topic of racial profiling used as a means of drug interdiction.
Drug interdiction is described as a mandate for law enforcement officers to stop vehicles and search them for narcotics.
Sing said the way Sandra Bland was arrested meets the criteria for a drug interdiction vehicle stop. Bland, 28, committed suicide in the Waller County jail on July 13, 2015, three days after being arrested near Prairie View University following a routine traffic stop.
"She was stopped for failing to put on a turn signal when she changed lanes, which is a crime, but a very minor crime," Singh said. "That's the hallmark of a drug interdiction stop; when law enforcement uses, not offenses that are being enforced to make the public safer, but minor vehicle violations as an excuse to conduct a search."
The second speaker, Jay Jenkins of the Texas Criminal Justice Coalition, focused on the criminalization and over-incarceration of the mentally ill.
"We have a system where you can have an episode of mental illness that causes you to get arrested, and you're taken to jail for a low-level offense," Jenkins said. At the jail you're treated and stabilized, and once you get better it's usually time for release. Once released you no longer have access to mental health treatment.
"It becomes a revolving door for some people and the only way they can get mental health treatment is in the jails," Jenkins said. "If charges are being filed in order to get people mental health treatment, we need to seriously reconsider the purpose of criminal justice and mental health systems."
Jenkins noted that criminal justice facilities have become a vehicle to deliver mental health treatment. For example, the Harris County and Dallas County jails are the largest mental health providers in Texas, he said, which underscores that a lack of mental health facilities leads to arbitrary detention.
"In Harris County we have a unique problem, where there are a number of individuals in the jail who have been declared permanently incompetent to stand trial," he said. "There are no criminal charges pending against these people being held in the jail. They're being held in the jail because there is no mental health facility for them to be sent to."
The third speaker, Karly Jo Dixon, an attorney with the Texas Defender Service, explored the subject of bail reform, and said counties across Texas prioritize monetizing the bail system.
"The majority of people in jail are there because they can't pay for something," she said. "People who can't make bail are sitting in jail. There is an arbitrary distinction being made where if you can afford to pay your bail, you're released, and if you can't afford it, you stay in jail," she said.
Amanda Marzullo, policy director of the Texas Defender Service, closed the discussion with a talk on capital punishment in Texas. She cited statistics that show a disproportionate number of people of color are likely to receive death sentences.
"If you murder a white victim, you are five times more likely to get a death sentence in Texas," she said. "Also the race of the defendant is a real driving factor in Texas and Harris County. If you're black you are 75 percent more likely to proceed to trial and 50 percent more likely to be sentenced to death than a white counterpart."
Along with its visit to the Law Center, the U.N. Working Group on Arbitrary Detention also met with advocates in Chicago, San Antonio, San Diego and Washington, D.C.