Faced with massive backlog, Harris Co. asking state for new criminal court

With its courthouses first hammered by Hurricane Harvey then locked-up by a crippling pandemic, Harris County now faces a criminal court backlog of more than 70,000 cases.

"Included in the total cases are 9,976 felonies related to family violence, 1,701 murders, 6,980 serious assaults, 4,105 sex crimes against children," said Tom Ramsey, Harris County Commissioner for Precinct 3.

With the nation's third largest county jail packed to capacity housing defendants awaiting trial, Harris County Commissioners are asking the legislature to help ease the pressure by creating a new criminal court here for the first time since 1984.

"Best way to get the jails clear is to get people a speedy trial," said Jack Cagle, Harris County Commissioner for Precinct 4.

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Advocates for crime victims say the backlog is so deep cases like the 2012 murder of Joshua Woods, killed for his Nike sneakers, linger unresolved.

Andy Kahan with Crime Stoppers says the new court is desperately needed to bring accountability that's long overdue.

"I can tell you some of the families I've dealt with its been four or five years and for some of the families it's been absolutely devastating," said Kahan.

Commissioners are also seeking legislative permission to hire a slew of associate judges - a measure which could help empty the jail and relieve taxpayers of the $100 per day cost of housing each defendant.

"It will bring immediate value, I think it will bring immediate savings," said Adrian Garcia, Harris County Commissioner for Precinct 2.

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Commissioner Rodney Ellis, a vocal advocate of so called criminal justice reform, voted for the new court, but added a note of caution.

"What's a lot more difficult than building a courtroom or just having a judge would be to create a system that's fair, and a system that's balanced, and a system that's equitable," said Ellis.

While clearly needed, the additional criminal court and associate judges must be approved by state lawmakers and with 47 days left in the legislative session there is concern Harris County's request is coming too late.