HAYS COUNTY, Texas (KXAN) — Newly elected Hays County District Attorney Kelly Higgins said they are dealing with a backlog of more than 5,000 unfiled criminal cases. He said some of those cases date back to the second half of 2021.
“From, you know, murderers, to smoking a joint, right, I mean, the whole range,” Higgins said.
How did we get here?
Higgins said the cases were so backed up because of the office’s intake process from previous administrations.
“There’s either a warrant or a field arrest without a warrant made, and then a police officer will write a report about that and forward that report to our office. And that’s our first look at any case,” he said.
Higgins said intake coordinators will then look at the case, create a file and start filling it with information a lawyer might want to determine what to do with that case. However, he said they were spending too much time processing information in a way that was “duplicative, redundant and unhelpful.”
“What troubled me was finding out that it often takes 12 to 14 months to put that file together,” Higgins said.
He said they are spending less time on filling those files and are now getting them to lawyers in 10 to 11 days.
“I could wait one full year and have all the possible information and make a decision. Or I could wait five to 10 days have 95%, really 100% of the information I need to know the character of the case,” Higgins said.
How are they working through the backlog?
The backlog is being worked from oldest to most recent, according to the DA.
“Violent crimes are prioritized. Violent crimes are much more likely to get filed,” he said.
Higgins said when it comes to deciding which cases to file, a lot of low level cases have been declined like possession of marijuana.
“We’re looking for other charges that are next to them. Gun, stolen property, other circumstances that might make us want to pursue that,” Higgins said.
What is the impact of this backlog?
Sam Benavides is the communications director with the non profit Mano Amiga. She said waiting years for a case to be filed is difficult for a defendant and a victim.
“Those records are available to potential landlords,” Benavides said. “It’s also really terrible for the victims who are forced to relive that trauma in court years later.”
Benavides said there also needs to be work done to prevent having thousands of cases in the first place.
“We can begin implementing these programs and services that actually prevent crime from occurring. Things that address, you know, the housing crisis, food insecurity, and mental illness, most importantly,” Benavides said.
What help is needed?
At a Hays County Commissioners Court meeting, Higgins requested two new attorneys and a legal assistant to focus solely on intake to help deal with the backlog.
Commissioners unanimously approved his request.
“I’m pretty confident that within a year, we’ll be through it all,” Higgins said.