Justice Delayed: Addressing the Criminal Docket Crisis in Texas

Texas is facing a 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.

While solutions in some communities may vary depending on local circumstances, leaders in state government can help avoid some of the most negative impacts of the pending criminal docket crisis by finding a way to adequately fund short-term support for core judicial functions across the state. 

The COVID-19 pandemic has affected virtually every facet of state government, and the courts have been no exception. Before the pandemic, the Texas judiciary managed to hold a weekly average of 186 jury trials across the state. That figure dropped to an average of 4 per week during the pandemic.

The resulting bottleneck of jury trials has disproportionately affected the criminal docket, which saw a 34% increase in its backlog between 2019 and 2021, representing 142,722 currently pending criminal cases across Texas, split evenly between felony and misdemeanor cases. This was confirmed at an October 6th hearing before the House Appropriations Committee where the Office of Court Administration (OCA) and Texas Indigent Defense Commission (TIDC) testified to the seriousness of the situation.

For perspective, it has been estimated by state officials that clearing this backlog could take up to five years, requiring a combined 136,620 hours of judicial-officer working time just to return to pre-pandemic case levels. This means more time before Texas defendants get their day in court, and more time for victims of crime to wait for justice. The impact this has on fair treatment and safety for Texans has already been felt in some communities, and more consequences may be on the horizon. 

Delays in processing criminal cases have caused overcrowding in county jails across Texas as defendants wait for trial. In June, Judge John Stevens in Jefferson County described the jail as nearly “at max capacity” despite himself and another judge “holding hearings, bond hearings, trials, motions to revoke probation and other pre-trial matters, every day.” Data from the Texas Commission on Jail Standards supports his outlook – Jefferson County Jail was at 49.43% capacity in June 2020, and by June 2021, it was at 82.95%.

The problem extends to individual defendants, where research shows that longer pretrial detention – even just over 3 days – can raise their odds of being found guilty between 13-24%, which has clear consequences for their housing and job security. For defendants who can obtain pretrial release, the delayed trial could increase costs for extended pretrial services in some counties and leave them in legal limbo as they wait for trial, or in the worst cases, they might get arrested for a subsequent offense. The downstream costs to taxpayers and the broader community are obviously deeply concerning.

The good news is that this problem is not insurmountable. While there may be local solutions based on policing and prosecutorial decisions, a statewide solution to this truly statewide problem would require more people and resources.

  • First, it requires more judicial officers. We can bring in eligible retired and former judges to process incoming cases while elected judges address the long list of pending jury trials.
  • Second, it requires lawyers and paralegals. The Constitution guarantees the right to counsel for anyone facing potential incarceration, and it is estimated by TIDC that out of the 142,722 pending criminal cases, 97,628 cases will need court-appointed counsel.
  • Lastly, it requires staff. The increased number of cases correlates to an increased demand for various services ranging from foreign language interpreters to IT support for certain video-conferenced hearings.

The number of unadjudicated criminal cases is not the only problem. The stagnate criminal docket in 2020 resulted in a 15% decrease in the collection of court fees. These court fees ultimately support core functions of our justice system including indigent defense and judicial personnel training, and they also contribute to other important programs such as crime victim services and the regulation of law enforcement.

Relying on agency estimates from OCA and TIDC, resolving the criminal case backlog and back-filling some of the lost revenue from decreased court fees will cost about $111 million. HB 145 (87-3), recently filed in the Texas House of Representatives, is a multi-billion dollar supplemental appropriation bill covering a wide range of issues that includes funding for these agencies to cover both the backlog and the revenue loss.

The Sixth Amendment enshrines the right to a speedy trial, as does the Texas Constitution’s Bill of Rights. This embodies the longstanding principle of law that has echoed from the halls of Parliament to a letter by a preacher in a Birmingham jail – justice delayed is justice denied.

This constitutional right 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. The more time that passes between arrests and trials, the more downstream problems that Texans are likely to see. Thankfully, timely action from Texas leaders may prevent the worst of them from happening.