Efforts to reduce a backlog of tens of thousands of cases in Texas’ busiest court system have been boosted by the reopening of a newly restored building for jury selection
HOUSTON — Efforts to reduce a backlog of tens of thousands of cases in Texas’ busiest court system received a boost Monday with the reopening of a newly restored building for jury selection.
“It will make a difference, but I’m not going to pretend that the jury meeting room is open, all of a sudden we’re going to get to (needed case resolution rate). It won’t happen overnight,” Harris County Judge Lina Hidalgo, the county’s top elected administrator, said Monday.
Harris County, the nation’s third-most populous county, isn’t alone in facing mounting court backlogs due to the pandemic. Other states, including Arizona, Michigan and Nevada, also faced backlogs. But Harris County is unique in that even before the pandemic, its criminal justice system slowed due to Hurricane Harvey.
The Jury Assembly Building in downtown Houston had been closed since being inundated by at least six feet of water during Harvey in 2017. Severe flood damage to the assembly building and courthouse across the street have significantly slowed the flow and resolution of criminal cases in Harris. County.
Jury selection for trials was moved to cramped and outdated buildings before the process was interrupted by the pandemic in spring 2020. When the jury selection process resumed in fall 2020, it was moved to nine miles from NRG Arena, a county-owned facility that typically hosts concerts and trade shows.
Many defense lawyers did not like the move to the arena as potential jurors had to be spaced out enough due to the pandemic in makeshift courtrooms where lawyers could not always see facial expressions or the body language they normally use to choose a jury, said Joe Vinas, president of the Harris County Criminal Lawyers Association.
“It was not, in my opinion, a constitutionally sufficient method of selecting a jury,” said Vinas, who added that he was “very happy” that jury selection returned to downtown Houston on Monday. .
Some judges also resisted jury selection in the arena, Harris County District Clerk Marilyn Burgess said.
“We were able to accommodate and provide juries to anyone who wanted one, but many, many people didn’t want to do that,” Burgess said.
Vinas said he used to tell his clients that a case could be settled in about a year. Now he has cases that take four to five years to settle.
“It’s not good for anyone to have so many outstanding cases when we don’t have the infrastructure in Harris County to handle them,” Vinas said.
Hidalgo said county officials hope to address the backlog as well as rising 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, to improve starting salaries for prosecutors, and to improve systems for handling and sharing evidence such as body camera footage.
Although officials can only have about 522 people in the repaired jury assembly building, half the number of people who could be in the facility before the pandemic, Burgess said it was a good first step.
“I think we’ll start to have an impact on backlog work being back here,” she said.
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