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Judges, attorneys seek ways to alleviate court system back-up

HOUSTON – The Texas Supreme Court recently ordered no jury trials or jury selections are to take place before Aug. 1, unless a plan is submitted and approved by the Office of Court Administration.

This latest crisis only further impacted how quickly cases are adjudicated. Both prosecutors and defense attorneys agree the system can’t handle much more of a back-up and they have got to find a way to get things moving.

“We’re at a snail’s pace,” said Harris County prosecutor, JoAnne Musick. “Sadly, crime appears to be up. We’re getting more and more calls, more and more arrests, more and more charges filed right now.”

According to data compiled by the Harris County District Attorney’s Office, the clearance rate for felony cases in April dropped to below 30%. For comparison, during April 2019, the DA’s office reported an 85% clearance rate. The sharp decline in numbers was similar for misdemeanor cases, which went from an average clearance rate of 76% in 2019, down to a clearance rate of 31% in April of this year.

“I have no idea how we’re going to get back to normal with this type of very slow-moving docket,” said defense attorney Mark Thiessen, president of the Harris County Criminal Lawyers Association.

The normal day-to-day operations of the courts were already impacted by Hurricane Harvey. Musick said half of the felony courts are still sharing space in the civil courthouse. The pandemic further impacted the system. Thiessen said only 10 people are allowed in a courtroom at a time and that includes court staff.

“We’re used to seeing hundreds of people, at least a hundred people in every single court with hundreds of people in the hallways,” Thiessen said.

Moving forward, big questions have yet to be answered. One is how to maintain social distancing during a trial. Thiessen and Musick both were quick to say the idea of trial participants wearing masks won’t work.

“You want to be able to see and read faces and you’re asking your jury to do the same of witnesses,” Musick said.

Thiessen said even basic communications are impacted by masks.

“If everybody is standing six feet apart with masks, how are we supposed to communicate with our client?” Thiessen said. “We’re looking for creative ways, you know with large areas. Are we going to do it at a conference center, George R. Brown, you know where the livestock show and rodeo is, maybe a hotel conference center.”

Another dilemma is the cattle call of jury duty.

“We typically call a thousand to 2,000 people a day down to jury duty, there’s where you’re going to need GRB, there’s where you’re going to need a large facility,” said Musick.

Musick points out the DA’s Office has a total of 39,000 pending cases. In May of last year the Office had a total of 27,000 pending cases. The back-up in the courts is also leading to an increase in the population at the Harris County jail.

In April, the jail population dipped to 7,455. As of May 26, the Sheriff’s Officer reported the population has jumped to 8,146. According to officials with the Sheriff’s Office, an average of 15 more people are booked into the jail than are released every day.

Sheriff’s officials also reported 264 inmates in the jail have been convicted and sentenced to prison, but the Texas Department of Criminal Justice is not yet picking up those inmates as it continues to grapple with an outbreak of COVID-19 in several facilities.

“There are innocent people stuck in jail right now that want to get to trial we just got to figure out how it’s fair,” Thiessen said. “It’s really trying at this point but we’re all working together to come up with some way at this new normal.”

Thiessen said the felony court judges sent out a survey, asking attorneys what measures would they like to see when it comes to safety measures in the courtroom. No final decisions have been made.