We recommend Hilary Unger to the 248th District Court

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Harris County Criminal District Court judges are coming under increasing scrutiny for bail decisions in cases where the defendant, once out of custody, commits a new crime, including murder. 248th District Court Judge Hilary Unger is one of them, given a series of incidents where defendants in her court bonded and went on to commit serious crimes.

Some would say such cases make Unger, 59, unworthy of re-election. We do not agree. She’s the top pick for Democrats in the March 1 primary for two reasons: her overall record on the bench is strong and because we don’t think her challenger would do any better.

Unger supports the bail reform movement and insists that almost every defendant deserves a hearing to review their bail conditions. But her court has the 10th highest number of pretrial detentions (out of 23 courts), suggesting she weighs those decisions carefully. She would have fewer defendants in custody if she indiscriminately gave personal recognizance or low bail. It is also improving its resolution rate, which over the past three months has been 101%.

This metric is critical because Hurricane Harvey and the pandemic have come to a halt. While the violent crimes committed by those on bail are horrific, the constitutions of the United States and Texas protect the right of most defendants to be released on bail until a speedy trial. The key word is “fast”, a condition that is not met due to the backlog.

Unger is now moving forward with a scheduling order to compel attorneys to meet specific deadlines throughout the duration of cases, and expects those numbers to continue to improve.

She is a single mother with a real empathy for young people and people with mental illness who end up in the criminal justice system, in part because she has handled CPS cases in private practice. She boasts that the number of probationers in her court who passed their probation doubled during her first term.

She has also been a driving force in promoting a system in which private lawyers are appointed to represent indigent defendants by a central system rather than individual judges. It’s a good change.

Unger has come under legitimate scrutiny for his bond decisions, but his overall record is one his opponent Linda Mazzagatti has shown no signs of improving on. Mazzagatti, 65, works in the district attorney’s general litigation office and has built his campaign around one issue: the failures of the bail reform movement. The challenge for judges is more complex than that.

Democrats should stick with Unger.

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