HOUSTON – Harris County commissioners unanimously approved funding for three visiting judges and support staff on Tuesday in order to help tackle the massive case backlog in district criminal courts.
The $2.5 million proposal is in addition to the $17 million that was previously passed to provide associate judges and to expand jury operations.
According to Harris County Judge Lina Hidalgo, there are 100,000 criminal court cases lingering in the judicial pipeline.
“There’s about 1,000 that are severely problematic cases. These are the oldest, most complicated and most backlogged dangerous cases. We are talking around three years old,” said Judge Hidalgo. “We are talking murder, rape, aggravated assault. Those are cases that are sitting in our dockets right now and more must be done.”
The three visiting judges will be appointed and are expected to be in place by the end of August. Hidalgo said the program will be reviewed after six months.
The increase in personnel comes at a time when the county hasn’t built any new criminal district courts in 37 years.
For months, elected leaders have stated the backlog was the result of courts shutting down for Hurricane Harvey and the COVID-19 pandemic.
Violent defendants have continued to be let out on the streets with little or no bond while facing felony charges in other cases. Their day in court takes months, if not, potentially, more than a year.
Officials say there is an insurmountable number of cases at a time when the number of criminal district courts in Harris County remains the same as it did in 1984, even though the county has doubled its population.
“All the stakeholders need to have the criminal district court judges and county court law judges in Harris County working full-time and over time, regardless of any reservations on anyone’s part,” said state Senator John Whitmire.
In Texas, only the legislature can create courts. However, the matter can’t be taken up for another two years. But the legislature did add one new court in Harris County after County Commissioner voted on the resolution earlier this year.
“This one is not sufficient because there is so much backlog,” said state Senator Paul Bettencourt.
KPRC 2 Legal Analyst Brian Wice said the fact that Harris County has not built a new criminal district court since President Ronald Reagan’s first term is “unconscionable,” and those looking for a date with justice should operate as if it’s never going to happen.
“There is this mindset that exists among defendants and criminal defense attorneys -- that our cases, if we are out on bond, are never going to be tried.”
How does Harris County compare to Dallas and Travis counties? Considering both Dallas and Austin have seen tremendous growth since 1984, officials tell KPRC Investigates the two counties combined have added eight new criminal courts.