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Criminal Justice

Funding Shortfalls Hamper Bexar County Courts

Bexar County Courthouse
Paul Flahive
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The Bexar County jail and courts are facing a historic backlog of cases — and some personnel and programs needed to tackle the problem aren’t currently funded.

Bexar County Commissioners approved a $2.8 billion budget two weeks ago, and yet millions of dollars have yet to be negotiated or approved for the courts, and it isn’t clear what will get funded.

The additional funding requests come despite commissioners adding more than $3 million to criminal justice programs the past two years.

On the criminal court side, the need stems from a pandemic-driven backlog of cases. Jury trials were halted for more than a year. The county restarted them on June 1, with an estimated 70% backlog.

District Attorney Joe Gonzales estimated in May it could take months or years to catch back up.

That effort was hamstrung again by the pandemic, which led to the suspension of jury trials for two months.

They are scheduled to resume Monday, and they face a backlog bigger than the one on June 1.

A lack of funding for several of the county's 13 specialty courts — which deal with things like mental health, and veterans — left them out of compliance with their grant funding requirements because they don’t have investigators, according to the criminal district courts.

In addition, an a funding request for around $70,000 to add jury room personnel was declined, leaving the county currently able to seat only about one-third the number of juries it could.

The funding shortfalls occurred despite more than $5.5 million left in county coffers, unapproved and without a plan for distribution, according to Ron Rangel, Bexar County’s administrative judge, who oversees the county auditor's office.

“My hope is that in the coming weeks those issues are resolved,” Rangel said.

Without more funding, he said, the judiciary won’t be able to fully function, and the county’s reform efforts will be hampered.

It isn’t clear what will be funded, but it is clear that the county’s district attorney, public defender, jail and courts face large challenges from the deluge of cases.

“These are people’s lives so we need to be good stewards, but make sure that people get their day in court,” said Justin Rodriguez, commissioner for Precinct 2.

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Brian Kirkpatrick | Texas Public Radio
Bexar County Sheriff, Javier Salazar (left), Justin Rodriguez and Judge Nelson Wolff

Rodriguez said some of the funding requests came at the last minute, like funding for the children’s court, without time to review. It and other court funding issues, he said, would be looked at on Oct. 19, including funding for the jury room.

“We’ve got a big operation,” he added. “We’ve got over a $2 billion budget and 4,000 employees... These are loose ends to tie up and I anticipate taking care of them pretty quickly.”

One area of great concern to civil judges is the volume of Child Protective Services and family violence cases. Thirty-six women were murdered by intimate partners in Bexar County last year, and according to the DA’s office, its caseloads for prosecutors in children's court are twice as large as other urban counties, with 325 child cases per lawyer. But unlike criminal courts, the volume predates the pandemic and has been steadily building for years.

The civil court awaits news on whether $1.8 million will be allotted to allow it to begin a third children’s court with contracts for domestic violence and abuse services.

“If we don’t have the funding for our courts, it's our families and children who are going to suffer,” Judge Monique Diaz said.

The court received partial funding from commissioners, including a judge and a few staff. County staffers said it was enough to add the court. Judges disagreed.

“We made the determination that as generous as it was, we don't believe that we could fully operate that court without the appropriate staff and equipment that's necessary,” Judge Rosie Alvarado explained at a recent meeting of the commissioners court.

Alvarado estimated it would cost an additional $732,181 to fully fund it. Ultimately, funding wasn’t increased but Rodriguez motioned for $1.8 million in additional funding to be discussed on Oct. 19. In addition to a Children's Court judge, they are hoping to fund another judge position to deal with overflow from presiding court. Funding could come from either the general fund or the federal funded American Rescue Plan Act.

“I think we are bordering on a crisis of funding here. I think now more than ever we need to make significant investments in our judiciary."
Judge Monique Diaz

“I think we are bordering on a crisis of funding here. I think now more than ever we need to make significant investments in our judiciary,” Diaz said in an interview with TPR.

Diaz said commissioners court has done a lot to address their needs, including adding $1.3 million to assist with family violence.

“We added additional prosecutors. We added money to domestic violence in January — out of budget cycle — so it’s not fair to say we have ignored the issues,” Rodriguez said.

The judges TPR spoke to agreed that commissioners court has done a lot for the system, and they expressed gratitude, but they also said more effort and more funding for those efforts are needed.

One issue is the volume of cases. It has grown for years, just as Bexar County’s population has grown. In children's court, Bexar County continues to have the highest rate of child removals in the state.

The intense dockets have reduced the ability for judges to stay current on case law, and in children’s courts, they don’t allow judges to dig deep with questions, which often require more care.

“In Bexar County we have one of the best ratios of civil cases disposed of per judge in all of Texas but we consistently have the worst ratio of judges per population and cases per judge… and that speaks volumes,” Diaz explained.

The backlog for criminal cases has persisted. About 30,000 felony and misdemeanor cases were actively awaiting trial when the county restarted jury trials on June 1. It now numbers 31,150, according to the DA’s office.

The district attorney's office was able to add some positions, including one to address elder fraud. It did not receive funding for all the positions it wanted to add, receiving less than half of the $3.38 million it requested.

“I'm always a person that says that we're understaffed and we could always use more, but I'm very appreciative with the support that we have been getting from the commissioner's court,” said Joe Gonzales, Bexar County district attorney.

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Joey Palacios / Texas Public Radio
Bexar County District Attorney Joe Gonzales

The county needs to increase the number of trials it conducts in a week. Currently, it can hold only four. According to a memo obtained by TPR, funding for additional jury room staff wasn’t approved.

“No department of local government has been hindered more thoroughly by the COVID-19 pandemic than our Central Jury Room,” wrote Rangel in a Sept. 13 letter to county commissioners.

In the memo, Rangel implores them to reconsider funding that hasn’t been approved. Rangel called the oversight a mistake. He explained that the more than $66,000 would have been used to hire two new staffers to help select juries.

Unlike the Children’s Court request, which commissioners complained was submitted late, without the time to evaluate it, the needs of the criminal district court have been well known, and the budget was submitted well in advance of budget discussion.

The memo argues that with additional staff, the district courts could seat three times as many juries.

“Without additional resources, the Central Jury Room will not be able to operate five days a week, impacting jail populations, and risking public safety,” Rangel wrote.

The backlog has exacerbated an already high jail population. Bexar County’s jail has swelled to over 4,500 people. The sheriff has repeatedly expressed frustration over the high number and the toll it’s taken on prisoners and staff.

The sheriff’s office did not respond to TPR’s requests for comment.

“We're looking at cases that are nonviolent, low level offenders. If they're not a danger to the community, we want to see if we can do something to resolve their cases and get them released,” Gonzales said.

COVID has made the job of selecting juries difficult not only because the courts have to increase the number of people they summon and invite to serve, but because the pandemic precautions used to seat them have made the job more cumbersome.

Right now, court officials have to vet people by Zoom call. This takes much more time than in-person sorting. It takes more staff and more attention.

And Zoom isn’t for everyone. The past three months the court has received more than 17,000 calls requesting assistance from residents trying to use the internet communication platform. But the memo from Rangel notes they can only staff the phone half the day. This resulted in more than 6,700 calls going unanswered.

Public budget discussions were particularly contentious this year, as battles around a symbolic tax cut dominated much of the discussion. The budget process was also especially complex.

“This has been the most difficult budget I've been through. I've never seen so many late motions that just threw everybody off,” said Judge Nelson Wolff on the day they passed the budget.

The county has been dealing with the pandemic for two years, and it’s made tens of millions of dollars in investments in things to abate the disease, telework, and assist people carry on throughout. But it has also seen record property tax collection, and it received $389 million in federal ARPA funds. It currently has more than $5.5 million in the bank.

Rodriguez described the facilitation of cases and speedy trials to TPR this spring as a core function of the county. He said it was unacceptable for the backlog to continue for years, as the DA’s office had predicted it possibly could.

In coming weeks it will become clear whether the county wants to fund more tools to address it.

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