El Paso DA Jaime Esparza gave a presentation this week at a conference of the Texas Task Force on Indigent Defense about his county's upgraded information management system (DIMS), which allows police to immediately file cases with the DA instead of having prosecutors wait to evaluate the case until after the defendant sees a judge.
Harris County, he said, had the first direct filing system in the state. (See excellent bloggerly descriptions of Harris County's system here and here.) In Harris, police must get every arrest pre-approved by prosecutors who are on call 24 hours a day, 365 days per year to evaluate cases at the time of arrest. That eliminates needless delays that in other counties strand people in jail for days or weeks who will never actually be prosecuted.
Esparza declared law enforcement must get away from the idea that arrest is punishment, citing the old cops' adage enshrined in Grits' masthead - "you might beat the rap but you won't beat the ride." That approach maximizes cost to taxpayers and distorts the justice system with little public safety benefit.
There are 3 basic models used by different counties to arrest and charge people with a crime, said Esparza, and most use the third, most cumbersome one. They are:
- Arrest - Charge - Jail
- Arrest - Charge - Magistrate - Jail
- Arrest - Magistrate - Jail - Charge
Esparza explained the core assumption behind the system: Most cases are routine. On misdemeanor cases and low-level felonies, in particular, typically once a police car leaves the scene, they're never coming back. It's those routine cases (not more complex ones like murder or sexual assault) where the direct filing has the biggest impact.
Making charging decisions earlier in the process - in El Paso it happens before a defendant is ever booked into jail - reduces jail overcrowding and helps process court dockets more quickly.
In Harris County, he said, 25% of direct-filed cases are completed in just three days; that figure was 15% in El Paso, but it would be zero without the DIMS system.
For routine cases, there's a pre-set bond schedule so defendants can actually bond out BEFORE magistration. (That potentially saves the county money on indigent defense costs because, according to Indigent Defense Task Force chief Jim Bethke, if there's no magistration hearing, requirements to appoint counsel under the Rothgery ruling aren't triggered, a particular boon whenever charges aren't ultimately filed.)
Even for defendants who remain in jail, overall detention rates are lower with direct filing and cases are resolved much faster, reducing the length of pretrial incarceration. El Paso has an open file policy, so the DA's full file on the case is given to defense counsel within 24 hours.
While it might seem like being on call 24-hours a day would put a strain on prosecutors, as it turns out they're paid time and a half when working non-standard hours, so prosecutors tend to consider it a plum and seek out the assignment. Even with extra costs for prosecutors, though, overall savings to the county from DIMS has been about $1.49 million per year, said Esparza, mostly from reduced jail costs.
El Paso's Sheriff initially refused to participate and while that created headaches for the DA, it also created a situation where researchers could evaluate differences in cases depending on how they were filed. El Paso prosecutors receive offense reports an average of 7 hours after an arrest using the DIMS system. By contrast, offense reports for El Paso's non-DIMS cases take an average of 19 days to reach a prosecutor. That's a big difference!
In the meantime, taxpayers pay for the defendant to sit in jail, even though 19% of cases brought by police to the DA in El Paso don't result in prosecution, said Esparza (a figure which closely corresponds to the statewide average of 18%). In Harris County, according to our pal at the blog Life at the Harris County Criminal Justice Center, the arresting officer must phone the on-call Assistant DA, describe the incident and get agreement about the proposed charge up front, which prevents jailing people who will never charged.
When El Paso began using the DIMS system, said Esparza, the county jail was so crowded that officers were in many cases forced to give summons instead of making arrests. Now, he said, the county actually leases jail beds to the feds to generate extra income because the DIMS system reduced the jail population to such an extent. It's hard to argue with that kind of success.
RELATED: See this study of direct filing systems (pdf) by the Task Force on Indigent Defense.