Jailing of Sexual Assault Victim Sparks Legislative Push

August 08, 2016 by

After a sexual assault victim was imprisoned to ensure she testified against her assailant, two lawmakers are now calling for criminal justice reform.

When word broke that “Jenny,” the bipolar sexual assault victim, was suing the Harris County DA’s office, amongst others, there was plenty of blame but a definite lack of accountability. Thankfully, in the few weeks that have passed we’ve heard healthy discussion regarding the need for new policies to ensure that something like this never happens again.

Leading the discussion are two Texas State Senators from the Houston-area, Joan Huffman and John Whitmire, Vice Chair and Chair of the Senate Criminal Justice Committee, respectively.

In a statement, Huffman said, “recent events in Harris County have started an important conversation on reforming the process of detaining witnesses prior to in-court testimony,” or witness attachment.

Witness attachments are a legal tool used to jail a witness prior to their in-court testimony, out of concern they may be unreliable. The prosecution and the defense have the right to petition a judge for an attachment order and the new legislation would apply to both sides.

Calling this tool “vital” Huffman said it, “should only be used when there is no other way to hear testimony that is critical to public safety or in the best interest of the public.” The legislation that the lawmakers are seeking is to ensure that any witness subject to an attachment order has access to a court-appointed attorney.

Whitmire said, “Come January, I and my colleagues will pass legislation saying if you’re going to use attachment for a witness to make certain they are going to be at the trial, they will have a court appointed attorney.”

Huffman vowed to work with Harris County District Attorney, Devon Anderson and Sherriff Ron Hickman on the legislation.

“In the 85th session, I look forward to working with Sheriff Hickman, DA Anderson, prosecutors, law enforcement, the mental health community and victim advocates to reform the necessary mechanism of attachment, but only in a way that protect the rights of all witnesses.”

In defense of her office, Anderson justified the actions but added that her office would be pushing reforms this next legislative session too, such as: a court-appointed attorney mandate, an inter-office tracking system to monitor witnesses on bond and bench warrants, and a provision to seek a deposition before a witness bond.

The goal is to ensure that what happened to “Jenny” never happens to another victim. Had these reforms been enacted last legislative session, she may have not been jailed, incorrectly booked, assaulted, and re-victimized by the government. It’s unfortunate that such negative experiences must happen to show flaws in the system and spur reform, however it’s promising to see officials responding so quickly.

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About the Author

Charles operates the Houston office for Empower Texans/Texans for Fiscal Responsibility.