Sunday, January 27, 2019

County Judge blames #txlege for indigent defense costs, but local officials' choices are to blame

Having written yesterday about Texas counties portraying their core, criminal-justice responsibilities as "unfunded mandates," this morning Grits was treated to a column in the Dallas News by Cooke County Judge Jason Brinkley. Cooke County is a mostly rural area hugging the Oklahoma border north of Denton; Gainesville is the county seat.

After rightly complaining that the state's under-funded school-finance system, not county expenditures, were driving property-tax increases, Mr. Brinkley veers off into bizarro-world. Nearly all of this reeks of falsehood and misrepresents reality:
When new state mandates cost money to carry out but don't come with state funding, they act as state-imposed local property tax increases. Either way you look at it, these are costs that counties must cover, and they are increasing. 
For example, in Cooke County our indigent defense costs have increased by 80 percent over the past eight years and the criminal caseloads have more than doubled. 
We have seen a 50 percent increase in our jail population over the past eight years and in our costs for food and inmate health care. The upcoming requirements of the Sandra Bland Act are estimated to cost our county $400,000 a year, a 10 percent increase in our jail budget.
Let's dig into these claims. First, he's right that Cooke County's indigent defense costs have increased 80 percent, as the Indigent Defense Commission corroborates. And since Cooke County's population has only nudged upward over the last decade, on its face that seems alarming.

What Judge Brinkley fails to tell Dallas News readers, however, is WHY indigent defense costs are rising. As it turns out, ALL of the increase may be attributed to increases in the total-case count, not new-state-government requirements. Despite crime declining throughout this period, the number of Cooke-County cases with appointed counsel rose from 379 in 2001 to 850 in 2018, or a 124 percent increase.

Why might that be? One possible answer: Prosecutors control how many cases are brought, and continued to increase case filings even after crime had been declining for years, not just in Texas, but nationally.

That's what seems to have happened in Judge Brinkley's jurisdiction. Cooke  County's population increased only slightly over the last decade, and crime went down. But in FY 2011, according to Office of Court Administration data, felony district courts in Cooke County added just 430 new cases. In FY 2018, they added 1,289.

That's a 200 percent increase in felony cases brought by local, elected prosecutors in Cooke County during an era when crime declined. The Gainesville Register has reported that much of that increase stemmed from increases in user-level drug prosecutions.

Obviously, most of the jail increase stemmed from the increase in cases. But it's also a function of a refusal to enact bail reform. According to the Commission on Jail Standards, 63% of inmates in the Cooke County Jail as of December 1st were awaiting trial, but were being held because they couldn't make bond.

Judge Brinkley is blaming state government for problems being caused by local, elected officials. Both increased indigent defense and jail costs in his county resulted directly from decisions by local prosecutors, not anything the Legislature did.

Finally, the idea that the Sandra Bland Act will cost Cooke County $400,000 sounds like a major reach. I don't doubt there are additional costs, mostly for additional training and record keeping; installing sensors or cameras so the jail can track whether guards actually make their rounds is probably the biggest one, but they don't require cameras can view every cell. Looking at the full panoply of new requirements, it's difficult to imagine the cost to tiny Cooke County coming close to $400k. The claim appears especially suspect once you understand how much Judge Brinkley misstated other criminal-justice costs.

I'm not sure why county officials would want to pit themselves against the popular Sandra Bland Act. The new requirements were de minimis, and from a tactical perspective, they lose that debate, even if they win!

Nobody forced Cooke County prosecutors to increase felony prosecutions 200 percent over a period when their population barely inched upward and crime (real crimes, with victims, not prosecution of addicts) declined. And it's childish to mask responsibility for those choices by loudly blaming someone else for them in the Dallas Morning News.

County officials should stop conflating the very real challenges facing the Legislature over school-finance and property taxes with their whining over having to pay for traditional duties they've been performing for decades. It's reasonable to seek relief regarding property taxes, but the state legislature isn't responsible for most of the justice-system problems county officials are decrying in their media blitz.


Tom said...

We live in an age of alternative facts where truth doesn't matter. The justice system has been the responsibility of counties in Texas for as long as memory of man runneth.
The only major state funded expenditure in the court system is the salaries of district and appellate judges. It's the counties that pay for the courtrooms, bailiffs, clerks, court reporters and the other costs of running courts. And, counties have always picked up that cost.
In Harris County, the sheriff, the district attorney and the county courts are working hard to lower those costs. From a no-arrest policy for possession of small amounts of marijuana to personal bonds for most people charged with misdemeanors, the system has been changed to bring costs under control.
Think about the costs to the county for a misdemeanor pot arrest. You have the time of the arresting officers transporting the prisoner, writing reports and booking the person into jail. Then you have the cost of incarceration and of the court system's processing costs. And, don't forget the cost of a lab analysis of the weed to ensure that it really is marijuana.
Then do that a few tens of thousands of times per year and you're talking real county money without even considering the cost of appointed attorneys.
It's to the advantage of the sheriff and DA to arrest and charge more people. They get to hire more people to run the jail and prosecute the cases. Their appropriations go up. And, the county commissioners who eventually pick up the tab have little or no control over the expenditures.

Gadfly said...

Arguably, wouldn't part of any Sandra Bland Act-related costs possibly bring on at least a small reduction in some insurance costs, anyway?