The impact of Texas’ court backlogs: Strategic Framework

This look at court backlogs data is part of our blog series for Texas 2036’s Strategic Framework, which provides in-depth, cross-cutting data to inform key decisions about the most significant issues facing the state.

Last year, Texas 2036 began writing about court backlogs in Texas. The case backlogs that plague the courts are not unique to our state. However, it is often hard to compare the performance of different judiciaries in other states. There are a few standard metrics that are common across court systems, one of the most being clearance rates.

A clearance rate is simply the number of cases disposed divided by the number of cases filed. For example, if 10,000 cases were disposed of but 12,000 were filed in the same timeframe, the clearance rate is 83.3% meaning the backlog is getting worse. It’s a useful snapshot of whether the backlog has gotten better or worse in a given jurisdiction.

In Texas 2036’s new Strategic Framework, one of the metrics to both measure progress over time and to compare Texas against its peer states is to look at the clearance rates for criminal and civil cases. This data gets us closer to our Goal No. 23, which aims to ensure Texans are served effectively, efficiently and impartially by the justice system.

In 2020, both the civil and criminal clearance rates hit near-historic lows due largely to the pandemic shutting down jury trials, but looking back to 2012 where we have comparable data, most years had clearance rates below 100%. This means that backlogs have been growing for much of the past decade, even before the COVID closed courts.

As I said to the Dallas Morning News earlier this month, the court backlog is a problem in its own right, especially in the criminal docket. More than just a question of making an imperfect criminal justice system more efficient, “… you have people languishing in jail longer, which completely upends their lives and the communities that they come from, and you have victims waiting to hear justice in their cases.”

The better we do on clearance rates over time, the more we will do to lessen the impact of our backlogs and ultimately deliver justice to Texans.