Harris County officials announced new public safety investments Monday that would increase the number of judges in Harris County, expand jury operations at NRG and upgrade law enforcement body camera technology — all in an effort to curb the rise in violent crime across the region.
These proposed investments, totaling about $17 million, would mainly target the county’s massive backlog of jury trials, which officials have said is the main reason for the increase in violence.
“Bad actors who can post bond will return to our community and continue to reoffend,” said Harris County Sheriff Ed Gonzalez. “They have more time out on the streets.”
As of last week, there were at least 220 reported homicides in the city of Houston — a 42% increase compared to 2020, according to Houston Police Chief Troy Finner.
Meanwhile, the county-wide case backlog continues to grow, as nearly 100,000 cases wait to be heard. About 20,000 of those have been pending for more than a year, said Harris County Judge Lina Hidalgo.
“Justice delayed is justice denied,” Hidalgo said. “Denied for victims of crime, and denied for those accused of crime.”
The backlog began growing after Hurricane Harvey caused a months-long pause in jury trials, and has gotten worse over the past year due to the COVID-19 pandemic, which put another pause on the county’s court system.
In an effort to reduce this backlog, Hidalgo said Commissioners Court would consider adding six associate judges to assist the county’s 22 district criminal courts, as well as propose funding for the visiting judges. Hidalgo said these judges would “tackle the most violent cases that have been in the backlog the longest.”
Additionally, Hidalgo said, if approved, more than half a million dollars would also be allocated to expand jury operations at NRG in order to combat multiple facets of the overflowing court system.
Another proposal aims to invest nearly $15 million in updated law enforcement technology, which Hidalgo said would help expedite the trial process.
She added that it currently takes six months for body camera video to be produced for trials due to outdated technology.
“Outdated body cam technology…slows down dismissals, pleas, and slows down trials,” she said.
Along with upgraded body cameras, the funds would pay for additional body armor, overtime pay and the expansion of ShotSpotter, a program that utilizes sensors to detect and locate gunfire.
The proposed investment in technology was spearheaded by precinct 2 commissioner Adrian Garcia, who emphasized the importance of collaboration between HPD and the county sheriff’s office.
“We are actively working together, making our region safer,” he said. “This money will go to creating real solutions that will enhance the public safety of all Harris County residents.”
The proposed investments will be further discussed during Tuesday’s Commissioners Court meeting.