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Municipal court cases linger longer these days

Wednesday, February 26, 2020 by Areeba Amer

Four years ago, the Austin Municipal Court generally took under 190 days to close cases. The number of days has since gone up to roughly 215 days, due to Senate Bill 1913 passed by the Texas Legislature in 2017, said Mary Jane Grubb, Austin Municipal Court clerk, at the Feb. 10 City Council Judicial Committee meeting.

SB 1913 reformed the cash bail system so the court had to offer alternatives if a defendant could not afford to pay minor fines, such as traffic tickets, according to an article from Courthouse News.

Cash bonds are cash surety to secure a defendant’s court appearance. Grubb said defendants may file a motion to continue or reset a court date to a future date.

The number of cases has also decreased since 2014, decreasing overall revenue to operate the court, Grubb said.

“What has happened as a result is many people are coming in and getting court dates to reset without cash bonds, which is a good thing,” Grubb said. “However, that sets the cases out multiple months in advance, and then if they don’t appear they still are able to come in and reset that again.”

Previously, when someone missed a court date and a warrant was issued, courts required a cash bond to refresh the court date, she explained. Now people are able to refresh their court dates without a bond, and as a result, the cases stay open longer.

The majority of cases filed at Austin Municipal Court are class C misdemeanors, including traffic violations.

Grubb said the court does not control any legislative changes that would lessen the amount of days processing takes; however, the court is doing its best by implementing programs such as remote dockets. Remote dockets are dockets held in alternative locations, such as libraries and recreation centers, so defendants can go and see a judge on the same day without having to go to court.

“All we can do is make sure that we’re engaging processes that make it easier for defendants to come in and take care of their cases; meaning, making sure they have adequate etiquette,” Grubb said.

However, Grubb said any legislative changes to lessen the amount of time for closing cases would be a backward step for criminal justice.

“The changes that were made were geared towards ensuring that everyone had equal access to justice and removing barriers so that they could take care of their business,” Grubb said.

According to the report presented at the meeting, the cases were terminated, on average, after 213 days in 2018 and 255 in 2019.

Grubb said the number of cases has significantly decreased since 2014, though the figure is not related to SB 1913. Grubb said the number of cases has been in decline since 2008, but began decreasing at a faster rate in 2014.

Grubb said the decline in the number of cases has led to a reduction in revenue depending on a number of factors, such as when or if cases are dismissed.

Grubb said while the caseload is decreasing, the cases are taking longer to process because of SB 1913.

“It’s a trade-off. Even though cases are down, the time required to process those cases are longer.”

But courts are not supposed to be about revenue either way, she noted. “(Courts should be) about disposition, and making sure that the cases are moved forward and closed in compliance with court orders.”

Council Member Greg Casar said court operations should not be funded through ticket revenue.

“It is best practice for us to not fund all of the court’s operations by collecting ticket revenue because it can create a perverse incentive,” Casar said. “We’re happy to fill in the gap so that (the court is) not having to charge tickets for budget purposes.”

Photo by AJEL made available through a Creative Commons license.

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