"This is an exciting opportunity to improve the lives of our constituents,” said Precinct 2 Commissioner Adrian Garcia, who previously served as Harris County sheriff.
The proposals approved unanimously by the commissioners include:
- Six new associate judges to assist in 22 criminal district courts
- Funding for visiting judges to assist the proposed six new associate judges
- An expansion of jury service at NRG Stadium
- Funding within the sheriff's office for overtime, new body cameras to speed up evidence retrieval and expansion of pilot neighborhoods for the Shot Spotter program, which geolocates gunfire in real time
The total funding for the judges and jury service expansions is estimated to cost over $3 million, however, a more detailed budget proposal will return for commissioners’ approval on July 20. For the technology upgrades within the sheriff’s office, the commissioners approved setting aside “up to $16 million.”
The cost of the proposals will be covered by unallocated funds leftover in the fiscal year 2020-21 budget, Harris County Judge Lina Hidalgo said. Before she took office in 2019, county departments had a practice of rolling over unused funds from year to year. Funding for the proposals comes from surpluses that were returned from all departments back to the general fund, she said.
Precinct 4 Commissioner Jack Cagle said he voted in favor of the proposals because they draw from a collective surplus within the general fund rather than one specific departments’ surplus, such as the sheriff or constable’s offices.
“Those funds aren’t specifically in a law enforcement budget, they are in the general fund,” Harris County Budget Director David Berry said.
The proposals, led by Garcia and the Justice Administration Department, take aim at resolving the backlog of cases in Harris County, which has grown by 40% since Hurricane Harvey disrupted criminal justice facilities and proceedings in 2017. The issue was also exacerbated because of the COVID-19 pandemic, Hidalgo said.
The backlog is now over 100,000 pending cases, which is 40,000 cases above national standards. There are about 20,000 cases that have been backlogged for over a year, Hidalgo said.