County delays decision on criminal district attorney’s office
Thursday, December 13, 2018 by Ryan Thornton
The Travis County Commissioners Court is considering a merger of the County and District Attorney’s offices into a criminal district attorney office that may considerably lower the number of jail bookings for misdemeanor offenses.
County Attorney David Escamilla and District Attorney Margaret Moore defended the proposal against various concerns from the dais Tuesday morning, but despite promises of fewer jail bookings and lower costs to the county, did not quite convince the court to approve the consolidation.
Misdemeanors in Travis County are currently the responsibility of the County Attorney’s Office while felonies are handled by the District Attorney’s Office. A merger of the two offices is therefore likely to create an efficiency boost that is expected to save Travis County dollars by allowing for a staff cut and overall operations improvements. Escamilla told the court that the savings and efficiency gain would be great enough to allow the county to begin a 24/7 arrest review process that would increase the number of cases immediately rejected so that offenders are not left waiting in jail while their cases are reviewed. According to Escamilla, this would lead to yet greater savings by reducing both jail time waiting periods and attorney’s fees.
Commissioner Gerald Daugherty, as usual, wanted to know the financial details. “I think we have a $48 million combined budget between the two, the DA and the CA’s office, and I want to know … is there a way that we can see a $4 (million) to $5 million savings by combining these two offices?” Daugherty asked.
As Escamilla told the commissioner, it depends how you interpret the question. While the direct savings is only estimated to be $1.4 million, the greatest incentive for the merger in Escamilla’s opinion is the ability to create the 24/7 review process – a $2 million value – at no extra cost due to the ability of the consolidated office to absorb this function. From this perspective, Escamilla said the savings could be at least $3.4 million. DA Moore added that other savings would come as a ripple effect to other parts of county government.
Travis County criminal judges wrote the court in favor of the merger, saying de-emphasizing misdemeanor offenses stands to benefit the county as a whole, including misdemeanor offenders, taxpayers, defense attorneys, prosecutors, arresting agencies and police officers.
From County Judge Sarah Eckhardt’s perspective, the decrease in jail bookings is critical. In reference to the 60,000 misdemeanor bookings the county has seen in the past three years, Eckhardt said the county wastes money holding citizens in jail for minor, first-time offenses. “Nearly half of those were individuals we never saw again,” said Eckhardt. “Nearly half of those individuals, for whom I think it is a reasonable speculation that the arrest itself was all the criminal justice interaction necessary to arrest their criminal behavior.”
Despite overall support for the merger, a potential de-emphasis of any criminal activity didn’t sit well with everyone. Daugherty said that police looking the other way on certain types of offenses creates further incentive to commit those crimes. If police don’t enforce laws, people will continue to break them, he said.
To the contrary, Moore said there are other ways to deter misdemeanor crime besides incarceration, such as offering offenders an opportunity to take a course and make restitution. “Does that mean you don’t enforce a law? You continue to enforce the law, but you use your creative and community-based way of addressing the recurrence of that particular offense.”
One more objection came from Commissioner Brigid Shea, who spoke on behalf of local advocacy groups that have said a merger of county and district attorneys into one office does not provide the level of separation necessary to appropriately deal with protective order cases. Shea proposed a possible partial merger that would essentially move all criminal cases over to the District Attorney’s Office, while designating a county civil attorney to take on civil cases alone.
Escamilla countered that protective order cases could be responsibly dealt with by legal groups such as the Texas Advocacy Project or other hired outside counsel without a significant cost to the county. More than that, Escamilla said, the efficiency savings under a partial merger may not be sufficient to move toward the 24/7 arrest review process.
The court was ultimately unable to come to a consensus. While Eckhardt stated her support for the full merger, she motioned for the court to explore the possibilities over the coming week and bring it back next Tuesday with more information. If a full merger is approved, the county would join 49 other Texas counties with the combined authority.
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