A years-long Harris County criminal court backlog is declining but still has tens of thousands of cases. Harris County District Attorney Kim Ogg, staff members and victims’ families recently gave an update that the court’s backlog has decreased by more than 21% since June 2021.
The court’s backlog of cases started six years ago after Hurricane Harvey flooded the county courthouse and halted proceedings. In addition to suspending trials, the destruction of the courts displaced judges and attorneys. In 2020, the COVID-19 pandemic exacerbated the backlog after in-person trials were suspended because of social distancing guidelines and concerns about transmitting the virus.
Now, county court officials say they are on the right path to decreasing the number of cases but still have much more to do.
“Twenty-one percent is significant to us and significant to victims,” Ogg said. “We never get down to zero. What we are trying to achieve is pre-Harvey levels, and we’re not there yet.”
According to the DA’s office, in 2017, the court backlog in Harris County was around 65,000 cases. In 2018, the court backlog averaged 79,000 cases. In 2019, that number continued to climb, with about 96,000 cases, which rose to 130,000 in 2020. The pandemic brought the backlog to an all-time high of 145,000 cases. Since then, the court case backlog has been decreasing and sits at an average of 114,000 for this year.
There are 69,533 active cases — more specifically, 38,000 felonies and 30,000 misdemeanors. In addition to the backlog of cases, officials said the county files an average of 100,000 cases annually.
Officials also said the county is focusing primarily on violent criminal cases and using diversion programs in misdemeanor cases and low-level drug offenses. They are also preparing to change drug testing policies and require police to send drugs weighing less than four grams to be tested by the lab department to confirm their substance before the prosecutor files the charge. According to Houston Chronicle Reporter Nicole Hensley, officials expect this change to continue to help decrease the backlog.
“Delay doesn’t benefit the accused either,” Ogg added.
As the county wrestles with the backlog, the Harris County jail is being investigated for its standards and conditions after recording its highest in-custody death rate in two decades. In 2022, 27 people died in custody, and in 2023, four more have died.
According to the HCJ dashboard, of the jail’s current 9,680 residents, 7,372 are pre-trial, meaning they haven’t been convicted of a crime but usually can’t afford to pay bail.