On May 11, the Harris County Commissioners Court approved $3.5 million to fund the Harris County District Attorney's Office initiative to reduce backlogged court cases, and the plan is working so far, District Attorney Kim Ogg told commissioners Aug 24.
“If the commissioner's court will continue supporting our backlog reduction plan, we can do this,” Ogg said. “With more prosecutors, I think we can eliminate the backlog, eventually.”
Between Aug. 3 and Aug. 20, 4,600 new cases were filed with Harris County courts, and during this time, pending cases have decreased by 1,580, Ogg said. As part of the backlog reduction initiative, county attorneys have re-reviewed 10,437 criminal cases. Of those cases, 6,608 were convicted, diverted or dismissed, and 4,629 were sent plea offers.
Since May, the backlogged court cases were divided by severity and tackled by employees who have been working overtime and on weekends, Ogg said.
“We had no choice but to ask the same prosecuting attorneys who work all day to work evenings and weekends,” Ogg said. “And the court reallocated our rollover funds to do just that. The good news is this is really working. The progress of our office is already significant.”
On Aug. 24, the DA requested that contracts with 22 newly added employees be extended through Feb. 28, 2022, and funded by the office’s Public Improvement Contingency Fund.
“For the 22 intake prosecutors ... while it's helping, we are barely treading water,” Ogg said. “That funding cannot be temporary.”
Commissioners unanimously agreed to grant the DA’s office $1.5 million in requested funds to keep jury operations open at NRG arena through Dec. 20. This will also help expedite the backlog reduction process, Ogg said.
“I would urge this court to ensure that jury trials can be held at an increasing level,” Ogg said. “The second part of our backlog reduction plan is to try those violent repeat offenders both in jail and on bail.”
About 31,000 nonviolent, “low-risk” cases were separated from “high-risk” cases, such as those that involve murder, rape, robbery and domestic violence, Ogg said. Then county attorneys of different experience levels were assigned those cases under the supervision of more experienced attorneys.
“By separating these cases, we're prioritizing the cases we want the courts to hear and that we believe the public demands the courts hear,” Ogg said.
A two-hour web class designed to deter repeat offenses is also being offered for free, at the county’s expense, to offenders.
As previously reported by Community Impact Newspaper, the Harris County courts and law enforcement systems have been dealing with a backlog of cases during the ongoing coronavirus pandemic for months, and the issue is shared by many courts across the country.