What if there was substantial and clear-cut evidence to prove your innocence after being accused of a crime, but you can’t get a trial to hear your case?
On the flip side, what if you have been waiting for over a year to get justice, while the person who killed your loved one or committed a serious crime against you is still sitting in prison when there is substantial and clear-cut evidence to prove their guilt?
Neither scenario is good, but if you multiply, think about the fact that nearly 50,000 separate cases have been delayed in the Harris County Criminal District Courts, you can probably imagine just how frustrating and disheartening the situation is for many individuals.
According to information released by the Harris County Criminal District Courts, there are 48,915 active cases pending in the Harris County District Attorney’s Office criminal backlog caseload as of February 2022, with 37% of those cases being more than a year old.
In addition to the cases over a year old, 26% of the active cases are between 6 months and a year old. As one can see, this is a serious issue for the Harris County Criminal District Courts, the Harris County District Attorney’s Office, and those who are seeking answers and resolution through the criminal justice system.
When asked about the primary cause of the backlog of criminal court cases in Harris County, Vivian R. King, who serves as the First Assistant/Chief of Staff for the Office of Harris County District Attorney Kim Ogg, states the backlog is almost five-years and over 135,000 cases, when you incorporate the number of active and inactive cases in the backlog—from August 2017 to the present. The primary causes of the backlog include the impact of Hurricane Harvey, as well as the unprecedented COVID-19 pandemic.
“We have 23 felony courts and 16 misdemeanor courts and prior to Hurricane Harvey each court called at least one serious case to trial, thus moving dockets,” said King. “Since Hurricane Harvey seriously damaged the Criminal Justice Center and closed it down for repairs, it caused the significant delays. Delays which still impact our court system today because the repairs are still not complete and normal court proceedings are not taking place.”
King states that criminal defendants knew they had to appear in court and dispose of their cases either through trial or plea bargains and believes that the COVID-19 pandemic has played a part in contributing to the already significant backlog. She states that the Criminal Justice Center still hasn’t been fully functional to allow for jury trials since Hurricane Harvey.
“There are a lot of persons accused of serious crimes being held in the Harris County Jail for over 4 years awaiting trial, the longest being held for 11 years, “said King. “The Harris County District Attorney’s office started reviewing old pending cases in June 2021 to find alternative solutions to non-violent crimes so that we can focus on repeat violent offenders. It will take all stakeholders in the criminal justice system to work through the backlog of cases caused by a natural disaster and a Criminal Justice Center building that could not withstand the hurricane.”
When asked if individuals who have not been convicted of a crime but are being detained in the Harris County Jail for long periods of time is a violation of their civil rights, King says that she can’t say that their civil rights are being violated, but can say that there are some persons charged with violent offenses like murder, aggravated robbery and aggravated sexual assault that are being held in jail awaiting their trial that deserve their day in court.
“Everyone is entitled to a trial and many individuals have not gotten their trial,” said King. “The last time I checked, as of April 16, 2021, there were persons charged with serious felony cases that have been held in jail for over three years that totaled to over 700 violent felony offenses, like capital murder, murder, and sexual assault of children. We are working to address it.”
Judge Darrell Jordan, who was elected to the Harris County Criminal Court at Law No. 16 seat in 2016, agrees that the backlog is a result of several natural disasters, but states that law enforcement agencies can help address the issue by turning over evidence as soon as possible.
“As we are seeking to resolve cases, this issue of having a backlog has highlighted the issues with law enforcement agencies turning over evidence,” said Jordan. “It’s not unusual to be waiting for a year for evidence to be turned over. By turning over evidence as soon as possible, law enforcement agencies can help close the gap a lot quicker.”
Jordan, who was a defense attorney in Harris County before being elected to the bench, states that in the misdemeanor system over 80% of those who have been accused are released without cost. He strongly believes that our Constitutional bail system ensures the civil rights of the accused are not violated, and that law enforcement agencies can really help address the issue.
As individuals seek to get the answers and justice they rightfully deserve, the courts have started to open back up, which hopefully means that this backlog of criminal cases will subside.
The Forward Times will stay focused on this matter and continue to investigate whether law enforcement agencies are cooperating with the courts and whether the necessary resources are being devoted to closing this serious backlog, which adds to the already pre-existing frustrations with the criminal justice system across Harris County and across the nation.