Dallas felony courts have to get their act together
The presiding judge’s slam on commissioners misses the mark.
The ongoing dispute between a couple of Dallas County commissioners and the majority of the local felony court judges hit a new low recently.
After Commissioners John Wiley Price and J.J. Koch again complained in an open meeting that the growing jail population was largely the judges’ fault, 13 of them fired back with a snarky letter to this newspaper accusing the commissioners, basically, of not knowing what they were talking about.
The commissioners are “devoid of an understanding of court processes and procedures,” said the letter, signed by state District Judge Stephanie Huff, who presides over the felony courts, and co-signed by a majority of her colleagues. Only four of them — Nancy Kennedy, Tina Clinton, Brandon Birmingham and Hector Garza — opted not to sign it.
Our guess is that’s because they were busy working, as they have some of the highest case disposition rates among the felony judges these days.
Plainly, that’s really at the center of the controversy at so-called Crowley High, as some courthouse regulars call the Frank Crowley Courts Building: Some judges simply appear to be working harder and more efficiently than others. This is a big problem given the overall backlog of about 20,000 cases clogging up the felony dockets as of July 31, according to the Texas Office of Court Administration.
That’s borne out when one looks at how many cases each judge is disposing of each month. Through July of this year, the felony judges on average disposed of a total of 1,176 cases per court. But there’s wide disparity between the judges. On the low end, one has disposed of just 961. Another has the most, with 1,497 so far.
Earlier this month, Price and Koch zeroed in on the swelling jail population as the latest costly and regrettable byproduct of the slow moving wheels of justice.
Again, court-by-court data sheds light on the disparity in court efficiency. We obtained a draft this week of the most recent report of court performance by the County Office of Budget and Evaluation. It shows that in 2021 jail costs associated with the 17 felony courts ballooned to $59.6 million, up from $47.4 million in 2020.
In their letter to this newspaper, the judges pointed to the many factors that affect how long an inmate stays in jail, and we acknowledge that many of those factors are out of the courts’ control. The felony judges can’t do much while the district attorney’s office waits for charges to be filed or forensic reports to be completed so that the suspect’s case can be brought before a grand jury.
Still, the backlog of indicted, pending cases should be handled as quickly as possible once they land in a court, and we worry they’re not. We, like Price and Koch, hear that some felony judges take their jobs more seriously than others.
That’s a shame, and that has to change.
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