Dallas County’s jail is close to capacity
The number of inmates in the Dallas County jail is creeping toward capacity, and commissioners are blaming the district court judges.
Dallas County Commissioner John Wiley Price gave a presentation on Tuesday reporting that 88% — 6,371 of 7,204 — of the jail’s authorized beds are filled. The capacity for women is alarmingly close to being full, just 73 beds shy of its 952 beds, as of Aug. 16.
Almost half of these women have been charged with nonviolent offenses.
“I’m just sounding the alarm,” Price said at the commissioners’ regularly scheduled meeting.
The county spends $12 million a month running the jail, but if the county cannot hold all those accused, Dallas County could also be forced to pay for jail beds elsewhere.
The reason for the jail’s swelling, the county says, is the increased wait times for steps in the criminal justice process.
“At the end of the day, that’s what everyone should be focusing on. How do we get individuals that don’t need to be sitting in jail out of jail, right the hell now?” Commissioner J.J Koch said in an interview.
Of the more than 6,000 inmates, 1,047 in custody are still waiting for felony charges to be filed.
A person accused of a felony charge is waiting an average of 26 days just for the offense report to be filed with the Dallas County District Attorney’s Office. Once the report is filed, it appears in the prosecutor’s system and the case can be scheduled for a grand jury. Even then, it can take months from scheduling for a grand jury hearing, in part because of forensic testing, Assistant County Administrator Gordon Hikel said.
Another bottleneck was created by a recent state law that limits when the court magistrate can issue bail during the initial days of incarceration. Once arrested, a person accused of a felony goes before a magistrate, who reads the accused their charges and can set the bail, but only if the person does not have another active felony case.
If someone has been released on bail for a felony and is arrested again on another felony offense while out on bail, the accused cannot be granted bail by a magistrate or nonelected judge, according to the law created by Senate Bill 6. The district judge in the accused’s initial case has the authority to grant the second bail. The accused is stuck waiting in jail until the second offense reaches the district judge’s court.
District Attorney John Creuzot said this can add a few days.
“We will help them get in front of the judge, but we may not always agree that they need to go free,” he said in an interview. “But that bill can have some consequences, no question about it.”
Price said he wants the county’s district judges to allow magistrates the power to grant bail in all cases, opening up the opportunity to have an accused person released from jail earlier in the process, as was the case before Senate Bill 6 last year.
Jail Population Manager LaShonda Jefferson told the commissioners that staff members have started to research whether the wait times for these inmates breaches state law. The state caps the amount of time someone accused of a crime can be held if the state or county attorney is “not ready for trial of the criminal action for which he is being detained.” If the state is not ready to proceed with an indictment of someone accused of a felony within 90 days, they must be released either on personal bond or have a reduction in bail amount.
Creuzot said Dallas County is typically meeting the 90-day deadline.
One of the biggest reason people are waiting in jail is the sheer size of the felony case backlog. More than three-quarters of people in the jail are waiting for a trial, plea bargain or dismissal of their case, Hikel said.
According to data from the Office of Court Administration, the number of active and pending felony cases has increased more this year in Dallas County than in any other county, and most other urban counties saw decreases.
From January to June this year, Harris County’s active and pending felony case count has dropped by 3,572, Bexar County’s case count fell by 767, Collin County’s dropped by 751, Tarrant County’s fell by 203 cases, and Denton County’s dropped by 112.
Dallas County and Travis County grew through 2022: by 2,415 and 935 pending and active felony cases, respectively.
State District Judge Stephanie Huff, the presiding judge for the Dallas felony courts, did not respond to requests for comment.
Price recognized that the commissioners do not have authority to implement policy changes over the criminal justice system.
“I’m just trying to manage it, so that they can manage the population,” he said.
Koch said the county could leverage its budgetary power to effect change.
Koch, the sole Republican commissioner, said he wants to withhold the county portion of district judge salaries until progress in the backlog is made. The county contributes $18,000 toward a district judge’s total salary. A district judge in Dallas County earns between $158,000 and $194,000, depending on experience.
“Everything they have asked for, we have given them, and we have seen no change. At the very least they need to show they can knock down these numbers in the jail significantly,” Koch said Tuesday. “I don’t see them working with us in a meaningful manner until they know we mean business.”
He and Price said they want to withhold the entire amount, but Koch told The Dallas Morning News that other commissioners don’t have the same appetite. To pass such a budget item would require three of five votes. Koch is now vying for the county to sit on just $20.23 of every district judge’s salary, still giving them a salary of $17,979.77, as a warning to turn over more cases in 2023 or see more of their salary reduced.
Commissioner Theresa Daniel may be the third vote.
“In talking with a number of the criminal justice judges, there are some that are asking for accountability,” Daniel said. “I want to be able to address it in a way that looks at the management of the system but that does not punish those judges who are in fact doing the job.”
Commissioner Elba Garcia said she isn’t interested in punishing judges.
“How can we make the system available and moving more efficiently, rather than to pinpoint people?” Garcia said.