Friday, December 10, 2010

Majority of Texas criminal cases taken to trial in FY 2010 resulted in acquittal

Via Courtex, the Annual Report for the Texas Judiciary has been published for FY 2010 by the Office of Court Administration, covering the activities of the state's 3,378 elected and appointed judges. See the 86-page summary (pdf), from which I'll pull a few highlights.

Majority of tried cases result in acquittals; 98% of cases plea bargained
Overall, 97.8% of convictions resulted from a guilty or nolo contendre plea, and less than 2% of criminal cases go to trial. That said, of the 4,060 cases taken all the way through trial to a verdict in 2010 (whether before a judge or a jury), 51.7% resulted in acquittals (see the chart, p. 45). According to the same report (pdf, p. 41) from last year, just 27.9% of tried cases resulted in acquittals in FY 2009.

Juries electing death penalty less frequently
Despite widespread support for the death penalty in opinion polls, as Carl Reynolds pointed out, the polls that matter most (among jurors) are favoring capital punishment less and less frequently: "last year only 3 percent of capital convictions resulted in the death penalty, down from a high of 24 percent in 1992." I've gotta say, that's a remarkable decline.

Judiciary costs rising
Though it represents a relatively small portion of the state budget, costs for Texas' judiciary are already rising much more rapidly than inflation: "In FY 2010, state appropriations for the Texas judicial system increased by 12.03 percent from the previous fiscal year and accounted for approximately 0.36 percent of all state appropriations." Of those costs, "In FY 2010, salaries for district judges and travel expenses for those district judges with jurisdiction in more than one county accounted for 16.8 percent of appropriations for the judicial system, and judicial retirement and benefi ts comprised another 12.0 percent."

So you like your judges appointed?
In FY 2010, Gov. Rick Perry appointed 18 district court judges to replace those who retired or died in office, as well as five Court of Appeals judges (including two each on the 2nd and 5th Courts) and two Texas Supreme Court Justices.

Fewer opinions from the Texas Court of Criminal Appeals
Just a few highlights regarding the court's caseload:
In 2010, mandatory matters comprised 76.7 percent of all cases added to the docket.

Filings of mandatory matters decreased 10.8 percent from the previous year to 5,298 cases. In particular, direct appeals declined 9.9 percent to 201 cases, applications for writs of habeas corpus declined 11.1 percent to 4,329 cases, and original proceedings fell 9.2 percent to 768 cases.
Further, "The court denied 51.1 percent of applications for writs of habeas corpus (and dismissed another 33.5 percent)." Average processing time for habeas writs, according to the OCA, was a relatively quick 36 days (p. 27).

Perhaps notably, "The judges of the Court of Criminal Appeals issued 433 opinions in 2010, which is the lowest number of opinions issued since 1994. More than one-third (37.2 percent) of opinions were signed, 43.0 percent were per curiam, 9.2 percent were concurring, and 9.5 percent were dissenting."

Criminal cases half of appellate courts' caseload
Criminal cases accounted for 50.6% of the caseload at Texas' 14 intermediate Courts of Appeal. "Nearly 17 percent [of appellate filings] came from Harris County alone and 12.6 percent came from Dallas County."

Drug cases driving up trial court caseloads
Overall, "criminal filings decreased by 2.4 percent, and juvenile filings declined by 10.4 percent from 2009." That said, in the trial courts, during a period when crime generally has declined, "Three categories of criminal cases increased more than 100 percent over the past 20 years. Felony assault or attempted murder cases increased 113 percent; felony and misdemeanor drug offense cases increased 153 percent; and 'other' felonies increased 115 percent." The biggest caseload driver is the number of drug cases, which exceeded 160,000 statewide in FY 2008 (compared to fewer than 60,000 drug cases statewide in FY 1991). "Drug offenses (drug possession, sale, and manufacture) accounted for the largest share (28.0 percent) of criminal filings."

At county courts of law, "Criminal cases continued to constitute a large majority of the courts’ caseload (68.6 percent). The number of criminal cases added in 2010 declined for a third consecutive year, for a total decline of 12.0 percent since 2007." Criminal cases made up 87% of justice of the peace caseloads in FY 2010.

What explains drop in traffic court caseloads?
Perhaps the most remarkable statistic in the report - heaven knows I can't explain it - relates to traffic court caseloads: "In 2007, traffic cases represented the criminal case category with the most substantial growth over the last 20 years. From 1988 to 2007, traffic cases grew 296 percent. From 2007 to 2009, the number of traffic cases dropped 69 percent to a level lower than the number filed in 1990. In 2010, the number of traffic cases increased slightly to 24,677, which was nearly equal to the number filed in 1990." I understand why the number of traffic cases was growing, but I sure don't understand the 69% decline. Maybe some savvy reader can fill me in.

Filed juvenile cases down 10%
The number of juvenile cases filed in 2010 declined a whopping 10% from 2009, despite a dramatically lower youth prison population.


Anonymous said...

3378 appointed/elected judges.

4060 jury trials statewide.

Damn, that's nearly one trial per year per judge.

Plus - 50% of jury trials end in acquital? No wonder DA's prefer to play Let's Make a Deal where they have a 98% conviction rate.


Gritsforbreakfast said...

Plato, to clarify, some of those were bench trials, not just jury trials. 4,060 was the total for both types.

Anonymous said...

Lower traffic offenses could be related to driver's deciding to slow down due to excessive fuel prices and possible the much disliked Surcharge program.

quash said...

Wow, that big traffic drop is ahead of the curve. I fully expected a drop when the constables lost their traffic duties, but that was 2010 n0t 2009.

Anonymous said...

98% of cases plea bargained? Maybe this is why "junk science" doesn't get vetted sooner.

Remove the plea bargaining option and attorneys will have to actually understand science and not just pretend to understand science.

Anonymous said...

I would love to see the indicators for the decline in juvenile cases. I think it is likely due to more youth being transferred to the adult system.

Soronel Haetir said...


A question, is that figure for trials that ended with outright acquittal (the fact finder returned not guilty on all charges), acquittal on the top charge but guilty on some of the lesser included offenses, or some other mix?

I would say that it would be very misleading if it's including cases where convictions did result, even if not on the most serious charge(s). Perhaps not quite as misleading if the top charges are felonies but the defendant was convicted of misdemeanors.

Also, reading on page 45 (I think, it's hard for me to know Acrobat is not friendly for the blind) there is this statement:

Of the 3,505 criminal cases that went to trial, 76.2 percent were tried before a jury. Defendants were convicted in 77.7 percent of cases that went to jury trial, compared to 54.3 percent of cases decided by a judge.

That obviously does not match your headline, so which of us went wrong and where?

It would be extremely misleading if the 4060 is mixing civil and criminal court outcomes.

Gritsforbreakfast said...

Soronel, you're looking at the 2009 data; the comparable sentence in the 2010 report jibes with my headline: "Of the 4,060 cases that went to trial, 62.4 percent were tried before a jury. Defendants were convicted in 58.2 percent of cases that went to jury trial, compared to 31.7 percent that were convicted in cases that were decided by a judge."

These are definitely ONLY criminal trials, not mixed with civil, and I don't see any reason from the data to think the acquittals listed are mixed with convictions. I doubt they'd mix "convictions" with "acquittals" when "convictions" has its own row in the table.

Gritsforbreakfast said...

8:22, actually juveniles aren't transferred to the adult system at nearly that rate - just a handful a year. It wouldn't remotely amount to 10% of juvenile crime.

Anonymous said...

I'd have never guessed it's a 50-50 chance. Roll those bones, baby!

Anonymous said...

I don't think that it is certifications. I think a significant portion is related to the change in age of TYC. Youth are simply out of the TYC system and into the adult system at a much earlier age now than before. There is limited latitude for the 16 year old probationer that violates as a 17 year old. Those cases are not being handled in the juvenile court anymore. Send em on up to the adult system. No time for the serious offender in TYC.

I will add that another significant factor is likely increased juvenile probation dollars and prevention.

Anonymous said...

Even if a juvenile is later certified as an adult, the case is still filed as a juvenile case in juvenile courts.

Anonymous said...

Grits -- doesn't the chart on page 45 only refer to county-level courts, as the heading on page 43 states? There is a separate chart on page 39 for district courts, in which 71.3% of trials resulted in conviction, and another chart later for municipal courts, etc. Your post makes it seem those county stats apply statewide at all levels. State prosecutors aren't quite so bad as that! Correction, please?

Soronel Haetir said...


I know this is perhaps a little late but thanks. Like I said, Acrobat is not at all friendly for me to use. I still can't see anything for the passage I quoted that would indicate that it is for last year but I'll trust you on that since I know poorly formatted documents often have sections skipped by my screen reader.