Efforts to reduce the backlog of tens of thousands of cases in Texas’s busiest court system got a boost Monday with the reopening of a newly restored building for jury selection.
Officials and attorneys say restoring some normalcy to the jury selection process is one of many solutions needed to bring relief to Houston’s criminal justice system Harris County Criminal Court still undergoing repairs after damage caused by Hurricane Harvey and there are more than 89,000 pending felony and misdemeanor cases, a number that grew during the coronavirus pandemic.
“It will make a difference, but I’m not going to pretend that the jury hall is open, all of a sudden we’re going to hit (needed case resolution rates). That’s not going to be the case overnight,” Harris County Judge Lina Hidalgo, the county’s top elected administrator, said Monday.
Harris County, the third most populous county in the country, is not alone in facing mounting court backlogs due to the pandemic. Other states, including Arizona, Michigan and Nevada, have also dealt with delays. But Harris County is unique in that even before the pandemic, its criminal justice system slowed down due to Hurricane Harvey.
The Jury Assembly building in downtown Houston had been closed since being inundated with at least six feet of water during Harvey in 2017. Extensive flood damage to the assembly building and criminal courthouse across from the street greatly slowed the flow and resolution of criminal cases in Harris. County.
Jury selection for trials was moved to cramped, outdated buildings before the pandemic shut down the process in the spring of 2020. When jury selection resumed in the fall of 2020, it was moved nine miles away to NRG Arena, a county-owned facility that often hosts concerts and trade shows.
Many defense attorneys didn’t like the move to the arena, as potential jurors had to be far enough apart due to the pandemic in makeshift courtrooms where attorneys couldn’t always see the facial expressions or body language they normally use. to choose a jury panel, Joe said. Vinas, president of the Harris County Criminal Lawyers Association.
“In my opinion, it was not a constitutionally sufficient method of selecting a jury,” Vinas said, adding that he was “very happy” that jury selection had returned to downtown Houston on Monday.
Some judges also resisted having jury selection in the arena, Harris County District Clerk Marilyn Burgess said.
“We’ve been able to accommodate and provide jurors for anyone who wanted one, but many, many people didn’t want to do it,” Burgess said.
Vinas said he used to tell his clients that a case could be done in about a year. He now has cases that take four to five years to complete.
“It’s not good for anyone to have so many cases sitting when we don’t have the infrastructure in Harris County to handle them,” Vinas said.
Hidalgo said county officials hope to address the backlog and rise in violent crime with a fiscal year 2023 budget that includes $1.4 billion for justice and safety programs. Some of the initiatives the county hopes to fund include money to hire visiting and associate judges, improve prosecutors’ starting salaries and improve systems for processing and sharing evidence, such as body camera footage.
Although officials will only be able to hold about 522 people in the repaired jury assembly building, which is half the number of people that could be in the facility before the pandemic, Burgess said this is a good first step.
“I think we will start to have an impact on the backlog by being back here,” he said.
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George Holan is chief editor at Plainsmen Post and has articles published in many notable publications in the last decade.