CORPUS CHRISTI, Texas — Since 1977, the Nueces County Courthouse has held up to 24 jury trials every week.
Since March 2020, the COVID-19 pandemic has reduced the number of criminal trials to two a week, creating a backlog that some defense attorneys have said is causing defendants to plead out -- whether they have committed the offense or not.
One such defense attorney says he has multiple clients who have each been in jail for 526 days without a conviction, or their day in court.
"If you've been held on an accusation for six months in county jail, and you're too poor to pay for a bond, so you're not going to get out of the jail," said defense attorney Kyle Hoelscher. "And then, the prosecutor comes with an offer that says, 'Well, we'll give you six months in jail, time served and you'll be out tomorrow. Or you could go to trial and you might be in there for another year and a half.' What's a reasonable person going to do?"
But presiding court judge David Stith disputes this, adding it is the job of both the defense and prosecuting attorneys to make sure innocent people do not accept guilty pleas.
"The pleas that I've taken, obviously, they're very serious," he said. "And the pleas I've taken, I'm very comfortable that the people are guilty. I wouldn't if I had an indication that somebody was not guilty and was pleading to just get out of jail. I wouldn't do that."
Stith argues that there are safeguards in place to protect innocent people from taking pleas.
Meanwhile, defense attorney Lisa Greenberg says the backlog in the court system disproportionately impacts poor defendants. She adds that the novel coronavirus has shone a light on a system that was already broken.
"Justice has always been more available to those with means," she said. "And now with COVID, and with the governor's order, people who cannot make bond and are not allowed a personal recognizance bond sit in jail. Those include the poor. Those include the mentally ill, who need rehabilitation services. Those include the people that maybe don't have access to health care."
In Nueces County, Stith says at the beginning of the pandemic 117th District Court Judge Sandra Watts examined ways to reform bail. This including releasing prisoners on reduced bond, or on personal recognizance.
"We have an objection questionnaire that we, as judges, review, when somebody just gets into jail; future dangerousness; criminal history," he said. "So we get a good idea of whether this person is safe to get even a PR bond or a lower bond."
He added a person's financial background doesn't enter into the evaluation of whether they qualify for a reduced bond or personal recognizance bond.
But, even a reduced bond amount can be cost-prohibitive for some individuals, Greenberg said. If they are required to wear an ankle monitor, that costs $200 a month. And pre-trial probation carries a cost as well. Meanwhile, people have put their lives on hold while they wait for a trial, which is still months away.
During a Friday Council of Judges meeting, Watts said 410 felony inmates are ready for trial and have been in the Nueces County jail for more than 100 days.
This is creating a backlog in the jails, said Nueces County Sheriff J. C. Hooper. He urged the judges to begin holding more trials.
Stith said Monday that a reevaluation of whether the courts will begin to hold more trials will happen at the beginning of September.