This change will no doubt assist at the margins with Travis County jail crowding and reduce front-end pressure on court dockets. Until an excellent recent report by the Waco Tribune-Herald, I hadn't realized what a large percentage of arrests by police don't result in prosecution - around half, in some jurisdictions. If the state won't be bringing charges, it makes a lot more sense for prosecutors refuse these cases up front instead of dismissing them months later after the county has paid for jail costs, indigent defense, court expenses, etc..
Travis County District Attorney Rosemary Lehmberg said today that she would soon assign a prosecutor to work overnight with police to evaluate new arrests and ferret-out any that are not legally and factually sufficient.
With the announcement Lehmberg, at right, is embracing a strategy that has been adopted by other large Texas counties but which she once said would not justify the cost in Austin. Lehmberg said she now believes the system could be implemented without additional funding and would strengthen prosecutions, provide immediate justice and avoid costly jail stays for defendants who would likely never be convicted.
“Even with good cases there are suggestions we make about gathering evidence and taking witness statements that always make it a better case,” Lehmberg said in an interview. “For those cases that are patently insufficient that individual shouldn’t be kept in jail.”
Lehmberg said the staffing details of the expanded arrest-review program have yet to be determined, but she hopes to initially have a prosecutor working at the downtown courthouse, jail and booking complex during the early morning hours after the bars close. Lehmberg said she would staff the expanded arrest-review system by asking prosecutors in her office to change their work hours, not by paying overtime.
Currently prosecutors are available on call overnight. Every morning at 7 a.m. a prosecutor reviews the probable-cause affidavits and police reports gathered since the close of business the day before, Lehmberg said.
“Hopefully it will make our jobs more efficient in the stream of cases from intake to trial,” she said, “and will give the police the kind of immediate feedback we want to give them on their cases.”
Lehmberg also said Friday that she plans to develop a deferred prosecution program to give some minor first-time felony offenders a chance to avoid a felony conviction if they satisfy certain requirements, such as completing community service or paying restitution.
I don't know what is the rate for arrests that don't result in prosecution in Travis (or for that matter, in other big Texas counties), but if it's anywhere close to the rates the Tribune found in mid-sized jurisdictions, that's a lot of wasted resources on cases that will never be prosecuted.
In Harris County, which has operated under a similar system for years, police must get every arrest pre-approved by prosecutors who are on call 24 hours a day, 365 days per year to evaluate cases. (See Murray Newman's description of Harris' system here and here.)
The other large Texas jurisdiction doing this is El Paso. There, because the county sheriff initially refused to use the direct filing system when DA Jaime Esparza first established it, for a time there existed a sort of natural comparison study that showed how much time can be saved: In direct-filed cases, prosecutors received offense reports within seven hours of an arrest; in cases processed with traditional methods, it took 19 days to get to that point, says Esparza. That's a huge difference.
Those interested may also want to check out a 2006 study (pdf) by the Texas Task Force on Indigent Defense analyzing this approach.
This tactic makes sense from every perspective and I'm glad to see Travis County finally embracing the idea.