If the COVID-19 Pandemic has proven anything about the City of Houston government, it has shown that it is a resilient organization that will find creative ways to get the job done.
One example is the Municipal Courts Department’s new Safe Harbor Court created by Judge J. Elaine Marshall, director and presiding judge for MCD.
Marshall said the court seeks to help defendants who are unable to pay their fines and fees due to financial hardships stemming from the pandemic.
“It is designed to assist defendants due to financial hardships, medical issues, or issues arising from COVID-19 in satisfying judgments and will work with defendants who produce evidence of an inability to pay fines and fees,” she said.
Under the Safe Harbor Court, two to three judges are sent into communities throughout the city to meet with people and discuss their cases.
The cases presented are Class C citations, and the judges will then give options on how to move forward.
“My judges will also go out into the communities to talk to citizens, to ease their fears and explain what they will need to present to get some assistance,” she said.
Marshall said evidence hardships caused by COVID-19 include bank statements, eviction notices, food stamps, WIC, CHIP, SSI TANF, and other items the judges request.Judges then determine the validity of claims on a case by case basis.
Options available to residents include fine forgiveness, deferred payment, and community service options that will be available for residents who qualify.
“My intent is to relax their fears of arrest and help them understand that the Safe Harbor Court is designed to help,” Marshall said. “This court is designed to look at individual circumstances surrounding their judgments and try find solutions that work.
“Some fines are completely forgiven, and some are extended, but not indefinitely,” Marshall said.
Mayor Sylvester Turner approved the Safe Harbor Court as part of his Complete Communities Initiative and the Task Force on Police Reform.
The department announced the Safe Harbor Court during a press conference Oct. 23. Marshall said they begin seeing their first cases Oct. 26. “We assisted the citizens who came in and were able to help them satisfy their judgements,” she added.
Marshall reiterated the importance of providing some form of relief for residents who are facing financial hardship during the pandemic, as well as fear.
“My vision is for it to be a place for citizens who have not been able to satisfy judgments against them and find themselves in a place where they have an inability to pay to come into our court without fear of arrest and talk to judges about their situation,” she said.
Marshall said she wants to continue Turner’s vision for Complete Communities and assist Houstonians who have lost their jobs, housing, and feel hopeless due to the pandemic and other issues.
“We are the fourth largest city in the United States. I want to be able to help our citizens get through this period.
We will make a difference in Houston, in the lives of our citizens that need assistance, a lot who have been affected and devasted by COVID-19,” she said.
People entering the courthouse will be required to wear face masks or facial coverings and have their temperatures.
This will be done in conjunction with Mayor Turner’s and CDC guidelines to protect the public and MCD staff from the spread of COVID-19.
For information, call the City of Houston Helpline at 3-1-1 or 713-837-0311 if outside of the City of Houston, or visit the Municipal Courts website at www.houstontx.gov/courts.