County officials are considering adding new district courts and making more room for detainees in an effort to reduce to county’s court backlog and alleviate overcrowding at the Harris County Jail.
During Commissioners Court on Tuesday, officials considered adding six more district courts to help expedite pending cases in the county’s criminal court system.
County Judge Lina Hidalgo questioned whether focusing directly on the county’s court system would make a significant impact on the jail’s bloated population.
“How do we know that if we bring these new courts that cases will: number one, move faster, and number two, that the backlog reduction will translate into a reduction in the jail population?,” Hidalgo asked.
The number of pending criminal cases in the county has decreased by more than 20% over the last year, according to Harris County’s district court dashboard. Despite the backlog reduction, the jail’s daily population has continued to increase.
As of Wednesday, there were 9,915 people in the jail and 1,051 people outsourced to other facilities, according to the Harris County Jail dashboard. The facility’s daily population has been dangerously close to maximum capacity since June 2022.
Last year, 27 people died with in custody — the highest number in nearly two decades, according to county records and data from Texas Justice Initiative. So far, at least four people have died while in custody this year.
The county’s budget office said the additional courts would cost the county about $30 million to build. After construction, the courts would cost nearly $17 million per year to operate.
On Wednesday, Harris County District Attorney Kim Ogg said she supported adding more courts, but was concerned about the amount of time needed for the new courts to make a meaningful dent in the backlog and overcrowding in the jail.
“I would simply be concerned about the timing that we need time to ramp up,” Ogg said. “It’s not an immediate fix to the problems of the Harris County Jail. It would take time for the legislature to agree and approve, then implement, then you’d have to hire.”
One point to clarify here, Harris County cannot add more district courts to the mix. District courts are state courts, created by the Legislature. Harris County can add county courts, and has done so in recent years, but in the criminal context those are for misdemeanors. District courts are for felonies. The backlog here is in the felony courts.
District courts can also be Civil or Family, but they all come from the Legislature. Harris County has more district courts than any other county, but we are of course by far the biggest county, and we have had a total of two new district courts created here since 1984, and one of those was a Family court. Harris County is about twice as big as it was 38 years ago. District courts are numbered by creation date, so the higher the number the more recent the court. Since the 351st Criminal District Court was created, Fort Bend County and Montgomery County have each had five new district courts added. They have both grown exponentially over the past 40 years and absolutely needed those new courts, my point is that Harris needs some new ones, too. Six new district criminal courts sounds good to me, just on population growth alone.
That doesn’t mean those new courts would solve all of our problems right away – we have issues beyond the backlog, and even if we could snap our fingers and get these new courts tomorrow, it would take awhile for them to have any effect. Other issues, from mental health care at the jail to bail issues to who’s getting arrested and charged with what need to be dealt with, too. Along those lines:
Jail reform advocates say the DA’s Office should follow the recommendations of a 2020 report from the Justice Management Institute, which suggests the department dismiss “all non-violent felony cases older than nine months” in order to alleviate the number of pending cases. The report found that of all the county’s felony cases in 2019, about 57% were either dropped or deferred.
In response, Ogg said the recommendation was “an unrealistic solution.”
“Not only is it unfair, it’s basically unethical,” Ogg said. “If I were to simply dismiss cases because they were over nine months old, it would punish crime victims and it would punish innocent people who might be subjected to repeat crimes.”
Maybe dismissing them all is going too far, but we can certainly try to get our priorities in order. DA Kim Ogg was elected in 2016 in part on a platform of prioritizing violent crime over things like minor drug crimes. We could take a good look at that in deciding which of these years-old unresolved non-violent felony cases really need to be pursued and which can be safely let go. I don’t see why this should be controversial.