orangeleader.com (Orange, Texas)

June 25, 2013

Houston criminal courts backlogged as area grows

Associated Press
The Orange Leader

HOUSTON — Harris County has seen a spike in criminal filings in its 22 felony courts as population continues to grow in the Houston area.

The Houston Chronicle (http://bit.ly/17y0rbs ) reported Monday that since 1985, felony filings have doubled from about 22,000 annually to 44,000, but the number of courts to handle those cases has remained unchanged.

The county's most senior felony court judge, Michael McSpadden, has had the busiest courtroom with 1,159 pending cases, according to a report by the Harris County Criminal Justice Coordinating Council. His fellow judges average 718 cases apiece, the report said.

"In the past three years, it has built up, and I have no idea why," said McSpadden, who has been on the bench for 31 years. "I don't think my attorneys are handling cases differently."

State District Judge Susan Brown, who presides over the felony judges, cites a lack of resources as the reason for the backlogged cases. But she doesn't expect the county to get more judges, courts or money anytime soon.

"The bottom line is, we haven't had a new court since 1985, and the filings haven't slowed down and aren't going to slow down," Brown said. "We're trying to find creative ways to resolve these issues because we're not going to get any help."

Prosecutors said backlogged cases can affect the quality of justice. For example, the slower a case is adjudicated, the more likely witnesses will move or die.

"It's frustrating when a defense lawyer walks in knowing they can delay the case because a larger docket court won't push them for a resolution," Assistant Harris County District Attorney Kelli Johnson said. "In a smaller docket court, that lawyer knows they better be ready to go."

But defense lawyers said the number of pending cases shouldn't affect the way a judge handles a criminal case.

"Who cares about the size of the docket?" said Todd Dupont, president of Houston's criminal defense lawyer organization. "Conversations about dockets are meaningless unless you use it as a tool of oppression, and that's just mean, and probably illegal."

Andy Kahan, a victims' advocate for the city of Houston, said victims bear the brunt of the burden when a case is delayed.

"The long wait for some of them to go to trial quite frankly is emotionally exhausting," Kahan said.