Harris Co. commissioners unanimously approve use of visiting judges to alleviate 100K-case backlog

Mycah Hatfield Image
Wednesday, July 21, 2021
Harris Co. leaders unanimously approve use of visiting judges
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With 100,000 cases still pending in Harris County Criminal District Courts, county commissioners all agreed help is needed.

HOUSTON, Texas (KTRK) -- With 100,000 cases, including some well beyond a year old, still pending in the Harris County criminal court system, the county's commissioners all agreed that emergency help is needed to alleviate the excessive backlog.

On Tuesday, a unanimous commissioners court approved $2.5 million for three emergency dockets presided by three judges who would come in from outside the county.

Operations for the emergency dockets start on Aug. 28.

As part of the approval, the county is also hiring five additional clerks to staff expanded operations at NRG Arena, where the county has relocated some court operations.

Additionally, the judges will be ordered to provide monthly updates on their progress. A portal will also be set up to track all dockets, existing judges, administrative judges and the visiting judges.

WATCH: Family of man killed still waiting for trial: 'We're left in the dark'

While the need for additional prosecutors and public defenders were discussed as part of the emergency dockets, the commissioners took no further action on it.

Just before the vote, County Judge Lina Hidalgo called out for the dire need to address piling case load, which appeared to be caused in part by disasters like Hurricane Harvey and the current pandemic.

Some of those cases also involve dangerous offenders, who are believed to be responsible for an uptick in violent crimes, as many of the suspects are still on the streets.

SEE RELATED STORY: 13 Investigates: Crime reported every 7 hours in this Houston neighborhood

"Justice delayed is justice denied," Hidalgo said before the unanimous vote. "We need to invest in what works, not what's designed to score political points or to make splashy headlines."

Hidalgo and Commissioner Adrian Garcia pitched to fellow commissioners about using the visiting justices and staff to focus on the most serious cases first.

This plan would build on a previous decision to fund additional law enforcement, expand jury operations, provide overtime to detectives and upgrade body camera equipment to help evidence move through faster.

Hidalgo said she does not believe that building more prisons and using taxpayer dollars to support the mass incarceration of nonviolent offenders is going to fix the increased crime in Black and brown communities.

Thursday on Eyewitness News at 10 p.m., 13 Investigates' Ted Oberg shows you one jarring detail in the backlog mess - the fact some judges have held zero trials since the COVID pandemic began.

WATCH: 13 Investigates: Crime spikes while HPD force shrinks

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