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Backlog of criminal cases imperils justice

By Lewis Spearman

HARRIS COUNTY – Local government is trying to catch up an extreme backlog of cases threatening destruction of the criminal justice system.

While a backlog of felony and misdemeanor cases is nothing new in the county, several factors have made the situation critical. Nearly 81,000 cases are now pending, a doubling of last year.

The criminal courthouse was water damaged by Hurricane Harvey, the COVID-19 pandemic rendered housing inmates, selecting juries, and the halt of trials problematic. Add to that since the 2018 election more than 140 lawyers no longer work for the prosecutor’s office.

District Attorney Kim Ogg discharged some of the lawyers after taking office, others quit citing low pay and the progressive agenda she has initiated. More than a million and a half dollars in compensation and vacation time went with them.

All jury trials and jury selection were stopped by the Supreme Court of Texas due to precautions over COVID-19, that order was extended until September 1. Special permission from regional judges and the state Office of Court Administration can provide the rare exceptions.

A Harris County Commissioners Court meeting invited the Justice Management Institute, (JMI) a nonprofit organization to address the county’s problems over the last five years. Commissioners heard from Thomas Eberly, “inability to handle the volume of felony cases,” causes delays and long pretrial incarceration.

JMI projections indicate inmate populations could reach 10,000 by Labor Day for a jail with normal capacity of 10,500. Almost 90% of those incarcerated are being held in pre-trail activities. So, persons not convicted of a crime face pretrial delays in a setting of social distancing that could impact them much like solitary confinement.

So, the Justice Management Institute recommended dropping charges for arrestees accused of nonviolent felonies.

Sheriff Gonzalez had asked for a “compassionate release” plan for nonviolent offenders, and Harris County Judge Lina Hidalgo moved quickly to put it into action.

An administrative judge overruled the plan before it could be implemented. Gov. Greg Abbott issued an executive order that halted release of certain inmates and Houston Police Chief Art Acevedo and the union expressed that the plan was a risk to the general community.

Harris County Sheriff’s Ed Gonzalez created a so-called “Zoom Team” to help keep cases moving through the courts.

The extreme disposition of cases has had the county take special measures to begin assembly and selection of juries. Through December 16 the NRG Arena was leased to be a temporary criminal courthouse jury assembly area.

The folks that could become jurors will be required to have their temperature checked and wear masks. Six foot intervals will be required. Then they will submit to unreasonable search and seizure by a metal detector. Doors will regulate the flow of foot traffic. Then they will be verbally screened for illness. The main arena will host the assembly and people will sit three seats apart.

Does anyone doubt that defense lawyers are not going to like the new settings? Given they could look at obtaining dismissals for their clients since the constitution requires a fair and speedy trial might mean automatic dismissals in many cases.

District Attorney Kim Ogg expressed that the community should be concerned that a functioning criminal justice system has not been in place since Hurricane Harvey. Which sounds much like the “Act of God” defense of attorneys for Arkema Chemical.

The Arkema criminal trial is being held now on the second floor of the arena. Criminal charges were brought against decision makers for Arkema related to post Hurricane Harvey explosions that injured first responders. Arkema’s attorneys are arguing that the nearly 50 inches of rain that fell causing the flooding that shorted refrigeration was an “Act of God” meaning out of their hands.