Montgomery, Harris county aim to ease caseloads with more courts, prosecutors

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Both Montgomery and Harris counties are trying to find ways to alleviate heavy caseloads for judges and prosecutors within the counties.

The Montgomery County board of judges is pleading with the state Legislature for an additional district court to deal with a 41.3 percent increase in annual caseloads since 2008—the county’s population has only grown 32.4 percent during that time.

Meanwhile, Harris County Commissioners Court has called for a comprehensive study of the county’s criminal justice system to look at ways to ease caseloads for prosecutors with the Harris County District Attorney’s Office after commissioners rejected District Attorney Kim Ogg’s request for an additional $20.6 million to her office’s budget to hire 102 prosecutors.

“The average person … is averaging 127 hours [of work]every two weeks,” said Nathan Beedle, misdemeanor chief for Harris County DA’s office. “If they were to work 10 days straight, working 24 hours a day, they couldn’t get all of their tasks done. You cannot function and do your job properly without the correct resources.”

Caseloads and courts

Annual caseloads in Montgomery County district courts have risen by 10,746 cases since 2008—a 41.3 percent increase—according to the board of judges’ court documents presented to the Montgomery County Commissioners Court on Nov. 20. The last time a new court was created by the Legislature in Montgomery County was in 2007.

The Texas Supreme Court standard dictates all civil jury cases be disposed within 18 months and all nonjury cases within one year. Currently, 20 percent of civil cases take longer than a year to be resolved, and only 1 percent of civil cases are jury trials in Montgomery County, according to the board of judges.

Nate Jensen, director of court administration for Montgomery County, said a host of socio-economic and demographic factors contribute to the caseload increase across criminal civil and family cases.

At the Nov. 20 meeting, Judge Tracy Gilbert of the 418th District Court, who is spearheading the new district court request to the Legislature, said the backlog cannot be solved by adding associate judges or part-time jobs.

“We have a higher caseload than every area, even the larger counties like Denton and Fort Bend,” Gilbert said. “Our judges are working harder than all four of those other counties—we have more cases. We’re doing the work, but there are so many cases here that we need another court.”

The Commissioners Court voted 4-1 to support the request for a new district court Nov. 20, and voted unanimously in support Feb. 12 with its new members. State Rep. Steve Toth, R-The Woodlands, filed House Bill 1437 Feb. 6 requesting a new district court, which has not been voted on as of press time. If the Legislature approves the bill, the earliest a new court could manifest is summer 2020 due to fiscal year funding timelines. Veterans, specialty courts

Before requesting a new court, the judges reorganized their dockets in 2012 to consolidate case types so they could work with consistent attorney teams. They also created specialty courts such as the DWI court and the drug court, which help people access court-ordered treatment instead of going to the county jail, which was at 95-97 percent capacity in 2012.

“[Specialized courts] have been good at expediting cases so that [inmates]aren’t having to stay in the system for so long,” Jensen said. “If you can cut down the number of days in jail, it’s going to have a financial effect on the county in the long run.”

One specialty court in the county is the Veterans Treatment Court, created to help veterans convicted of felonies or misdemeanors caused by mental health trauma suffered at war to receive court-ordered treatment to improve mental health recovery and help community reintegration instead of them receiving jail time.

Montgomery County maintains a 20-24 percent veteran population in its jail—double the national average of 10 percent, according to Tri-County Behavioral Healthcare.

Additional prosecutors

The main goal of Ogg’s budget request of $20.6 million to hire 102 prosecutors—presented during the county’s fiscal year 2019-20 budget hearings in January—was to ease the caseload for prosecutors in her office, she said. In 2018, the Harris County DA’s office filed 108,773 criminal cases staffed by 255 trial prosecutors. The recommended staffing of trial prosecutors for the 2018 caseload is 522 prosecutors, according to the proposal.

Prosecutors from the DA’s office who advocated for funding at the meeting asserted heavy caseloads have a negative effect on both victims and the accused. Assistant DA Daniel Malik said on any given day, he has roughly 20 to 30 cases on his court’s docket for an average of 100-150 cases each week.

However, several Harris County residents and representatives from advocacy groups spoke in opposition of the additional funding, asserting more prosecutors would mean more convictions. Other opponents advocated for the money to be spent in other areas to proactively relieve the criminal justice system.

After discussion at the meeting, County Judge Lina Hidalgo suggested offering the DA’s office a 7 percent budget increase of $5.8 million and requested the budget management department seek outside consultants to aid with a comprehensive study of the county’s criminal justice system. Commissioners approved the measures 4-1. No further information on the cost and next steps in the study is available as of press time.

“What I’m hearing is … additional prosecutors are not the only way and certainly not the most cost-effective way to decrease prosecutor caseloads,” Hidalgo said. “We need to make sure that we get the … caseloads down quickly—I recognize that. But that being said, we shouldn’t rush into it.”

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Jules Rogers
Originally from the Pacific Northwest, Jules Rogers has been covering community journalism and urban trade news since 2014. She moved to Houston in June 2018 to become an editor with Community Impact Newspaper after four years of reporting for various newspapers affiliated with the Portland Tribune in Oregon, including two years at the Portland Business Tribune. Before that, Jules spent time reporting for the Grants Pass Daily Courier in Southern Oregon. Her favorite beats to cover are business, economic development and urban planning.
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