Luis Soberon addresses state criminal court backlog

The COVID-19 pandemic has affected virtually every facet of state government, and the Texas criminal courts are no exception.

In an average pre-pandemic week, 186 criminal jury trials would take place across Texas. This figure has fallen to an average of 4 per week in 2020, despite many courts using virtual hearings and social distancing proceedings. The latest wave has continued to void jury trials in some jurisdictions.

The tens of thousands of unheard cases have resulted in a historic backlog so severe that it could take up to five years to return to pre-pandemic levels – undermining the basic American right to a speedy trial for defendants and to a resolution for the victims.

A workable solution requires acknowledging the problems with our criminal record that predate the pandemic. The nationally accepted standard is that no more than 2% of felony cases should take longer than a year. Before the pandemic, 20% of criminal cases in district courts were older than the one-year benchmark at the time of their conclusion. In June 2021, nearly 35% of all cases were over a year old and more than half of the criminal record was older than standards should.

In short, it takes longer to solve the most serious cases. Delays in criminal cases have caused overcrowding in Texas county jails as defendants await trial. As of Jan. 1, 47,312 Texans were awaiting trial in county jails — a 21% increase from January 2016 and the second-highest monthly figure over the same period.

And pretrial detention has a broad economic impact. For example, a study published by the Brookings Institute last March found that an increase in county remand rates was associated with increased poverty among incarcerated individuals and their families and decreased employment rates, what Texas can’t afford in a tight labor market. This is partly because defendants who are detained longer are more likely to be convicted and sentenced regardless of their actual guilt, to see their incomes and employment outcomes deteriorate, and to experience higher recidivism rates.

To overcome this problem, state and local agencies must dedicate more people and more resources and better coordinate efforts across jurisdictions.

More people means more judges, especially eligible retired judges, to deal with incoming cases while elected judges deal with the long list of pending jury trials. It also means more staff to support these judges and provide vital court services like language interpreters and court reporters.

More resources means taking advantage of today’s technology. While not all criminal proceedings can translate fairly or efficiently into a virtual environment, IT solutions should be deployed for routine appearances by attorneys and hearings on purely legal matters where the rights of defendants are not in jeopardy. immediately in play. This requires software licenses and hardware such as webcams as well as the necessary technical support for court staff, lawyers, defendants and the witnesses themselves.

Coordination means alignment between the Office of Courts Administration and the counties with the largest backlogs. The Texas Legislature recently made a down payment to support additional judges, staff and technology. State and local governments must work together to target people and resources where they can have the greatest impact.

The constitutional right to a speedy trial reflects fairness concerns on the part of the accused, but it also reflects a societal interest – we all benefit from the prompt disposition of criminal justice by our courts.

To strengthen the legal system and likely save money in the process, Texas should deploy the necessary resources to clear the backlog of criminal cases.

Luis Soberon is a policy advisor at Texas 2036.

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