Harris County

Harris County Commissioners approve “holistic” public safety package

The package will focus on improving public safety and justice by identifying elements of the court system that need additional resources. 


Harris County Commissioners Court, January 31, 2023

Harris County Commissioners approved this week what they’re calling a Holistic Public Safety Package to help relieve the backlog of court cases in Harris County’s criminal court system. The package will focus on improving public safety and justice by identifying elements of the court system that need additional resources.

The Harris County Court System has been dealing with a large case backlog and an overcrowded jail for years. Precinct 4 Commissioner Lesley Briones said although there’s been progress, the court backlog is still a big issue in Harris County.

"At the end of the day, we have people waiting too long for their day at court, and it’s more than just the numbers, it’s the quality of justice," she said. "And if judges, as we heard last time, have approximately five minutes per case, I would argue that is not enough time to spend on a case – so we need to uphold people’s constitutional rights in terms of the quality of justice they are receiving here in Harris County."

The package includes:

  • Supporting the creation of six new district courts, an issue the county was considering last month. The additional courts would quicken the court process for defendants.
  • Expanding the county’s HART response teams, a program implemented by the county in 2021, to allow health professionals instead of police officers to respond to individuals dealing with mental health crises, homelessness, and substance abuse. According to the County, less than a year after the program was adopted, they attended 1,934 calls from law enforcement.
  • Creating more capacity for the public defenders’ office by increasing its caseload load up to 50%, which sits at about 20% of appointed cases.
  • Allocating more court resources for judges to reduce their court load.

"So given the growth of this county, given the numbers of cases that continue to increase and be filed, we need to move the system along," Briones said. "Myself and my team have had conversations with members on both sides of the aisle in Austin, and we are optimistic that we can move this forward."

There are currently about 10,000 people in the Harris County Jail and many of them are awaiting progress on their cases. Precinct 2 Commissioner Adrian Garcia said adding more courts will ensure more defendants have their cases heard in a timely manner.

“Bringing that population down which the courts would be attached to impacts that ensuring that people who are mistakenly incarcerated have those courts to get them their justice," he said. "[And] having those specialty courts to deal with the unique circumstances in our society, are important to have."

Garcia added that when he became Harris County Sheriff in 2009, there were 1,000 people in custody, and the jail would move them every morning. But, of that 1,000, only about 300 would actually see a judge.

"That’s a lot of work, that’s a lot of movement, and that is a lot of justice delayed," he said "And so after a lot of thought on this, I think we have to ensure that we give thought to what our criminal justice system ought to be in the largest county in Texas."

To build the six additional courts, it will take the county $30 million and about $17 million annually to operate, which was also previously reported by Houston Public Media.

The commissioners were in support of the six district courts, but County Judge Lina Hidalgo and Precinct 3 Commissioner were concerned about the $17 million recurring cost.

"That’s the number that is of most concern going forward, but I fully support it and look forward to voting for it," Ramsey said.

Officials said the county is currently in a $6.6 million deficit and can’t afford the annual operation cost. Harris County was forced to adopt a no-new revenue budget last year after two Republican commissioners boycotted commissioner meetings. Judge Hidalgo suggested receiving money from the state to help cover the cost.

"I support the idea, but we just don’t have $17 million," Hidalgo said. "Now, if colleagues had shown up, one is not here and one is here in October, September and August, when we were here five times – then we would have the money, but we don’t have the money."

The county is expected to have the additional courts operable by next year.

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