Saturday, January 02, 2010

Texas' 2009 judiciary by the numbers

The FY 2009 annual report on the Texas Judiciary (pdf) from the Office of Court Administration came out last month and included a number of notable tidbits related to criminal cases that deserve Grits readers attention.

Trials extremely rare
In district courts, "Less than 2 percent of all cases (excluding transfers and motions to revoke probation) went to trial in 2009. Trial rates were significantly higher, however, in capital murder and murder cases, which went to trial in 24.3 percent and 20.2 percent of cases, respectively." In county courts, which handle misdemeanors, only one percent of cases went to trial.

Prosecutor background predominates among judges
Among Texas' 434 district judges, 37% had prior experience as a prosecutor, while just 15% had experience as a lower court judge.

Ousting judges at the ballot box
Among state appellate and district judges, 6.6% in 2009 left office as a result of losing a primary or general election in 2008 - a bit of a surprising number which was bolstered substantially by Democratic gains in the judiciary in Harris County. An equal number resigned or chose not to seek reelection.

Some types of cases growing faster than population, crime rate
According to the annual report, "Four categories of criminal cases increased more than 100 percent over the past 20 years. Misdemeanor assault cases (filed in county-level courts) increased 169 percent; felony assault or attempted murder cases increased 131 percent; felony and misdemeanor drug offense cases increased 144 percent; and “other” felonies increased 116 percent."

These growth rates far outstrip Texas' population expansion over the same period and come during a time when crime overall has been declining. As such, these types of cases contribute to a bloated justice system, and particularly highlight the role of prosecutorial discretion: Incidents that 20 years ago would not bring criminal charges now are more likely to face accusations of misdemeanor assault. More serious assaults are more likely to be charged as felonies or attempted murder. Drug crimes - mostly possession cases - are being prosecuted at much higher rates than before. And as for "other, this is a function of the proliferation of boutique crimes through the dozens of new crimes and "enhancements" passed by the Texas Legislature every two years (including 59 new felonies created in 2009). These data explain why incarceration pressures continue to increase even during periods of reduced crime rates.

Juvie cases decline rapidly
One of the most startling pieces of data came on the juvenile front: "The number of cases addedto the juvenile dockets of district and county-level courts in 2009—44,257 cases—was 10.1 percent lower than the number added during the previous year and was the lowest number added since 1999 (44,003 cases)." Some of that's the result of demographic shifts and declining juvenile crime, but I wonder what other factors contributed? That seems like a big one-year dropoff.

Local practices clearly vary widely. In Harris County, youth are charged with crimes at double the rate of kids in Dallas or Fort Worth. In Harris, 3.0 new cases per 1,000 kids were filed in 2009; in Dallas and Tarrant Counties the figure was 1.3 and 1.2 respectively. A few rural counties have rates as high as 4-10 cases added per every 1,000 kids.

Juries giving fewer death sentences
At the trial court level, the percentage of capital murder convictions statewide resulting in the death penalty has declined remarkably steadily since 1990 from 24.4% to just 5% last year. Some of that's a function of the creation of life without parole as a sentencing option in 2005, but a chart on p. 41 of the report shows that the decline actually began in the mid-90s.

Fewer opinions from the CCA
Judges on the Court of Criminal Appeals issued 447 opinions in 2009, which is the lowest number of opinions issued since 1994 when Sharon Keller was elected Presiding Judge. Less than one-third (29.3 percent) of 2009 opinions were signed, 47.4 percent were per curiam, 12.5 percent were concurring, and 10.1 percent were dissenting.

Discretionary review by CCA varies widely by appeals court
There was wide variation in how frequently the CCA granted petitions for discretionary review in criminal cases from the various Courts of Appeals, from 2.5% from the 14th court in Houston, to 35.5% from the 3rd Court of Appeals out of Austin. A lower rate means the CCA agrees with the court more often, and vice versa. I compiled the rates for each appellate court in this table:

Interestingly, though the 14th court in Houston has the lowest number of PDRs granted, Harris County according to the report has the largest number of criminal cases overall appealed to higher courts.

Cashing in on court collections
Justice of the Peace courts have turned into cash cows, but the amount of revenue they generate may have peaked.
The amount of fines, fees and court costs collected by justice courts generally increased over the past 20 years; however, in 2009, courts collected approximately $372.5 million—a decrease of 1.5 percent from the amount collected the previous year. The amount collected in 2009 was 230 percent higher than that collected in 1990, or 90.3 percent higher when adjusted for inflation.
By contrast, municipal courts have seen even greater revnue growth, which continued last year and seems to know no limits:
In 2009, [municipal] courts collected approximately $734 million—an increase of 1.2 percent from the previous year. The amount collected in 2009 was 287.3 percent higher than that collected 20 years previously in 1990, or 123.1 percent higher when adjusted for inflation.
These growth rates far outstrip population growth.

These are just a few highlights from the jam-packed 89-page report, so those interested in more detail should check out the whole thing.


ckikerintulia said...

Scott, I couldn't but notice the wide range in % of CCA PDRs from court to court. Any thoughts on what it means?

Gritsforbreakfast said...

Well, the CCA is the most prosecution-friendly court in the state. So a small number means the Court of Appeals agrees with that philosophy and a larger number means they're more "moderate," though in this context that's a misleading term.

There are courts of appeal whose ideology are essentially similar to the CCA, and only a tiny fraction of appeals from those courts are ever heard. A higher number means the CCA "disagrees with" the lower court more often.

In partisan terms, the Austin court is split 50/50 R-D (all the others are majority R), so that means they must find some manner of bipartisan agreement in order to reach a majority in every case. More than one in three appeals from that court get heard.

Anonymous said...

Although I think I intuitively understand what Grits is talking about, could I possibly get a definition of a "boutique crime"?

Anonymous said...

Lordy, Grits, must everything be filtered through your liberalness? Couldn't it also be possible that prosecutors have chosen cases well and tried them fairly?

Anonymous said...

It appears that the reforms in TYC are now beginning to show and have useful effects. Finally, good change for the ruptured system.

Anonymous said...

Nonsense. The "reforms" merely ejected kids from TYC. Then the Leg sealed the door for re-entry. That isn't reform. That is merely success by exclusion.

Anonymous said...

Old School, 50, get with the recognized improved programs. Once the old timers are pushed out of the way, reforms can continue.

Anonymous said...

When a jp court boasts '99.99%' (or thereabouts) conviction rate that is a travesty; and that is J.Kent Adams Harris County Pct 4 JP money mill.

Anonymous said...

Hey Grits,

Here's a new one. Drug hits on house and police do a knock and talk.

Whatcha think?

'Knock and talk' yields drug seizure

By CASEY BUECHEL - Tribune Staff Writer
Saturday, January 2, 2010 12:53 PM CST

Not all drug seizures are found along the nation's interstate highways or on commercial buses.

In the same vein, not all drug seizures are measured in huge quantities.

Sometimes it's where the drugs are found that's important.

Especially when the drugs are seized within sight of one of our city's schools.

On Wednesday, Dec. 30, at approximately 1:30 a.m., officers with the Mount Pleasant Police Department (MPPD) and the MPPD Special Crimes Division initiated a "knock and talk" at a residence located at 115-A Florey Street in Mount Pleasant.Â

The MPPD K-9 unit with Officer Joshua Hatfield and K-9 officer "Rico," along with SCU Sgt. Cesar Munoz and Detective Simon Porter, had been conducting an investigation on the residence and at approximately 1:35 a.m., K-9 "Rico" gave an indication of a positive alert on the residence.Â

Contact was made with the family living at the residence and the officers received consent to search the home.

During the search, officers located several baggies full of suspected marijuana, weighing approximately more than two ounces. As the search progressed, the officers were able to develop other evidence during the investigation as well.Â

Officers determined the main suspect in the possession of the marijuana was allegedly 18-year old Moises Martinez, who was at work at the time of the search.

After the search, officers were able to make contact with Martinez at his place of employment where he was advised of his rights and he cooperated with detectives.Â

Martinez was taken into custody and charged with possession of marijuana >2ounces <4ounces within a drug free zone, which is a state jail felony.Â

If convicted, Martinez faces up to two years in a state jail facility and/or up to a $10,000 fine.

"Although two ounces of suspected marijuana is not by any means considered a large or major narcotics seizure by SCU or K-9 Officers, the importance of this seizure and felony arrest lies in the fact it was found so close to a private school located in the 300 block of Florey Street," said Munoz.

"Our main goal in each of the narcotics busts we initiate is an attempt to keep suspected marijuana like this and other drugs as far away from our schools and our community as possible," Munoz continued.

"We will continue to fight the drugs on our streets and will relentlessly pursue those participating in these criminal acts near our children," he added

Anonymous said...

This is not a place for a 'book', so get with the program. Back off the feel sorry stuff. Druggies get what they deserve.

Gritsforbreakfast said...

11:55, when I say "boutique crime" I'm referring to offenses proposed or enhanced by special interests. E.g., oyster crimes are proposed by the oyster industry. Ranchers recently pushed to make it a felony to steal a single, $35 goat. The construction industry got it made a felony to steal a single strand of copper wire. These offenses are pushed by special interests and typically ignore the usual offense categories to maximize punishment for often relatively minor offenses.

12:03 - Nobody knows what in the world you're talking about - this post is about judges, not prosecutors, and thus your statement makes no sense.

7:35, that's not a new one, but if the residents had refused consent they'd have needed a warrant to search. A K-9 sniff is PC to search your car, but not your house.

Citizen Joe said...

I see you have the stats from the court system on juveniles but are you able to get the stats from the actual probation departments since typically juvenile crime is referred to the probation department initially. It'd be interesting to see the difference between the number of cases that are referred to the probation department compared to the number of cases referred or filed with the court system. Misdemeanors aren't always referred to courts. Juvenile probation departments are allowed to put kids on deferred in the office without always a prosecutor or judges input. While it may be the accurate stat of the comparison from year to year of numbers referred to the court system, I don't see the court system stats being an actual reflection of the overall juvenile cases stats.

Anonymous said...

Thanks, Grits, on your explanation of "boutique crimes". I suspected that is what it was, but I couldn't articulate it. Actually, it reflects the traditional legislative system in Texas where industry purchases laws. "Boutique crimes" are about offenses (or behaviors) which are particularly troublesome, or particularly anger, some special interest. So, the special interest purchases an Act or amendment from the legislature to make the specific offense outrageously serious and to carry Draconian penalties. It would be nice if poor people could pass a few "boutique crimes"!

Anonymous said...

10:40.......look at TJPC's web site and you can get all the stats, by county, that you wish. Grits - it's also interesting when you chart the umber of "referrals" to JPD's over the past ten years or so. "Referrals" have declined drastically.

Your Mama said...

Anonymous 08:42:00, A comment to discourage long winded comments not in line with you & your personal interest has pulled your panties too tight. Well, Mama found a book to sooth your nerves little girl, everythings gonna be ok. Wipe away the tears and sit on Mama's lap, there, there.

This book is about you "Anonymous 08:42:00". (it is obvious you are also 12:03:00)

Once upon a time there was very good blog strangly named Gritsforbreakfast where comments came from un-subs and the known alike.

Soon after it's inception, the gang calling itself "Anonymous" attempted to take it over. We tried to ignore them but they just kept coming.

The gang was soon joined by spell-checkers and gramatically correct jerkweeds of the net as they did their very best to keep everyone in line and save the grading curve. Despite the blog's owner having his name located on the homepage for everyone to see somehow the Anonymous copied & pasted their names right over it.

The archives is loaded with Anonymous comments that would other wise get a person's ass beat down in a jail cell or on a street corner. Bullies and punks continued to hide behind keyboards with a switchblade mouse at the ready to jump at the chance to correct other peoples actions and/or thoughts.

We still try to ignore them but they just keep poping up. This short book should send a few over the edge and hopefully insane. Former career prosecutors and the like are here to stay, for it's one of the few places where they can defend and attack without anyone but the orginal owner knowing their true identity. Now it's 2010, and we'll have to wait and see if everyone lives happily ever after. Now , brush your teeth and get ready for bed.

Blog away Scott and hopefully the Anonymous will find another blog to hijack. Or maybe think about assigning each Anonymous's email address with their very own avatar so we can associate certain behavior with a certain individual.

What am I saying this is your blog, I'm sorry, what the hell was Mama thinking.

BTW, the Post was very informative & useful. Thank you.

Grandmom said...

What really interests me is the ratio of granted to refused appeals and how many of those refused were later found to be innocent by the Innocence Project and DNA testing. Do you know?

Anonymous said...

Grits says: "A higher number [of PDRs granted] means the CCA "disagrees with" the lower court more often."

Doesn't this assume that the CCA reversed the COA in every petition that was granted? What about the cases where the CCA affirmed the COA? Did that happen this year or did the CCA reverse the COA every time they granted discretionary review? The rest of the Grits "analysis" apparently assumes that the CCA chooses what opinions it will review. Do we have any idea how many PDRs the CCA granted on its own motion?

Gritsforbreakfast said...

6:00, I didn't say they reversed on all of them. But unless they disagree with the lower court ruling or there are conflicting rulings among appellate courts, there's no reason to grant the PDR.

PDR stands for "petition for discretionary review. So contrary to your comments, these cases are considered at the CCA's "discretion." That means that among this subset of cases, it's precisely the case that "CCA chooses what opinions it will review." That's what "discretion" means.

There are mandatory cases like habeas claims and death penalty appeals where the CCA has no discretion not to review the case. That's not what these data refer to.

Anonymous said...

CCA 1 very seldom reviews a case if the District Judge doesnot sign the case but merely sends the appeal to them and without a signature, they just file it and deny the appeal. But one has to remember they live right down the street and more than likely lunch together and meet at the country club, so this is why CCA 1 needs to be cleaned out.

Why would a District Judge have the right to decide if an appeal is heard or not? If that Judge subsided over the trial, then that Judge should be exempt from determining whether an appeal is heard or not. Texas Judicial System is screwed up and there needs to a complete overhaul done. Deferred Adjudications need to be removed after the requirments have been met and give each and every person a right to have a life. PublicData, should be disolved and done away with, that service has far outlived itself and does more harm than they could have ever done good.

Anonymous said...


Off the topic but do you have any case cites where the police can come onto your property without a warrant and do a knock and talk? It seems if they were not called to your home and they had no warrant that they would have no legal standing to come onto your property. Any case cites where they can bring a drug dog onto your property without a warrant to do an open air sniff?

If the dog is on not on your property when it alerts, do the courts recognize these alerts as pc to obtain a warrant? I'm trying to figure how the dog can alert, lets say from a sidewalk, that a particular house surrounded by other houses contains drugs.

Gritsforbreakfast said...

6:24, see the Caballes and Kyollo cases from SCOTUS. Kyollo seemingly would prohibit such as an illegal search, but then Caballes opened the door by saying that if dogs are only looking for illegal contraband, it's not technically a search because the person has no legal right to possess drugs.

To my knowledge, I don't think there's a specific SCOTUS case on point about a drug dog sniffing outside your house.

Don Cruse said...

The court-by-court rates for PDRs are very interesting -- you may see a post about them on my blog, if I can find some time. At first glance, those rates look pretty different for criminal cases than for civil ones.

As for your comment about the Third Court being a 3-3 partisan split, you're right. But that doesn't mean that the Justices have to work toward a bipartisan result in every case. The court sits in two panels of three Justices, rotating membership twice a year. Right now, the two panels happen to break down as 2-1 Republican and 2-1 Democratic. (Most decisions out of an intermediate court of appeals are of course unanimous, regardless.)