Travis County court system returns in person with over 200 trials pending

In-person court proceedings are back in Travis County, after a hiatus for most of the past two years. But with jury trials resuming, judges and lawyers are facing a growing backlog of cases as defendants are in jail and victims wait for justice.

In-person proceedings and jury trials resumed on Monday, February 28. In fact, District Judge Cliff Brown said two criminal trials were already underway.

“We’ve come up with a plan that we’re going to integrate these trials slowly,” Brown said.

There are still some tweaks for COVID-19 – like fewer trials happening at the same time, jury selection spread over three days, jurors sitting in the gallery instead of the jury box, and mask requirements for anyone who does not speak.

“We’re so excited to come back and get back to where everyone is going to spend their day in court,” Brown said.

But the justice system has a challenge.

“There’s no question it’s a backlog,” Brown said.

A few jury trials may have taken place during times when cases were dropped in Travis County, but hundreds of trials — for crimes including murder, rape and assault — have been suspended.

“There’s a reason criminal trials haven’t been allowed to happen virtually,” Brown said. “Because the stakes are so high, you can’t do that.”

As of March 2020, 179 jury trials were pending in Travis County District Court. At the end of February 2022, there were 245 pending trials, an increase of 37%.

“There are cases where people are accused of taking the life of someone and family members of the deceased and have to sit and wait for that case to move forward, and the accused person has to wait. But I can assure these two parties that their trial day is approaching,” Brown said.

So how will cases be prioritized?

“It’s very simple. Whoever’s been in jail the longest, those are the cases that will go to trial first,” Brown said. “I have cases where people have been out of prison and have been out of prison for a while, and I have to tell them very frankly: I don’t know when we are going to be tried because we are going to give priority to the oldest prison case and then sort of a triage from there.”

The good news? The number of jury trials pending in county court has actually declined over the past two years, in part due to changes in how the county attorney handles certain cases.

“We’ve really been going full throttle since the pandemic started,” Brown said.

Although around 22,000 felony cases have been added to the docket since 2020, courts are holding virtual dockets and zoom hearings daily. Approximately 12,000 cases were resolved during this period, representing a resolution rate of 54%.

“When we were forced to adapt to this type of virtual world and do things electronically, we did,” Brown said.

Regarding the backlog, Judge Brown said the current modified trial schedule would help, but “it’s only once we get back to our normal routine in difficult cases that we can really reduce this backlog. “.

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