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COVID-19 places a strain on the criminal justice system in Bell County

Posted at 7:42 PM, Jan 29, 2021
and last updated 2021-01-29 20:42:03-05

In a typical year, hallways in courtrooms are bustling, lawyers are fighting for their clients and sometimes there’s even a gallery.

This year, COVID-19 has put a stop to in-person court cases.

“Victims and other family members would be present to watch the proceeding as they would want,” said Bell County District Attorney Henry Garza, reminiscing on court hearings of the past. “Today, you know, you capture an image of what's going on, like clicking onto a live stream.”

Garza and most others in the criminal justice system have had to adjust, such as fighting for justice through a computer screen and watching jury trials get placed on the back-burner.

“It’s like taking the Starship Enterprise and just gutting it and keeping it operational,” he said.

While criminals don’t take days off, neither can these folks. But as court case hearings pile up, other sectors of the court system are affected.

“When they’re consumed with these felony cases, it creates a burden on the jail as well,” said Justin Kelly with the Bell County’s Sheriff's Department.

It’s another reason why Bell County is calling on Texas legislatures to approve additional district courts for the area. County officials say as the population continues to grow, felony case counts follow.

”Dealing with population growth, there’s a whole infrastructure that has to grow with it,” Kelly said.

For now, frustrations flare across the criminal justice system, as defendants wait for their trials and victims and their loved ones wait for their turn in court.

”They have not been forgotten. One of these days, we will get back closer to normal and then be able to push through their day in court as well,” Garza explained.

He also added that when criminal trials are back to normal, he plans to shift his focus to resolve as many of those as he can. The Texas Supreme Court pushed jury trials back to at least April 1, 2021, but Garza hopes that delay won’t last all year.