If you were to talk with experts about the current state of the justice system in the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic, they will quickly tell you it has been dramatically impacted.
“This is a deluge of biblical proportion that has affected every court and every county across, not just Texas, but the United States of America,” said KPRC 2′s Legal Analyst Brian Wice.
Howard Henderson, director of the Center for Justice Research at Texas Southern University, sums it up in four words.
“It’s a total mess,” said Henderson.
Whether it’s criminal or civil, the core in the majority of cases is a life-changing decision. In criminal cases, it translates to an innocent person not having their day in court or to victims not being able to secure justice.
Tom Selleck, the District Attorney for Brazoria County, has seen his courtroom capacity slashed by 60% in order to accommodate jurors in what is routinely the public seating area.
“You’re balancing a person’s right to a speedy trial with a person’s right not to get sick, and it’s a hell of a balance,” Selleck said.
The Harris County justice system is in a unique position. The system was already behind before the pandemic.
“We haven’t even got through Harvey yet, really, if you think about it. They’ve been off track since Harvey,” said Henderson.
Henderson said the backlog for felonies in the county is approximately 40,000 cases with the DA’s office, confirming the backlog of misdemeanors cases sits at over 40,000.
Wice said the solution involves three steps.
“We need to be patient, we need to be diligent and we need to be creative,” he said.
The latter is to build off what the county already has done by conducting trials at NRG. Nice believes the outside-the-box approach means there should be more than just one alternate site.
Wice believes locations like the George R. Brown Convention Center or law schools at the University of Houston, Texas Southern University, and South Texas College of Law can be utilized.
Regarding the diligent component, Henderson believes that moving misdemeanors from the system is pivotal in getting the backlog down.
“I think you identify those low-level, non-violent offenses and figure out how to get them out of the way,” he said.
JUSTICE SYSTEM CHALLENGES BY THE NUMBERS
- In 2019, there were approximately 9,000 cases resulting in a verdict in Texas. In 2020, there were 239.
- In 2019, Texas courts averaged 186 jury trials per week. In 2020, the average sunk to only four.
- How many years until the system is expected to completely catch up? Three, according to the Texas Judicial Branch.
- The advocacy group Restoring Justice estimates it will take Harris County five years to completely catch up when factoring in delays caused by Harvey.
- Before the pandemic, Harris County routinely would see as many as eight misdemeanor trials in 10 days, according to the District Attorney’s office. Recently, the same stretch resulted in only eight.
- The vast majority of those awaiting trial are in jail. The percentage of defendants awaiting trial while incarcerated has gone from 32% to 83% in the last 27 years.
WHAT ABOUT VIRTUAL? HOW DID TEXAS CHANGE TRADITION?
Texas courts have conducted 35 virtual trials, according to the Texas Judicial Branch. Remote proceedings have resulted in 3.5 million participants. The state recently conducted its one-millionth zoom hearing, resulting in roughly 2.4 million meeting hours, according to the recent State of the Judiciary speech delivered by Texas Supreme Court Justice Nathan Hecht. The state has seen greater participation by all parties through zoom. In traffic cases, the state says they have seen cases flipped from 80% of no-shows to 80% of appearances. Hecht clearly points out there are exceptions to zoom.
“Jury trials in felonies and other serious criminal cases, as well as more complex civil cases, will still be in person,” Hecht said.
A CONVERSATION WITH JUDGE EMILY MISKEL
Judge Emily Miskel of the 470th District Court in Collin County Texas held the first zoom jury trial in the nation in the spring of 2020. This innovative achievement has revolutionized the judicial system. KPRC 2 Investigates spoke with Miskel about that case, the benefits of zoom at trial, the economic impact, and why the Chief Justice of the Supreme Court of the United States contacted her.
Watch the entire video below: