HARRIS COUNTY – Tens of thousands of criminal cases remain backlogged in the Harris County criminal justice system; leaving victims and the accused waiting longer and longer for their day in court. Even the most optimistic estimate from the Harris County Budget Management Department shows it could takes two years to make a significant dent in the backlog.
Where does the backlog stand?
There are actually two different numbers when it comes to how many misdemeanor and felony cases are part of the backlog. According information published by the District Courts of Harris County, there are 48,915 active cases pending; 37% of which are more than a year old.
The Harris County District Attorney’s Office (HCDAO) reports the backlog is actually 135,030. HCDAO representatives say their count includes inactive as well as active cases. An inactive case is one where charges have been filed but the case can’t move forward for a variety reasons such as the defendant has not been arrested or is serving prison time outside the county.
The backlog started when Hurricane Harvey swamped the courthouse, delaying trials and scattering prosecutors to several different buildings. Trials were furthered delayed during the pandemic. According to data from the Justice Administration Department; the average length of time it takes for a case to reach some type of disposition went from an 176 days in 2016 to 492 days in 2021. There is a bright spot, however.
“We’re not adding to the backlog anymore, the backlog is stagnant,” said Harris County prosecutor Sean Teare.
Teare said as jury trials resumed and courts started re-opening, the speed of cases reaching resolution picked up. You can read more about case clearances in the below presentation to the Harris County Criminal Justice Coordinating Council.
While the backlog is no longer growing, Teare said prosecutors in the trial bureau still face crippling caseloads.
“Each prosecutor in the felony trial bureau is handling, roughly on average, 800 cases,” said Teare.
That’s a huge number considering the public defenders office caps its’ attorneys at 150 felony cases a year.
“How is that even possible,” asked KPRC 2 Investigator Robert Arnold.
“It’s a triage type of situation we have to go through,” said Teare. “We are prioritizing violent felons.”
HCDAO reports they are down 22 full time positions and burnout is high.
“Would you say the burn out factor is worse now then it’s been in years past,” asked Arnold.
“I think so,” said Teare.
Teare said in addition to the caseloads, construction on the courthouse is not complete so prosecutors are forced to shuttle back-and-forth between offices at 500 Jefferson and the courthouse. Teare said it’s a very cumbersome and inefficient process.
“They need to be in this location, either in this building or very close,” Teare said in reference to trial bureau prosecutors again being housed in the courthouse.
President of the Harris County Criminal Lawyers Association (HCCLA), defense attorney Joe Vinas echoes Teare’s frustrations regarding the logistics of working on cases in a timely manner with prosecutors.
“Logistically it’s very difficult to get people in and out of that building,” Vinas said of the courthouse. “Prosecutors may be stuck somewhere, we may be stuck somewhere and can’t reach other.”
Vinas also said tackling the backlog is a shared challenge and “we’re working as hard as we can, nobody is sitting on things.”
“What assurances can you give the public that things are not falling through the cracks,” asked Arnold.
“Every single day these are truly dedicated public servants, these are people who have sworn an oath,” said Teare. “Every one of those cases means something and we understand that, and we don’t, and won’t let things slip through the cracks because every single one of the cases represents a victim.”
The backlog is also leading to jail overcrowding and according to Teare, it could be contributing to “additional crime” in the county.
A Justice Administration Department (JAD) report shows the percentage of defendants who are charged with a new felony offense while on bond for more than 180 Days grew from 16.4% in 2016 to 33.4% in 2021.
“Every single person involved in the criminal justice system, when you have a backlog like this is not getting their day in court at the right time and that’s affecting the community as a whole,” said Teare.
The toll on families
Families of murder victims waiting for trial said delays only exacerbate their grief and anxiety. Leticia Ybarra’s daughter, Jessica Perez, was murdered in Aug. 2020.
“All of us waiting for justice, how much longer is this going to take?” said Ybarra.
According to court documents, Andrew Montana Webster, 22, beat Perez with a skateboard and stabbed her. A Houston Police Department news release stated Webster was found wandering the complex where Perez lived and later admitted that he killed her during a dispute.
“He was found in the parking lot covered in blood,” said Ybarra.
Ybarra said Webster was arrested the day her daughter was killed and she has endured numerous delays in the case, along with changing prosecutors and defense attorneys. Ybarra said she also had to, on more than one occasion, correct her daughter’s name in the record. Court documents originally had Pérezes’ first name as Jennifer.
“Jessica, her name is Jessica,” said Ybarra.
Ybarra also said she is well aware of the backlog and the caseload prosecutors are forced to juggle.
“I’ve been told, ‘‘we got a lot of cases, well, you know, we got a lot of cases, well, you know, we got a lot of cases.’ Ok, but this is my daughter we’re talking, to the victims it’s personal,” said Ybarra. “The longer this goes on is the longer I have nightmares about facing him, the longer I have nightmares about him getting bailed out of jail and showing up at my house.”
What is being done?
According to information provided by Commissioner Adrian Garcia’s office, $16 million is being spent on associate judges and support staff to help speed up the processing of cases. Another $15 million is being spent on new body camera and video processing software so footage can to get to prosecutors faster and more efficiently from the Sheriff and Constables’ offices. A new felony court was also added to handle more cases.
Both prosecutors and defense attorneys praised a return to the county’s jury selection building. The jury selection process was being held at NRG to accommodate social distancing during the pandemic. The jury selection facility also had to be repaired following damage from Hurricane Harvey. That work was complete in Sept. Both defense attorneys and prosecutors complained picking juries at NRG was difficult and inefficient.
“Do you believe Commissioners have now given the DA’s Office what it needs to tackle this?” asked Arnold.
“Absolutely we’re providing the District Attorney the resources she needs to get the job done,” said Garcia.
Garcia also provided $288,000 out of his office’s budget to fund seven administrative positions in the DA’s office that were not part of the original budget recommendations and initially declined by the Court.
“Everything has got to keep working, I accept no excuses for any slow down of anything,” said Garcia.
Harris County Judge Lina Hidalgo also sent KPRC 2 the following statement:
“Harris County and our nation as a whole are being hit hard by the so-called ‘gundemic’ aided and abetted by special interests in cahoots with politicians who value gun culture over public safety. As we work to fight against increases in violent crime, we’re doing our part - for example, making historic investments to reduce the dangerous criminal court backlog caused by Harvey and the pandemic. To alleviate this challenge we’ve hired more judges, moved jury operations downtown, and continue to work with the judicial branch to get the wheels of justice turning quickly and fairly. Justice delayed is justice denied. Crime victims deserve swift justice, and those who stand accused deserve their day in court. We’ve recently stopped the growth of the backlog and are even starting to turn the tide back to where we need to be.
However, the criminal court backlog is just one part of our broken criminal justice system that requires reform. That’s why we’re investing in the highest dollar amount in history - $1.4 billion - for justice and safety in Harris County. This includes increases for every law enforcement agency we oversee and pay raises for our police and the district attorney’s office. We’re also investing in proven programs that target and shrink violent crime while building bridges with communities we serve. The truth is, we have to be both tough and smart on crime, and that’s what we’ll continue to do to help make sure neighborhoods and communities across Harris County are safe.”