HARRIS COUNTY, TEXAS (March 14, 2023) – In a majority vote during the March 14 meeting of Commissioners Court, Harris County commissioners approved a holistic Justice and Safety Package to alleviate the court case backlog. Precinct 4 Commissioner Lesley Briones — through a collaborative effort with other court members including Precinct 2 Commissioner Adrian Garcia and Precinct 1 Commissioner Rodney Ellis — introduced the Package, which aims to improve justice and safety in Harris County by addressing multiple facets of the criminal justice system.
The Package includes a resolution by Commissioner Garcia supporting the creation of six new district courts; a request to develop plans to expand the Holistic Assistance Response Teams (HART) program and to add capacity to the Public Defender’s Office; and a request to identify and implement best practices in the courts to further reduce the backlog, improve the quality of justice, and create cost savings for the County.
As a former judge, Commissioner Briones understands judges need additional resources to continue addressing the current caseload, which will only continue to increase with population growth. The Package takes a proactive, data-driven approach across the entire criminal justice system, from opportunities to reduce involvement on the front end to addressing various points in the system through disposition and sentencing.
“We must look at each part of the highly interdependent criminal justice system to continue making our community safer and enhancing the quality of justice. As a mother, victim of crime, lawyer, and former judge, public safety is my top priority. I approach public safety with a “both-and” mindset – that’s why I am proud to both stand with law enforcement and advocate for indigent defense. We need both. These synergistic investments in data-driven solutions throughout the system will deliver on what we all deserve: to be safe, to have our rights protected, and to have access to justice. I want to acknowledge Commissioner Ellis and the team at Precinct One for collaborating to find a holistic approach that will benefit everyone,” said Commissioner Lesley Briones.
“We need a fair and efficient criminal justice system that makes our communities safer and provides justice for all,” Commissioner Ellis said. “We have too many people who are getting stuck in our legal system for years before cases are resolved. That’s not justice for the victims or for the accused. Today we made important investments that address the root of our criminal case backlog and high jail population. I am grateful to Commissioner Briones for working with my team on a package of holistic investments that will make Harris County stronger and safer.”
The Holistic Public Safety Package includes the following requests:
Item #4 - A resolution supporting the creation of six new district courts, as requested by the Texas Legislature
The addition of six new District Courts offers the necessary space to provide additional personnel and resources to ensure quality and fair administration of justice and the rights of defendants to a speedy court process. The county is requesting to stagger the addition of the courts between this year and next year.
Item #334 - A budget and plan to expand the Holistic Assistance Response Teams (HART) into District IV (Precinct 4)
To better support law enforcement personnel, HART redirects calls involving mental illness, substance abuse, homelessness, and social welfare to trained clinicians and EMTs. Within less than a year, the initial HART pilot has responded to and diverted 1,934 calls from law enforcement.
Item #335 - A budget and plan to expand the Public Defender’s Office and increase capacity up to 50 percent of indigent cases
Public Defenders currently take about 20% of appointed cases, while private appointed attorneys are sometimes paid up to $400,000 per year and have significantly high caseloads. Expanding the Public Defender’s Office can create cost savings for the county while improving outcomes for low-income defendants.
Item #336 - A proposal for “court resources for best practices”
Court caseloads and backlogged cases can be reduced by further implementing best practices in courtrooms. Identifying and implementing best practices could result in more efficient case processing, fewer active cases, fewer in-custody cases, pretrial conditions that align with public safety needs, a lower overall backlog of cases, and cost savings for the county. This is an opportunity to give judges additional resources to further reduce caseloads.