Jury trials could begin next week, depending on county’s COVID-19 precaution stage
by: Avery Travis
Posted: / Updated:
AUSTIN (KXAN) — Victims, families, attorneys and the accused in hundreds of criminal cases are waiting for jury trials to resume in person in Travis County.
For months, these proceedings have been on hold due to the spike in COVID-19 cases in the county, but court officials have tentatively scheduled them to resume on Feb. 28. According to the District Court’s website, this schedule is dependent upon the county’s COVID-19 precaution stage and could change.
Meanwhile, the backlog of cases has continued to rise. According to an official with the Travis County Criminal Courts Administration, 238 jury trials are pending in the District Courts, and 399 are pending in the County Courts at Law.
“We have a lot more victims of crime, waiting to see justice done in their cases,” said Luis Soberon, a policy advisor with Texas 2036. “It means that our jails are a little more crowded than they otherwise would be. All the while taxpayers are footing the bill.”
He said Texas court officials estimate it could take three to five years to get the backlog of cases down to pre-pandemic levels, with as many as 140,000 jury trials pending across Texas.
For example, he analyzes county’s clearance rates, and the target is 100% — meaning as many cases are adjudicated or disposed as are coming into the courts. He said court systems will target a rate of more than 100%, in order to chip away at any backlog that exists. At last check, he said Travis County was just over 100%.
“So, it’s a slow chip away at that backlog,” he said.
Meanwhile, he said the target amount of time to dispose of a case or get a sentence should be one year, but in Texas around a third of cases are over a year old.
“Where we stand currently in Texas is so far from that ideal, it’s kind of hard to swallow,” Soberon noted.
He said the legislature dedicated a few million dollars to hire more judges and court reporters, as well as invest in technology to help get through the backlog.
Travis County has focused its efforts on using Zoom to conduct proceedings other than jury trials and to dispose of cases virtually, when possible. For instance, in September KXAN reported 254 criminal jury trials pending in District Court, so the number of cases pending trial has gone down.
Other counties, Soberon says, are taking a different approach.
For instance, Dallas County recently created a misdemeanor and felony backlog court, where they will focus on cases older than one year and give priority to cases with inmates in the county jail. Harris County has opted to hire additional judges and assistant district attorneys, so it can process more cases.
An official with Travis County Courts Administration told KXAN earlier this year the judges re-evaluate whether to begin in-person proceedings every week, based on the stage of COVID-19 precautions.
“The Judges have to consider the health and safety of all persons entering the courthouse,” the spokesperson said in an email.
When these proceedings move forward in person, masking will be required of all potential jurors, staff and the public entering the justice complex.
- Read the District Court plan for resuming in-person jury trials & dockets here
Amanda Lewis, an advocate for sexual assault survivors, said the criminal justice system was slow moving for survivors even before the pandemic. She said connecting victims with resources and making sure they feel heard is often as important to their healing process than adjudicating their case.
“Checking in with each individual and asking, ‘What are your needs?’” she said.