"We have an overall caseload crisis," said Jim Bethke, director of the Harris County Justice Administration Department. "This is a systemwide challenge; it's not just the courts or the [district attorneys] or the defense. I think we're going to have to work together ... to address these cases and get out of this crisis."
According to officials with each of the offices, one of the major factors contributing the caseload backlog and subsequent jail overcrowding is a lack of adequate staffing due to the ongoing pandemic. Across both sides of the judicial system, county officials said staff members are either testing positive for COVID-19 or getting exposed to COVID-19 and are forced to quarantine at home while still getting paid. As a result, the district attorney's intake staff has been cut by 25%, and the sheriff's office is routinely having to back-fill positions in the jail and pay for overtime.
Further exacerbating the situation, county officials said fewer jury trials are being held due to the ongoing pandemic, and warrants are being emailed instead of physically taken to the Harris County Joint Processing Center—creating an additional backlog of warrants.
"As long as we don't have an adequate mixture of both prosecution and defense, the [judicial system] will not run properly, and we end up backlogging cases, and those who are innocent and need to be out [of jail] are penalized," Precinct 4 Commissioner Jack Cagle said. "Someone has to prosecute in order for the case to be completed and whether the outcome is a dismissal or a conviction leading to them going to our state jail—either way the case being completed results in our jails not being as crowded. Justice delayed is justice denied and there are people who are not getting justice because the system is bogged down."
While efforts are ongoing to alleviate overcrowding at the Harris County Jail, both the Harris County Sheriff's Office and the district attorney's office came to Harris County Commissioners Court on Jan. 26 with funding requests to help staff keep up with the workload in the short term.
The Harris County Sheriff's Office requested nearly $24 million in additional funding to cover costs already incurred that are over budget and to get the office through the end of the current fiscal year, which ends Feb. 28. More than $17 million of that request is solely for labor needed to staff the Harris County Jail, according to county documents.
"Unfortunately—and this is not the situation we want to be in—the sheriff feels that these funds are necessary to get through the end of the [fiscal] year at the required staffing level," said David Berry, executive director of the Harris County Budget Management Department. "From my office's perspective, this request is consistent with where we are. ... I think we're on pace where our costs for the [fiscal] year will exceed the budget, with respect to the jail."
While the court unanimously approved the funding, Harris County Judge Lina Hidalgo said she was "a little baffled" by the request, stating there was no prior indication from the sheriff's office that such a large funding request would be made. While Berry said he was confident some of the funding would be reimbursable through the CARES Act, the county would still be on the hook for the required 25% match—about $6 million.
"We can't afford departments to put us in this kind of position," Hidalgo said. "It's important for things to be done a certain way so that they will qualify for reimbursement—that's why you have to plan for it on the front end."
In hopes of not blindsiding the court with another substantial funding request in the future, Berry said his office would work with the sheriff's office to stay informed of the jail population and COVID-19-related staffing issues on a more regular basis.
"The sheriff has indicated he will be a willing partner to manage this cost going forward and provide transparency [to] let us be able to plan for it instead of playing catch-up," Berry said.
On the district attorney's side, a request for $1.36 million to fund 22 temporary positions for the next six months was submitted in hopes of reducing the case backlog due to COVID-19-related employee absences. The request, which was also unanimously approved by the court, will cover the costs of hiring 15 attorneys and seven support staff from Jan. 30-July 30.
"We obviously have a jail crisis; we’ve got a COVID-19 crisis; [and] we’ve got a crime crisis. Something’s got to be done," Precinct 3 Commissioner Tom Ramsey said. "This is exactly what’s needed in the near term. We can’t wait, [or] this thing is going to blow up in our face."
Berry said the district attorney's request would likely also qualify for reimbursement under the CARES Act. Precinct 1 Commissioner Rodney Ellis said that while these funding requests are necessary, it also means less money for other COVID-19-related needs like direct assistance programs and testing.
While the request is only temporary, Hidalgo directed the budget management office and the justice administration department to evaluate the effectiveness of the additional staffing based on backlogged cases and intake outcomes. As a long-term solution, however, Bethke said something much more drastic may need to occur to manage Harris County's caseload crisis.
"The courts are extremely overloaded, and even once COVID-19 passes, we're going to need an infrastructure that can adequately move these cases," Bethke said. "I think in the long run, we are going to have to think about adding criminal district courts."