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Dallas courts backlog could be costing taxpayers millions

A recent report by the Dallas County auditor underscores our ongoing concern about the backlog of cases in our felony courts.

Not only is the logjam of cases terribly unfair to both victims and defendants, but it’s probably costing taxpayers.

The auditor’s 2021 Judicial Management Report shows that jail costs connected to each of the 17 felony courts rose 26% over the year before. In real numbers: Jail costs last year were nearly $60 million, compared to just over $47 million in 2020.

Judges aren’t solely responsible for these costs. Other factors, including delays in transferring inmates to Texas prisons or state mental health facilities, are out of their control.

Still, a closer look at the court-by-court data shows a clear connection between individual judge’s jail costs and the rate at which he or she is disposing of cases. Typically, we found that the lower a court’s jail costs, the faster its docket is moving.

Take state District Judge Hector Garza, for example. His jail costs in 2021 rose only 7%, well below the average. He also ranked second in dispositions, with 2,051 cases cleared — about 300 more than average for the felony courts.

On the other hand, state District Judge Tracy Holmes’ jail costs rose the most at 58% in 2021. But she only cleared 1,497 cases off her docket, about 200 less on average than her colleagues.

Holmes did not return email requests and a phone call through her court coordinator when we sought to find out a reason for these statistics. But we’re not alone in our concern that the logjam of cases in felony courts is running up jail costs.

Dallas County Commissioner John Wiley Price, a frequent critic of the felony court backlog, said the problem is reflected in other costs, too, such as higher public defender and court-appointed attorney expenses. Generally, the longer a case hangs around, the more expensive it is.

“If you manage the case, you manage the cost,” Price told us.

And the problem doesn’t appear to be going away. Current statistics from the state Office of Court Administration show that the number of active felony pending cases in Dallas County has risen from 17,109 in September 2021 — about the time the auditor’s report was compiled — to 21,566 at the end of September 2022. However, there is some reason for optimism: The judges are on track to dispose of more cases this year than they did before the pandemic, according to a story this week by our newsroom colleagues.

It’s easy to get lost in all the statistics around pending felony cases, the most serious crimes facing our society.

But let’s not forget: Behind every case is a victim, perhaps a woman who was raped and is awaiting justice. There’s also a defendant, maybe an armed robber deserving his punishment. And in some cases there are the wrongly accused, stuck in jail and waiting to reclaim freedom.

Any way we look at it, the felony courts must get a better handle on the backlog of cases before them. The county auditor’s report just gives us one more reason why.

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