Wednesday, August 10, 2011
New Dallas prosecutor slots tied to jail population reductions
To integrate county justice systems, every player can't just make decisions as an independent actor with their own interests.
In Dallas, District Attorney Craig Watkins has been bellyaching nearly since he took office that he needed more prosecutors, even when other county government functions faced severe budget cuts. Now that the 2012 election has past and Watkins' most outspoken critic has left the county judge's seat, the commissioners court appears a lot more sympathetic to his staffing desires. Even so, in giving him money for seven new positions, reports Jennifer Emily at the Dallas Morning News (paywall), the commissioners court pinned new jobs on a commitment by the DA to reduce jail overcrowding by processing state jail felony cases more quickly:
The unit of five prosecutors and two investigators aimed at reducing the jail’s population of low-level felony offenders is paying for itself each day and is expected to eventually recoup the county’s startup costs, said County Judge Clay Jenkins.
“In the long run, this program will save Dallas County money and make us safer,” said Jenkins, a Democrat.
“It cost money to start up. Once we got that in place, we started seeing our numbers go down and down.”
In May, commissioners voted to fund Watkins’ program for six months at a cost of $332,814. Those prosecutors exclusively work state jail felony cases, such as home burglaries and auto thefts.
State jail felonies are punishable by up to two years behind bars. But such defendants routinely were housed in the county jail for months while awaiting trial — costing the county money. Had their cases been resolved sooner, they could have been moved on to state jails.
The deal called for the district attorney’s office to reduce the number of jailed defendants awaiting trial on state jail felonies from 436 to 130 by the end of September. Commissioners will then consider whether to fund the program for another six months. Jenkins said he will vote to do so.
By the first week of August, that number has dropped to 329. Based on the net loss of inmates who have been moved out of the jail, the county says it has spent about $66,000 less to house inmates between the beginning of the program and early August.
Funding the unit through that period has cost about $139,500. So, as of this week, the unit has cost the county about $73,500 more than the savings, according to the county.
Grits predicts we'll see a lot more of this from commissioners courts, and we should if counties are ever going to get jail overcrowding under control. Prosecutors tend to think worrying about overstuffed jails is "not my job," an attitude that contributes greatly to the problem when they push for high bail, for example, to maximize plea bargaining leverage. But by tying funding to jail population reduction goals, the commissioners court makes it Watkins' job. To integrate county justice systems, every player can't just make decisions as an independent actor with their own interests. Too many positions from constable to Sheriff to prosecutor to district clerk are all elected and if they all exercise their full discretion to act independently, the system becomes dysfunctional. In the end, the best (and perhaps the only) way to perform that cat herding function is through the county budgeting process.
Pegasus News Content partner - Grits For Breakfast
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