Harris County

Harris County medical examiner’s office using $1.8 million funding allocation to combat accelerating attrition

The Harris County Institute of Forensic Sciences has nearly 50 vacancies on its staff after experiencing a 16.1 percent attrition rate during the fiscal year 2023. County leaders have allocated money toward staff retention as part of their overall effort to reduce a case backlog in the criminal court system.

This photo shows one of the rooms where medical examiners conduct autopsies.
Photo: Courtesy of the Harris County Institute of Forensic Sciences
This photo shows one of the rooms where Harris County medical examiners conduct autopsies. (Photo: Courtesy of the Harris County Institute of Forensic Sciences)

Harris County is investing nearly $2 million into staffing and employee retention initiatives for its medical examiner's office, which has seen accelerating attrition rates since the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic and now has nearly 50 vacant positions. That has contributed to a backlog of cases handled by the office, which has an impact on the longstanding backlog in the county's criminal court system.

The Harris County Institute of Forensic Sciences, which performs autopsies and makes cause-of-death determinations that are used in criminal cases, is receiving more than $1.8 million for the fiscal year 2024 to be used mostly for one-time bonuses to existing staff and to hire contract workers. The office currently has 252 employees and had an attrition rate of 16.1 percent for the fiscal year 2023, up from 6.6 percent during the previous fiscal year, according to county officials.

"These (funding) requests were made primarily to address the critical nationwide shortage in forensic pathologists, which has impacted not only our office, but also other medical examiner offices in the U.S.," Mickey Pierce, a representative of the local medical examiner's office, wrote in an email.

The money allocated to the forensic sciences agency was part of a $25 million package approved by Harris County Commissioners Court earlier this month to continue combatting the case backlog in the county's criminal courts. More than $10 million was earmarked for the Harris County District Attorney's Office, with funding also going toward the courts, district clerk's office and sheriff's office, among others.

The backlog was exacerbated by Hurricane Harvey in 2017 as well as the pandemic, which shut down the county courthouse for months in 2020, peaking in the summer of 2021 at about 54,000 cases. It has since been dwindled to fewer than 35,500 cases, thanks in part to previous American Rescue Plan Act funding that county leaders spent on similar backlog-reducing initiatives.

"These efforts are yielding results," the Office of County Administration wrote in its request for funding. "The number of misdemeanor cases in the backlog is down 44 percent from January 2022, while the number of felony cases in the backlog has declined by 41 percent."

The medical examiner's office declined an interview request and did not answer questions about the extent of its backlog, which has an impact on how quickly criminal cases can be investigated and prosecuted.

The office currently has 46 vacancies out of 298 total positions on its staff, according to Brooke Boyett, a spokesperson for the Office of County Administration. The attrition rate at the medical examiner's office, according to Pierce, was 4.3 percent during fiscal year 2021 before increasing to 6.6 percent in 2022 and 16.1 percent in 2023.

Of the funding that recently was allocated to the office, $950,400 will be spent on pathology contractors and $400,000 is going toward a decedent transport contractor. A total of $447,000 is earmarked for staff retention bonuses, with $50,000 allocated for a one-time training session on the implementation of a postmortem computed tomography device that can assist with autopsies.