Breaking the Court Backlog

Texas is facing a pandemic-related backlog of over 142,000 criminal cases that could take many years for the Texas courts to resolve. If left unaddressed, it could result in serious costs to taxpayers and communities across Texas.

Before the pandemic, the Texas judiciary managed to hold a weekly average of 186 jury trials across the state, which kept the preexisting backlog steady. That figure dropped to an average of four per week during the pandemic. The resulting bottleneck of jury trials has disproportionately affected the criminal docket, which saw a 34 percent increase in its backlog. In short, it’s taking longer to resolve the most serious cases. Even though murders reached an all-time high in 2020, increasing 37% over 2019, the first 6 months of 2021 show a 45% decrease in the number of murder cases resolved compared to pre-pandemic levels.

Pending criminal cases in Texas skyrocketed from 7,600 cases in 2019 to over 142,000 this summer – a backlog that could take 3 to 5 years to resolve according to the former director of the Texas Office of Court Administration.

This means more time that victims of crime have to wait for justice, prolonging their trauma, and more time before defendants get their day in court. Along with the moral problems, there are also significant costs to taxpayers. The more time someone spends in jail waiting for trial, the more crowded the jail gets. As of November 1, there were 47,388 Texans in pretrial detention in county jails, a five-year high. In 2016, the annual cost to local governments to house pretrial inmates was calculated at nearly $1 billion.

Then there’s the broader economic impact. A study published by the Brookings Institute earlier this year found that an increase in county pretrial detention rates was associated with increased poverty and decreased employment rates. This is in part because defendants that are held longer are more likely to get convicted and sentenced regardless of their actual guilt, see worse earnings and employment outcomes, and experience higher rates of recidivism

Even when defendants can obtain release before trial, delays can increase costs to taxpayers for extended pretrial services in some counties. In the worst cases, defendants might engage in harmful activity or get arrested for a subsequent offense before the trial begins. 

The good news is that the backlog is not insurmountable. We can begin to tackle the problem across the state by deploying our existing judicial workforce and tapping into technological innovation.

  • First, it requires more judges and staff. We can bring in eligible former judges to process incoming cases while elected judges address the long list of pending jury trials. The increased caseload also correlates to an increased demand for services, ranging from language interpreters to court reporters.
  • Second, it requires technology. While not every criminal proceeding can fairly or efficiently translate to a virtual setting, IT solutions should be deployed for routine appearances by attorneys and hearings on purely legal issues where defendants’ rights are not immediately at stake. This requires software licenses and hardware like webcams along with necessary tech support.
  • Finally, it requires coordination and alignment between the Office of Court Administration and the counties where trials are taking place. The Texas Legislature recently made a downpayment on supporting additional judges, staff, and technology. State and local agencies need to work together to target these resources where they can have the greatest impact. 

The constitutional right to a speedy trial reflects concerns of fairness on the part of the accused, but it also reflects a societal interest – we all benefit from the prompt disposition of criminal justice by our courts. Texas has the resources necessary to break the pandemic-related backlog of criminal cases, and by doing so we will strengthen the legal system and save money in the process.