Houston computer glitch leads to hundreds being released from jail, shines light on bigger issue

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HOUSTON (Nexstar) — A computer system glitch in Houston led to the release of hundreds of people being held in jails there on Wednesday.

The glitch kept people who had been arrested waiting in custody for more than two days, without having their case processed. That’s longer than state law allows, leading to those defendants being released.

At least one judge blamed a backlog in cases, making it nearly impossible to hold defendants any longer.
That draws attention to a larger statewide issue.

You could expect an average of 186 criminal jury trials to be held across Texas every week before the pandemic. In 2020, that number dropped to four. This is according to Texas 2036, a nonprofit that tracks this kind of information to help with data-motivated strategies.

“The pandemic obviously, kept us from resolving cases for a year and a half or so,” Hays County District Attorney Wes Mau said.

Mau said all courts at various levels across the state are now playing catchup with little room for error or system glitches, like Houston saw, adding to its overall backlog.

Texas lawmakers are doing some behind-the-scenes work to address how to speed up that process, but that could take up to five years according to Texas 2036.

“It’s not anything that’s going to be simply fixed by creating courts, more judges … it’s going to take a lot of working on efficiencies on those cases,” said Joe Moody, District 78 state representative.

Moody is the vice chair of the interim committee on criminal justice reform. He’s prepping for the next legislative session and said addressing the court backlog is top of mind.

“If people need to be in that system, we understand that. But if they don’t need to be there, let’s figure out how to track them out,” Moody said. “And let’s make sure that we’re not clogging the system unnecessarily, so that when we have unprecedent events like this, it doesn’t create a crisis.”

Improving technology could be one way to address the court backlogs. Last session, lawmakers approved spending a half-million dollars each fiscal year to implement a technology modernization program.

The funding could increase beyond $4 million per year depending on how effective the program is at reducing court backlogs.