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Harris County judges have had remarkable success the last four years in reducing the backlog of criminal cases on their dockets, but things may get tougher now that they have lost a key component in that effort.
Since 1995 two cramped courtrooms on the eighth floor of the Criminal Courts Building have been used to hear up to 500 cases annually, major drug- and gang-related cases that tend to gum up the works and slow down dockets in regular state district courts.
More than $3 million -- about three quarters of it coming from the state -- paid for visiting judges, prosecutors, court reporters and clerks for the so-called grant courts. Now, that money has been cut off.
Although courthouse rumors say that the county bungled the annual grant-application process this time around, court officials say that the governor's office, which funneled the federal funds to local governments, said the grant courts no longer met the criteria for being funded.
"Basically, our explanation from the governor's office was that these grants are meant to deal with specific problems, not to be used as life-support systems for running courtrooms to help counties move dockets," says Judge George Godwin, administrative judge for the county's 22 criminal district courts.
"I don't think we were too surprised we didn't get renewed -- they changed the criteria as to what someone could receive funds for," says Jack Thompson, court administrator for Harris County.
But the supposed rationales offered by the county don't match up with the more basic explanation from the governor's office: The grants have a four-year limit on them. That time limitation comes from the feds, says Scott McClellan, a spokesman for Governor George W. Bush.
Whatever the explanation, judges are bemoaning the loss of the two courts, which they say helped clear complicated cases.
"Those two courts were moving high-profile drug cases on a fast track," says Judge Ted Poe, who administered the program. "It was working quite well.... If you have the public-policy philosophy that people charged with major crimes should be tried fast regardless of the outcome, that's what these courts were doing."
"Were they a success? Absolutely," Godwin says. "That's what makes the system run -- the threat of a jury trial. That's what moves cases."
Defendants who are inclined to plead not guilty and leisurely wait for a trial often change their minds when their case is actually about to be heard. The plea bargain offered by prosecutors is frequently better than the sentence imposed after a jury verdict.
Statistics bear that out. In the 12 months ending June 1, the two grant courts disposed of 483 cases, Thompson says. Cases are not transferred to the grant courts from their original district court until they are "trial-ready," he says -- that is, until the defendant has pleaded not guilty and is ready for trial. Even so, 216 defendants entered guilty pleas in the grant court once they saw a trial was imminent.
The rotating roster of visiting judges assigned to the grant courts did not have to engage in the time-consuming grunt work that other judges have to deal with, such as processing the plea bargains from the vast majority of defendants who never contemplate going to trial, or holding hearings on probation-related matters.
That allowed them to focus on trials, and their efforts paid off in reducing the county's backlog, Thompson says. Four years ago there were more than 10,000 criminal cases pending in the county, he says; today there are fewer than 7,000.
"Part of it is due to the grant courts, and part of it is due to a whole lot of hard-working judges," says Thompson, who works for the judges.
Criminal-defense lawyers also say judges have begun taking extraordinary steps to move their dockets, including setting bonds so high that defendants plead rather than wait in jail. Judges say, not without reason, that criminal-defense lawyers are always complaining about something.
Thompson says the county will likely explore ways to revive the grant-court idea in the next year. Federal grants are available for "drug courts," which offer an intense substance-abuse program as part of their sentencing, with constant monitoring by court personnel.
"Miami is a good example of where that is working, and the judges will probably look at that or something like it in the next grant cycle," he says.
In the meantime, the cases that the grant courts would have heard are remaining in the original district court to which they were assigned. "I'm sure each court will miss the resource they had," Thompson says.
E-mail Richard Connelly at rich_connelly at houstonpress.com.