Monday, April 28, 2008

Dallas courts slowed down after adding two new judges

I've had this story sitting in an open tab on my browser for a week meaning to mention an example of first-rate reporting on the local court system from Kevin Krause at the Dallas News ("Dallas County felony courts face rising case backlog," April 20), in which we learn that Dallas criminal courts are processing cases more slowly despite the addition of two new criminal courts. Indeed, according to this chart, the backlog of pending cases rose 43% from 2004 to 2008. Reported Krause:

Criminal District Courts 6 and 7 cost Dallas County taxpayers more than $2 million per year. But since they began operating, average monthly case dispositions – or case resolutions – are down in all 17 courts.

The reasons given for this vary, depending on whom you ask. The local criminal justice system has many parts, and defense lawyers and prosecutors can contribute to slow-moving cases. Some cases are more complex and difficult than others, and thus take longer to try. But judges play a big role, too – for example, in the speed with which they hear motions and make decisions.

The two courts were the first felony courts to be created in Dallas County in more than a dozen years. Dispositions dropped immediately after the courts were added in late 2005. Judges in most of the established 15 courts disposed of fewer cases on average than the year before; some had substantial drops.

One of those judges, Becky Gregory, who lost her re-election bid in 2006, said she didn't know why her dispositions fell 22 percent in 2006. She said more trials can have an effect because they can take up to a week.

Ms. Gregory, recently nominated as a U.S. attorney by President Bush, said higher case filings can also clog a docket. Case filings in the district courts increased 2 percent in 2006. ...

Among Texas' five largest counties, Dallas County district courts have the second lowest disposition rate, behind Bexar County, according to state figures. Disposition rates are one of the few ways to measure a judge's effectiveness on the bench.

Dispositions were up slightly during the first three months of the current fiscal year. But it's difficult to get an accurate picture without at least six months of data, court officials say.

And the two newer courts are still lagging behind the others in total dispositions.

When the courts began operations in November 2005, the judges received a portion of the other judges' caseloads. Many were old cases that were more likely to go to trial and thus take longer to resolve, the judges said.

"We got all the dog cases," said Livia Liu, former judge of Criminal District Court 7. "My focus at that point was trying to get old cases moving."

Ron Stretcher, the county's criminal justice director, said the newer courts don't handle as many probation violations as the others. When a judge revokes probation and sends someone to prison, it counts as a disposition.

The newer courts also aren't getting as many cases as the others, he said. Last fiscal year, the newer courts got about 1,690 cases each, while the other courts averaged about 1,960, Mr. Stretcher said.

I was particularly interested, and disappointed, to see that much of the delay can be attributed to changes by then-DA Bill Hill implemented after the Dallas fake drug scandal, which have also contributed significantly to county jail overcrowding, Krause reported:

From 1998 to 2001, Dallas County felony judges disposed of more cases than were filed. But that trend reversed in 2002, the same year former District Attorney Bill Hill's new policy began requiring testing of drug evidence before cases are filed.

The policy was intended to prevent another fake-drug scandal but also delayed cases. With more cases coming in than going out, the pending caseload has continued to climb – by 56 percent since 2002. That translates into higher costs for Dallas County, because it means more defendants are sitting in jail – at $41 each per day – awaiting disposition of their case.

About a third of inmates in the Dallas County jail system are awaiting dispositions of felony cases, according to recent county reports. Some can sit in jail for up to a year awaiting an outcome. Only those awaiting appeal spend more time on average in the jail.

The reason the jails aren't overflowing is that, beginning last year, Dallas County reduced the high number of low-level offenders in the jail system through expedited plea deals and other measures.

Finally, Krause reports on current proposals for improving court's disposition rates, and suggests that several courts' shift toward managing probationers in DWI and drug courts might contribute to the increased backlog:

For about two decades, Harris County has used a 24-hour intake system, in which people are booked and processed around the clock. As a result, almost 60 percent of Harris County's felony and misdemeanor cases are disposed of within 48 hours.

Dallas County is several months away from instituting its own 24-hour intake system, Dallas County Commissioner John Wiley Price said.

County officials and the district judges give different reasons for the growing caseload, but all say the judges are working hard.

Judge John Creuzot, the presiding judge of the felony courts, says the new Democratic judges are taking a different approach to justice.

They try to get probation violators back on track through treatment and monitoring instead of automatically sending them to prison, he said. "To say we didn't dispose of a case is not to say we didn't deal with a case," Judge Creuzot said.

Case backlogs are an important metric, but I'm uncomfortable with Krause's assessment, however common the sentiment, that "
Disposition rates are one of the few ways to measure a judge's effectiveness on the bench." That's only true if you accept the premise that a criminal court's main function is purely as a plea mill, maximizing the number of guilty verdicts as its sole measure of success. But that metric fails to measure most other things judges do.

For example, a judge who spends time exercising oversight of the probation department, which they govern as a local board, won't be disposing of cases but performs an important function that's part of her job. Similarly, the shift toward specialized drug and DWI courts assumes probationers' cases will stay in front of a judge longer and potentially come back more often. That's part of the nature of the beast - they're more labor intensive for the judiciary.

While I'm sure it's true the 2006 elections slowed down case disposition for a while, there's a good chance that trend will continue through these elections as well, so that excuse brings with it little comfort. A
43% increase in case backlog in four years borders on a crisis, particularly when it results in a full jail that the county can barely staff.

The 24/7 intake system soon coming online will help (see a discussion of the one in Harris County), but what else could Dallas do to resolve its growing backlog?

For starters, it sounds like judges need to consider expanded bond options in drug cases if the backlog from delays in testing evidence is causing long docket delays and filling up the jail. Hiring more public defenders and front-line prosecutors to move cases more quickly is one obvious solution, but that ball is in the county commissioners court's court.

What else could they do to speed up the process?


Anonymous said...

Speed does cut costs. I doubt speed furthers the cause of justice. I personally am waiting for the day when the accused refuse to accept pleas and demand the speedy trial they have a right to.

Informants receiving lesser punishment in exchange for snitching will be less of a problem when folks finally wise up and demand a trial in front of a jury.

An effective judicial system will be a lot cheaper and better for everyone than the cost of lock-em-up no matter what system we have now.

Anonymous said...

In most courts of you demand a speedy trial, you won't get one. If you file a continuance, they set you for trial immediately.

Anonymous said...

Grits, how about Collin County? I remember the percetnage for the probation in that county went up even after grant money. Does the fact that some cases, like those in Collin County, could be dismissed or plead out to save us tax payers some money on not so needed trials but instead the DA's, even in Dallas County, push for trials or something like that? Does the backlog have any affect on those people who were able to post bond or does it affect only those people who are still behind bars?

Anonymous said...

Admittedly this is a general statement but in my thirty plus years working in the courthouse, I have never known of a state district judge who died from overwork.

Anonymous said...

Cutesy comment about no judge dying from hard work overlooks Judge Byron Crozier who died at his desk in chambers in Drug Court.

Unknown said...

I was surprised to see that Bexar County Commissoner Adkisson, commended Grits for the work you are doing. When our county has one of the most dysfunctional court systems probably in the entire country. The back log of misdomeanor cases is staggering. I personally have been going to court of nearly two years and have yet to enter a plea in my case.

Grits please hold Mr. Adkisson and the County Judges accoutable because the way they administer state funds to public defenders who often ignor any serious work on behalf of their clients is distrubing at best. In fact I had to report one thug of an attorney to the State Bar. He is verbally abusive, uses foul language, and seems to have some racial disparities.