The City of Houston Municipal Courts Department operates within the largest metropolis in Texas, and is a part of one of the largest international communities in the country. We serve a diverse body of citizens and non-citizens alike. Hence, we have the unique opportunity to create a very positive public impression of the Texas Judicial System to a population of over 4.1 million people.
In direct proportion to our population, our court processed approximately 700, 000 cases in 2015 and hosts an estimated two thousand visitors daily at the Herbert W. Gee Municipal Courthouse; just one of six convenient court locations throughout the city.
Our court serves as the local justice center for the enforcement of City of Houston ordinances, fine only state offenses and traffic violations that protect the peace and dignity of our community. We believe, in addition to all the responsibilities mandated by the State of Texas and by our local ordinances, that there is a strong need to proactively work to educate the public on how to resolve court issues and promote traffic safety. We continue towards our successful outreach efforts to accomplish this goal with events such as: mini court clinics, public forums, court tours, visits to local schools, City Council Town Hall Meetings, the Great Texas Warrant Round Up and participation in the annual State of Texas Municipal Courts Week.
For the past three years we have assisted our local law enforcement in protecting the public from drunk drivers on our busy roadways by providing officers the ability to present Blood Search warrants to Judges 24/7 especially in peak late night hours when DWIs are most likely to occur. This effort is especially effective during the no-refusal periods that are designated by law enforcement. In the last year, we averaged reviewing and approving 199 blood search warrants a month.
We work closely with our Juvenile Case Manager Program, which partners with 10 local area high schools and 12 local area middle schools, on the importance of traffic safety such as not driving while under the influence of alcohol or drugs. Once again, the largest school district in Texas, the Houston Independent School District invited us to share that message at a City-wide career day in which Municipal Court staff shared the importance of traffic safety as well as future career opportunities in the municipal judicial system. We broadened our audience tremendously by participating in Mayor Sylvester Turner’s Annual Back-Pack distribution to school aged children for the start of the new school year, which allowed us to share traffic safety information to over 20,000 kids and parents.
Our entire team is involved in helping to share information about our court and public safety. Many staff members, including Clerks, Bailiffs and Judges, take part in visiting area schools, churches and other City of Houston departmental events to provide citizens with the information they need to be well informed and conscientious about the results of unsafe/inappropriate moving violations.
Our Teen Court is in its fourth year of operation! This program is specifically designed for teenagers to promote interest in those considering careers in law and/or criminal justice. The program reminds the teens that their actions have consequences, and especially to be mindful of that fact when they get behind the wheel of a vehicle.
Our Teen Court is made possible through various partnerships, including the High School for Law Enforcement and Criminal Justice, the Houston Police Department’s Youth Advisory Council, and the Municipal Courts’ Juvenile Case Manager Program. The collective goal of Teen Court supporters is to provide education, training, and experience for our participants. The program provides teens with an overall understanding of the juvenile justice system. Traffic safety teaches them the application of appropriate sanctions in relation to juvenile offenses, hopefully reduces the recidivism of juvenile offenders, and sparks an interest in the legal profession.
Teen Court hears real cases of juveniles who have received citations, and they are responsible for determining the sentences of teen defendants. Juvenile defendants plead guilty or no contest and choose to have their cases adjudicated via Teen Court. Our teen volunteers work with professionals from the legal community to prosecute or defend the defendant. At the conclusion of the case, teen jurors are responsible for deciding the punishment. The Judges presiding over Teen Court are official Municipal Court Judges. Defendants can be sentenced to serve subsequent jury terms in Teen Court as a consequence for their illegal behavior. During the past school year, the Teen Court Program held proceedings on about 135 juvenile non-traffic offenses with the help of over 30 student volunteers via our participating partnerships and individual high school campuses.
The Municipal Court Department’s largest annual initiatives highlight our public safety goals by our participation in Municipal Courts Week, with most activities occurring at our main location. We hosted a variety of events to honor our jurors, staff and the public, all while informing them about the vital role of the Municipal Courts in the Houston community.
We also used the opportunity of Municipal Courts Week to make Houstonians aware of how quickly and easily they could resolve any court matter they may have by hosting “Mini-Court Clinics” at several of our multi-service community centers and regional libraries. These clinics offer information about warrants and case status in a non-threating and useful manner. One of the activities sponsored during the week was “Juror Appreciation Day,” when jurors were greeted by the Director & Presiding Judge Barbara Hartle, along with other court executive leaders, and thanked them for their service.
There was a daily “Lobby Activity Table,” which hosted a variety of activities and winnable prizes for all ages that were centered around public safety and court information. The daily “Question of the Day” tested the knowledge of visitors and employees alike about various civic and public safety matters. A “Distracted Driving Simulator” was displayed for the public and used during our “High School Tour” that was geared to reaching out to young people, especially those who are just beginning to drive. The week ended with our fourth annual Portrait Dedication Ceremony; which honored one of our most valued Judges and recognized a long serving Municipal Court Bailiff who passed away while employed at the courts; it was attended by over 100 dignitaries, staff and guests.
By collaborating with the Houston Independent School District, we were once again able to host the High School for Law Enforcement & Criminal Justice by providing a tour of our Courthouse and the Houston Police Department’s City Jail. The students learned about the various careers that are involved in running a Municipal Court. They also learned about the intake and booking processes at the City Jail, including an opportunity to see actual inmates in the jail cells and the consequences of being incarcerated. The tour of the jail facility was a real eye opener for many of the teens and, based on their feedback; it certainly left a lasting impression upon them.
In closing, the City of Houston operates the State of Texas’ largest paperless Municipal Court as well as one of the largest in the nation. We are also proud to have transitioned to a new integrated data system, Court Management System and Resource Technology (CSMART), which has proved to be a more efficient way to process the large volume of cases and continuously provide our citizens with a Municipal Court of which they can be proud. We continue to operate with professionalism and courtesy, expeditiously performing the ministerial & judicial duties required of us by state law and local ordinances. We believe that the best way to meet these responsibilities is to have an informed public, and we take seriously our role in helping to meet the public’s need for education in public safety and court matters, and we achieve this balance on a day to day basis in the most respectful way possible.
We invite you to visit our website at www.houstontx.gov/courts as well to read about our programs and services. Even online, we are committed to public service via justice, equality and service to all who need us.