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Courts to explain more trials, fewer inmates

Thursday, September 13, 2018 by Ryan Thornton

The Travis County Commissioners Court approved requests for two budget transfers from the allocated reserve to the civil and criminal court systems Tuesday morning. The criminal courts and civil courts are to receive $1,580,000 and $332,223, respectively. The decision passed 3-0 with the abstention of Commissioner Jeff Travillion. Commissioner Brigid Shea was absent.

Budget Director Travis Gatlin of the county’s Planning and Budget Office presented the budget transfer requests to the court, stating, “Those are both for indigent attorneys’ fees and they are needed to have resources to book the accrual for FY 18. These are expenses that will be incurred this year, but paid next year.” Gatlin then turned the conversation over to representatives from the criminal courts and Capital Area Private Defender Services to provide further detail and answer questions.

The budget transfer request follows an upward trend in both number of trials and calls for expert witnesses for the courts. Deborah Hale, court administrator for the criminal court system, explained that more trials has meant more indigent attorney fees for the city but fewer people in jail. “The more we have trials, the more we take care of cases, the more we dispose of cases, the lower the jail (population) has gotten over the years,” she said.

The decrease in jail population pleased County Judge Sarah Eckhardt, but she suggested a breakdown of bookings versus sentencing. “We know that most of our bookings are pretrial and that sentencing, at least in the felony context, is going to state jail,” she said. “I suspect that if we broke out the average daily jail population based on who is awaiting transfer to state jail after sentencing, we might also see some objective sign of improved defense in Travis County there.”

While he was also pleased with the numbers, Travillion expressed frustration at the emphasis on figures that left many questions unanswered. “I’ve got data,” he said. “I don’t have information that allows me to explain to the community what is going on, and how it impacts them, and how we’re going in a great direction.”

Similarly, Commissioner Gerald Daugherty wished to address the root causes of the courts’ financial problems, despite Eckhardt’s effort to keep the focus on the budget transfer approval itself. “This is, you know, this is a flea on the back of the dog,” she said. Nonetheless, Daugherty pushed the criminal courts and Capital Area Private Defender Services representatives to communicate their needs with him honestly to reduce the financial burden of cases. “I don’t know what to ask at the Legislature because I’m not an attorney, and I’m not in the trenches like y’all are,” he said.

Travillion echoed Daugherty’s call for more communication. “I don’t want to vote against you,” he said, “but I need to be able to understand that we’re addressing problems that are on the ground systematically.”

Eckhardt addressed the commissioners directly, stating the general benefit of having fewer people in jail costing the county money and not contributing to their communities. “That, at least, is a positive indicator,” she said. “And it’s only an indicator, though. And we need to drill deep to make sure that what we’re doing actually is working, that it doesn’t just look good.”

Despite their concerns, Daugherty and Commissioner Margaret Gómez followed Eckhardt’s motion to approve the request. Travillion withheld his vote in anticipation of more detailed information.

As consolation to the questions being raised by the commissioners, Eckhardt noted that the Texas Indigent Defense Commission is currently evaluating the Travis County courts program and will soon be providing analytics based on its study.

Concerning the funds request, Hale added that next year’s preliminary budget has adjusted for the increase in trials. “So we think that will help us get through next year without having to come back to you again,” she stated.

Photo by Larry D. Moore [CC BY-SA 3.0 or GFDL], via Wikimedia Commons.

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