By Josephine Peterson and Krista M. Torralva
For months, the Dallas County Commissioners Court blamed district judges for the felony case backlog contributing to the near-capacity levels at the county jail, but many of the judges now say the commissioners don’t understand the problem.
State District Judge Stephanie Huff, the presiding judge for the Dallas felony courts, sent a statement to The Dallas Morning News on Thursday saying the criminal justice process and the commissioner-suggested solutions don’t follow the law.
“The district court judges are regularly and unnecessarily demeaned and disparaged at Commissioners Court meetings,” the letter said. “Moreover, the remedies proposed at these meetings are typically violative of the law or devoid of an understanding of court processes and procedures.”
Thirteen of the seventeen elected felony court judges signed the statement. The other four — Nancy Kennedy, Tina Clinton, Brandon Birmingham and Hector Garza — chose not to participate, Huff said in the letter.
Kennedy, Clinton and Birmingham declined to comment when reached by The News on Thursday. Garza could not be reached.
Commissioner J.J. Koch said the four judges who did not sign the letter have some of the most productive felony courts.
“There are some very productive judges that are not on that list, and perhaps that tells you all you need to know,” he said.
County data shows Kennedy, Birmingham and Clinton are consistently among the top of the courts for disposing of cases. So are Jennifer Bennett and Raquel “Rocky” Jones, judges who did sign the letter.
Currently, a person accused of a felony is waiting an average of 26 days just for police to file the offense report with the Dallas County District Attorney’s Office, Price said. Of the more than 6,000 inmates, 1,047 in custody are still waiting for felony charges to be filed. Once the report is filed, it appears in the prosecutor’s system and the case can be scheduled for a grand jury.
Some of those arrested post bond, but those who can’t afford it remain in jail.
The Commissioners Court wants to limit that time frame. District Attorney John Creuzot, who was a criminal district judge for 21 years, said Dallas County once had a practice in place that limited this time frame to 10 days to turn over the report to the prosecutors.
The practice was abandoned in light of the Daves vs. Dallas County bail lawsuit, Creuzot said. Reform groups sued the county in 2018 over its bail schedule, a list of offenses and corresponding recommended bail amounts. The lawsuit questioned whether district judges were policymakers, and in doing so, Creuzot said, some policies like the limited time frame were done away with.
The district judges’ letter asserts the commissioners’ proposed solution for unfiled felony cases “unfortunately conflates unrelated issues and reflects a lack of understanding of the laws and their application to matters related to bond and the jurisdiction of the criminal courts.”
“Moreover, the remedies proposed at these meetings are typically violative of the law or devoid of an understanding of court processes and procedures,” the letter from the judges said.
The letter did not elaborate on how the commissioners’ solutions were unlawful, but Huff told The News she was hesitant to give details because she wants a “fruitful discussion” with county officials.
“Generally speaking, however, a criminal district court obtains jurisdiction when a case is indicted by a grand jury or when a writ of habeas corpus is filed. A criminal district court judge is only lawfully empowered to act when they have jurisdiction to do so,” she said in an email.
Price said if the district judges take issue with his solution, they should help find another. He said he just wants to see decreased wait times for police to file charges with prosecutors.
“They can continue to have these excuses or they can try to help find solutions,” Price said.
Commissioners also expressed concern about another problem at the courthouse contributing to the rising jail population. Commissioners say this is a new issue they claim was created by state law last year. Senate Bill 6 limits the circumstances when a court magistrate can issue bail.
The magistrate is the first judge an inmate sees. This magistrate reads the accused thecharges and can set bail if the person does not have another active felony case. But the new law stipulates that if someone released on a bail for a felony is arrested again for another felony offense, this person cannot be granted bail by that magistrate.
The second bail must be granted by the district judge in the accused’s initial case. The accused is stuck waiting in jail until the second offense reaches the district judge’s court.
Huff’s letter said judges will follow this state law.
“The district court judges are and will continue to follow the laws of the State of Texas and act in accordance with those laws when setting bonds for defendants arrested in Dallas County,” Huff’s statement said.
Some counties have opted out of this portion of the state law, like Bexar County, where district judges have given magistrate judges back the power to grant bonds. Last October, the Bexar district judges wrote a standing order to give the authority back to the magistrates.
“Bexar County has been doing it, so apparently it’s not unlawful,” Price said.
Koch said the letter correctly points out that some of the discussion got the process wrong, but the general issue is that more cases need to move through the courts more quickly.
“The great thrust of it, though, is that if they try more cases, we can get people out on bonds, then we get people out,” he told The News.
In addition to some of the bureaucratic headaches, most commissioners seem to agree that not all judges are working hard enough to catch up with a backlog of 2,415 active and pending felony cases. During the pandemic, criminal trials were paused in 2020 and did not resume until April 2021.
According to data from the Office of Court Administration, the number of active and pending felony cases has increased more this year in Dallas County than in any other urban county, while almost all other urban counties saw decreases.
The presiding judge wrote in the letter that there are various factors that have impacted the jail population. She said that includes disposition timelines for cases; the business flow and computer limitations that prevent the exchange of information; and policies requiring “unnecessary assessments.”
Huff said that judges want “fruitful discussions” to address the jail population and case backlog.
“The district court judges are willing and have always been willing to address commissioners’ concerns, providing of course that those discussions are conducted in a professional manner,” her letter said.
Koch told The News that he wants the district judges to come to the table, but this is the first time the judges have offered to talk.
“That was the one positive thing,” he said.
Koch said commissioners want the district judges to come to a regular meeting to talk in a public forum, rather than have the two commissioners meet the district judges in their closed-door monthly meetings.
But judges’ meetings are exempt from the Open Meetings Act. While some judiciaries in other counties make their meetings open to the public, Dallas County judges do not.
Huff previously pointed out that commissioners meetings are held during “prime time for the criminal court docket.”
“I can’t be in two places at once getting the work done they want me to get done,” Huff said in April.
Koch wants these process problems to be fixed, and is pushing a slight salary decrease for district judges.
“They’ve clearly pushed back and said, ‘Nope, we own this thing. We’re going to do whatever we want.’ It’s like, well, no, we pay for all of your material and we also pay for part of your salary,” Koch said.