AUSTIN, Texas - In-person court proceedings are back in Travis County, after a hiatus for most of the past two years. But with jury trials resuming, judges and attorneys are facing a mounting backlog of cases—as defendants sit in jail and victims wait for justice.
In-person proceedings and jury trials resumed on Monday, February 28. In fact, District Judge Cliff Brown says two criminal trials are already under way.
"We've come up with a plan whereby we're going to integrate these trials slowly," said Brown.
There are still some modifications for COVID-19—like fewer trials happening at once, jury selection spread out over three days, jurors seated in the gallery instead of the jury box, and mask requirements for anyone who's not speaking.
"We're just so excited to get back and get back to the place where everybody is going to have their day in court," said Brown.
But the court system does have a challenge on its hands.
"There's no doubt it's a backlog," said Brown
A few jury trials were able to be held during periods where cases dropped in Travis County, but hundreds of trials—for crimes like murder, rape, and assault—have been on hold.
"There's a reason why criminal trials were exempted from being allowed to be done virtually," said Brown. "Because the stakes are so high, you can’t do that."
In March 2020, there were 179 jury trials pending in Travis County District Court. As of the end of February 2022, there are 245 pending trials—a 37% increase.
"There are cases where people are accused of taking someone's life and the family members of the deceased and have to sit there and wait until this case goes forward, and the person accused has to wait. But I can assure both of those parties that their day in court is coming," said Brown.
So how will the cases be prioritized?
"It’s real simple. Whoever's been in jail the longest, those are the cases that are going to go to trial first," said Brown. "I have cases where people are out of jail and have been out of jail for some time, and I have to tell them quite candidly: I don't know when we'll get to trial because we are going to prioritize the oldest jail cases and then kind of triage from there."
The good news? The number of pending jury trials in County Court have actually gone down over the past two years, due in part to changes in the way the county attorney addresses some cases.
"We have been really going full steam since the beginning of the pandemic," said Brown.
Despite about 22,000 felony cases being added to the docket since 2020, Courts have been holding virtual dockets and zoom hearings on a daily basis. About 12,000 cases have been disposed of during that time—a 54% clearance ratio.
"When we were forced to kind of adapt to this kind of virtual world and doing things electronically, we did it," said Brown.
As for the backlog, Judge Brown says the current modified trial schedule will help, but, "It’s only once we get back to our normal routine in trying cases where we'll really be able to make a dent in this backlog."
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