HOUSTON, Texas (KTRK) -- Acknowledging the uptick in crime across Houston and Harris County throughout the pandemic, leaders spoke Monday morning about efforts to reduce the violence, pointing specifically to the courts and proposing a $14.8 million investment in public safety.
Harris County Judge Lina Hidalgo along with HPD Executive Assistant Chief Matt Slinkard, Harris County Sheriff Ed Gonzalez, and Commissioner Adrian Garcia announced a multi-faceted proposal set to go before the Commissioners Court on Tuesday.
"Right now, all across the nation, certain types of crime, particularly gun-related crime, are increasing due to the pandemic, due to associated economic challenges, and unfortunately, this is not an issue that is unique to Harris County," Hidalgo began. "My family left the country I was born in because of violence and because of crime, so I can tell you that public safety is something that I, personally, take very seriously."
Hidalgo pivoted to what she and fellow leaders said appeared to be one of the most glaring issues: the backlog of cases in Harris County courts.
According to Hidalgo, there are about 100,000 total cases pending in the criminal court system. That includes 40,000 cases well past the national standards of the time it has taken to be resolved, she explained.
"It also means that bad actors who can post bond will return to our community and continue to re-offend. They have more time out on the streets," Gonzalez said.
Over 20,000 cases have been pending for over one year, Hidalgo added.
The county judge said the problem dates back to at least 2017, when Hurricane Harvey knocked courts out of commission. Four years later, that issue has been compounded by the pandemic.
"Especially starting in 2017, there's been a 40% increase in the number of pending cases since 2017, and of course, what happened in 2017 was Hurricane Harvey. That led to an increase in our backlog. Then the pandemic led to yet another increase and now we're seeing this massive number of cases," Hidalgo said.
To tackle the backlog, Hidalgo introduced four proposals that the Commissioners Court is expected to take up:
- Add six associate judges to assist the 22 criminal district courts
- Expand jury operations at NRG Stadium
- Funding for visiting judges who can help support the associate judges and the district court judges move through the backlog
- Major and historic investment in technology for law enforcement
An April 2021 Ted Oberg Investigates report showed that a crime was reported every seven hours in one Houston neighborhood alone. Analysis found the area with the most crime was on and around the 10900 block of Gulf Freeway.
"Coming out of the pandemic, unfortunately, we have not seen a reduction in that violent crime," Slinkard said. "Because there has not been a reduction returning to more normal levels that we would typically see, it is time for all of us, it is time for the leaders in the city and this county to do exactly what we are doing here today, come together and work on collaboration."
Slinkard added that a goal is to use future technology investments to help with the limited resources officers and deputies face and make them more efficient in information and intelligence sharing.
How would bringing in associate judges work?
To bring on the associate judges, Hidalgo estimates it would cost about $1.26 million for the remainder of the year and $2.5 million for a full year.
"It's something that requires buy-in from the judges, so this is a challenge that we've posed to our justice administration department to the judges to say, 'OK, we have a problem. We need to solve it together. What are we going to do?" Hidalgo said.
Hidalgo said that under the agreement that was reached, the 22 district court judges would share the six associate judges to start, rather than assigning each district court judge their own associate judge.
"Oh we're very excited," said Judge Kelli Johnson, the Chief Administrative Judge of the Harris County District Criminal Courts. "We're going to take whatever we can get to help the drowning that we have over here with large amount of cases that's been compounded by one environmental catastrophe after another."
Judge Johnson said if Commissioners Court approves the proposal, the District Court judges have a committee set up to conduct interviews, find office space, and provide support to get the associate judges moving.
She pointed out that the associate judges will not be able to hold trials, but will help move along the massive amount of pre-trial work needed to get cases in front of juries.
"The main thing is to a person affected on either side is justice, right?" Everyone wants their case to be heard as quickly as possible and that's what's been so hard for us as judges," said Johnson.
Hidalgo added they plan to collect the data from that program to determine the impact and if the judges actually use them.
There was no definitive timeline for launch, but Hidalgo said ideally they would want to move on the effort in a matter of months.
The associate judges would tackle the most violent cases that have been in the backlog for the longest, Hidalgo explained.
"Really it's a manpower issue. Help plow through this enormous, 100,000 cases in the backlog," she said.
Part of the plan would also be to implement a dashboard so that clearance rates on the backlogged cases across all the various courts can be tracked. Still, there was no answer at this time on how long it would take to clear the 100,000 cases.
How will that $14.8 million be spent to help public safety?
Garcia spoke specifically about the new $14.8 million proposed investment that he will present before Commissioners Court on Tuesday.
He outlined how the money would be used:
The "ShotSpotter" tool has already been in use in the Aldine area, Garcia said. Under his plan, the hope is to place the tool in new neighborhoods.
Funding for several of these proposals will come from excess funds allotted to constables' offices that have been unused.
Hidalgo's office said it informed the constables' offices to use their funding, instead of rolling it over year to year.
However, some of the funds remain unspent, and Harris County officials wanted to put the money toward crime reduction efforts right away.
The plan is expected to receive push back from some members of Commissioners Court as well as constables' offices. Many are expected to testify at the Commissioners Court on Tuesday.