DA Point Fingers Over Dallas Criminal Courts Backlog
The cause of the controversy over Dallas’ criminal courts is complicated, and there isn’t a clear solution.
Dallas County commissioner John Wiley Price wants Dallas County judges to get to work.
At least that’s the message he has sent in lengthy presentations at commissioners court meetings for several months. He says a backlog in criminal court cases is costing taxpayers and delaying justice for defendants at the Frank Crowley Courts Building, and Price — along with other commissioners — is pointing the blame at judges.
But judges say new policies from District Attorney John Creuzot’s office are part of the problem, and that they’re doing everything in their power to speed up the wheels of justice. State District Judge Stephanie Huff, the presiding judge for the felony courts, also said she didn’t agree with Price’s assessment that there was an overwhelming backlog at all.
Creuzot, meanwhile, says he hasn’t seen any data to suggest that the new policy on probation assessments has delayed cases, instead suggesting the frequency of court settings scheduled by judges may have something to do with it.
The cause of the controversy over Dallas’ criminal courts is complicated, and there isn’t a clear solution. Much of the delay is due to the COVID-19 pandemic. Courthouses nationwide shut down operations in 2020, and even when courts began restarting some criminal proceedings virtually, technical issues and civil rights concerns delayed many trials.
Dallas County criminal trials didn’t resume until April 2021. Even now, criminal trials are a slow process with far fewer allowed each month than before the pandemic began.
Creuzot’s office also now requires mental health and substance abuse assessments of defendants more frequently before probation can be considered or a criminal case can be adjudicated. Huff said that automatically slows things down, although she agrees with the new policy.
“This is something that’s new in this administration,” Huff said. “That noticeably slows things down before we can plead cases out.”
Add to that a large jail population consisting mostly of inmates accused of felony crimes, along with skyrocketing staffing and overtime costs among Dallas County jail guards, and it’s costing taxpayers more than $3 million extra each month to operate the jail.
“We’re spending money and we’re just spinning the gerbil wheel,” Price said. “At the end of the day, it’s about who is doing the work.”
Commissioners say they’ve repeatedly asked judges what resources they need to fix the problem. They approved two more measures at a meeting Tuesday meant to help ease the backlog, although all agreed those measures would not solve what they call unproductivity at the courthouse.
“The judges absolutely broke our justice system because they’re not working,” Commissioner J.J. Koch said Tuesday. “It is broken because of them.”
Huff said that’s simply not true. Judges have been working to conduct trials more frequently in recent weeks, with three simultaneous murder trials at the Frank Crowley Courthouse last week.
“We’re moving cases left and right,” Huff said. “We’re working every day. We’re asking for the resources to get our jobs done.”
One of the measures approved by commissioners added more employees in the probation department to account for Creuzot’s new policy. The other will put more money toward electronic monitoring, which Huff says isn’t directly related to the backlog but would help get more people out of the jail.
County Judge Clay Jenkins abstained from the electronic monitoring measure, but Price was the only vote against both measures, saying he wanted to see more action from judges instead. He said he wants judges to use the tools commissioners have already paid for to clear more cases.
“Justice delayed is justice denied,” Jenkins said. “Trying cases is key because people are sitting in jail.”
Conflict over cause
At his regular presentations, Price has shown data that suggests that judges are clearing far fewer cases than ever before, although judges have said those statistics do not accurately reflect the work they’ve been doing.
Huff said the DA’s office is bringing fewer cases to trial, which inherently means fewer cases are being cleared.
Creuzot’s new probation assessments are key to lowering recidivism and helping rehabilitation efforts, the district attorney said in a prepared statement this week. There’s 59% reduction of recidivism, Creuzot said, when the assessments are done pre-trial.
Creuzot, a former longtime judge, said that he had not seen data that suggested the new probation assessments are to blame. He said that instead the frequency of court settings is causing fewer cases to be cleared. The DA’s office, he said, can’t control “which judges come to work, how often they come to work, how long they stay, if they set cases, and if they use the days set aside for their court to have jury trials.”
No matter the reason, the backlog means there are more inmates with felony charges awaiting trial in the jail. Because of staffing issues and forced overtime among jailers, the sheriff’s department spent $14.4 million in overtime last year, which adds to the cost for taxpayers. Judges and commissioners have not come to an agreement on how best to lower that cost.
In late March, judges suggested adding more money for electronic monitoring. They also suggested adding more staff for the probations department to ease a bottleneck in the process that takes a case from arrest to trial.
Commissioners were generally favorable about the probation proposal, but initially said the additional electronic monitoring would simply kick the can on cases in the backlog, not clear them. Huff, however, said that expenditure was not to divert cases from trial, but to help relieve pressure on a monitoring team that is overworked.
“We’re not holding things up,” Huff said.
The commissioners court has also approved the use of federal COVID-19 relief funds to create a backlog court, although progress has been slow in getting the court up and running. Even then, there are concerns about moving a case to the backlog court after attorneys and judges have already prepared to try the case in another court.
Price also said he is concerned about the specifics of how the backlog court will work to clear cases.
“This county is drowning in pending felony and misdemeanor cases,” Price said.
‘Call to action’
Price isn’t alone in his critiques of the judges. Although he has been the most vocal critic at commissioners court meetings, J.J. Koch and Elba Garcia have also expressed concerns about the slow progress of clearing the backlog in cases. They point to neighboring counties, where there is not as much of a backlog, as reason that COVID-19 is not entirely to blame.
“This is an anomaly that should not exist,” Koch said. “[Judges] have continued to play chicken with us.”
Tarrant and Collin counties did continue trials during the pandemic while Dallas — in an effort led by Jenkins — followed mask requirements and other COVID-19 protocols that kept courtrooms closed far longer than its neighbors.
Commissioners have repeatedly asked judges to come to commissioners court meetings to explain the work being done to relieve the backlog, but none have accepted the invitation. Huff said those invitations have come late, after robust court dockets have been set at the same time commissioners meet on Tuesday mornings.
“That is prime time for the criminal court docket,” Huff said. “I can’t be in two places at once getting the work done they want me to get done.”
Commissioners have said that the judges watch livestream of court meetings, and send text messages to members of the court during Price’s presentations. The commissioners often speak to them directly through the livestream, encouraging the judges to pick up the pace.
“The call to action is we need to start moving,” Garcia said. “This court has given you the tools you requested. Use them.”