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County to acquaint itself with puzzling Pretrial Services

Thursday, April 4, 2019 by Ryan Thornton

Despite its ongoing effort to keep Travis County defendants connected to their communities and out of jail whenever possible, the county Pretrial Services Department has not always been included in the county’s many recent discussions about reducing jail population and growing jail diversion strategies.

As became clear during its annual report to the Commissioners Court on Tuesday morning, the department’s work is both complicated and only vaguely understood – even by the county commissioners themselves.

Nonetheless, as County Judge Sarah Eckhardt noted during the presentation, Pretrial Services is one of two departments (Adult Probation being the other) that makes up “the bulk of what we do with regard to jail diversion and recidivism reduction activities.”

Rodolfo Pérez Jr., director of Pretrial Services and Adult Probation, said one reason why the department may be left out of discussions about jail diversion is the ambiguous nature of the term “diversion.” Pérez told the Monitor after Tuesday’s discussion that to some people the term means avoiding convictions, while to others diversion refers strictly to keeping people out of the criminal justice system entirely.

Because Pretrial Services only interacts with individuals at the point of arriving at the Travis County Jail, the department’s work comes too late in the process to be considered in the stricter sense of diversion. Rather, its primary purpose, Pérez said, is to make sure people released on personal bonds are not re-arrested and that they show up to their court appointments. Together, Pérez said those two goals help reduce the chance of conviction.

However, because the department is relatively successful in getting defendants released on personal bonds (allowing immediate release and requiring only a payment of $40 or 3 percent of the total bond amount to Pretrial Services within seven days of release), the department is struggling to make sure those individuals show up to court on the assigned date.

While a missed appointment is sometimes dismissed if an attorney can provide a credible reason for failure to appear, the majority of those individuals end up being issued warrants for arrest, which only sometimes lead to convictions.

“When you have a roughly 80 percent personal bond rate, you’re going to have más o menos 2,000 people who didn’t make their date,” Eckhardt said. “And whether or not you issue a warrant on that failure to appear is not the worst thing in the world – it means you had to intervene in some way to get them back in the system.”

Additionally, Pérez said that both the number of missed court appointments and the number of warrants issued for failure to appear have dropped in recent years. In Fiscal Year 2018 the number of missed appointments was down to 2,082 from 2,138 in Fiscal Year 2016. Similarly, the number of warrants issued was 1,824 in Fiscal Year 2018 compared to 2,223 in Fiscal Year 2017 and 1,899 in Fiscal Year 2016.

Commissioner Brigid Shea asked Pérez to extrapolate on what changes, if any, were responsible for that decline, but Pérez said he would need at least two more years of data before he could identify a correlation between the department’s practices and the numbers of failures to appear and warrants issued.

Shea invited the department to bring more detailed data and analyses in the future so that the court could develop a more comprehensive understanding of what the department does and how it could be improved in the future. Shea said such details could be useful in helping the court and the community understand that “we’re not taking the approach of just locking people up and throwing away the key; we’re really trying to get at the underlying problems, get people into programs or treatment to help them get out of that cycle of crime so that our jails don’t continue to be essentially our largest mental health facilities where we’re holding people at a 70 percent rate awaiting trial or awaiting some kind of judicial action.”

Eckhardt said part of the confusion stems from the unique structure of the Pretrial Services Department, which is managed jointly with Adult Probation under the county’s Community Supervision and Corrections Department. Due to the structure of probation offices in Texas, Pérez himself, while officially the director of Adult Probation and Pretrial Services, is not a county employee.

“Probation and juvenile and even to some degree the district courts are sort of a weird hybrid animal because they are actually state functionaries so they have a lot of state requirements that are outside our control,” Eckhardt said.

With that in mind, Eckhardt suggested the commissioners direct their questions to Roger Jefferies, county executive of Justice and Public Safety.

Shea countered that, in cases like this, she often does not even know what questions to ask because she lacks the legal background to understand the inner workings of the justice system.

Eckhardt said one option would be to schedule a work session dedicated to learning about Pretrial Services and Adult Probation. She also suggested a role-playing educational exercise where the commissioners “should all just be given a character with an offense and an offense report and a history and a risk assessment and just walk us through the system as though we were arrested on an offense.”

“That would be really illuminating,” Shea said. “This is an important part of what we do, but it remains hidden unless you’re in the system.”

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