Reducing Violent Crime in Houston

Jul 04, 2021

Harris County leaders on Monday announced plans to invest $14.8 million in efforts to reduce violent crime and chip away at a massive backlog of pending criminal cases in the county’s clogged courts system. Judge Lina Hidalgo, Precinct 2 Commissioner Adrian Garcia, Sheriff Ed Gonzalez and Houston Police Executive Assistant Chief Matt Slinkard discussed the initiatives at a morning news conference at the sheriff’s office headquarters just north of downtown.

Among the most serious obstacles Harris County faces is the massive backlog of pending cases — about 100,000 — plaguing the court system. About 20,000 of those cases have been pending for more than a year, Hidalgo said. And those shortcomings come with costs: a perception that government isn’t doing its part to address serious crime, a lack of justice for victims, and perpetrators feeling empowered.

“We’re not powerless against this challenge of rising crime and we know what we need to do,” Hidalgo said.

Among the solutions commissioners plan to propose Tuesday: Add six associate judges to help reduce workloads for judges currently presiding over the county’s 22 criminal district courts; expand jury operations at NRG Stadium; and pay for visiting judges to support the associate judges and the district court judges.

“We need to invest in what works,” Hidalgo said. “That means resisting the urge to use blunt tools that have proven ineffective in the past, or temporary solutions only to get splashy headlines.”

Hidalgo said bringing in the associate judges would cost about $1.26 million for the rest of 2021 and $2.5 million for a full year. It’s still unclear, however, how quickly the proposed investments would help the courthouse clear backlogged cases.

“It’s something that requires buy-in from the judges, so this is a challenge that we’ve posed to our justice administration department to the judges to say, ‘OK, we have a problem. We need to solve it together. What are we going to do?’ ” Hidalgo said.

Slinkard said the courts’ backlog must be addressed in order to hold violent offenders accountable.

“Every piece of our system must be working in concert,” he said. “And when one spoke in that wheel breaks, it’s incumbent upon all of us to have difficult conversations and get us moving down the road again to the point where we are putting public safety first.”

Officials also said the county plans to make a “historic” investment in technology for county law enforcement, including better protective gear, body cameras and spending money to increase the number of neighborhoods covered by “ShotSpotter,” a gunshot surveillance system that alerts law enforcement if it detects sounds of gunfire.

The investments come amid a continuing debate over the county’s decision to force departments to spend or surrender unused budget funds. Across the county’s entire government, that amounted to more than $180 million dollars. In some cases, constables’ offices had accrued millions of funds that had “rolled over” from past years, the result of what Hidalgo characterized as the county’s past “weak budgeting practices.”

While commissioners originally voted in favor of reforming the county’s rollover process, they have revisited the issue, with some suggesting that refusing to allow constables to keep rollover funds amounts to a de-funding of the departments. But in some cases, constables said they had used rolled-over funds to pay for personnel costs, and their new budgets did not account for that difference, meaning that they can now no longer pay officers whose hiring commissioners had approved.

During the news conference, Garcia returned fire.

“It’s frustrating, because frankly those who say it are actually lying and trying to to create the new ‘Big Lie,’ ” he said, adding that it was time for a change. “No more squirrelling that money away by departments, not using everything they’ve been budgeted. This money will go to creating real solutions that will enhance safety of all Harris County residents.”

Commissioners are expected to discuss and debate the issue — again — on Tuesday.

Posted by: Pat Monks