Bexar County DA Begins Streamlining Office, Working on Criminal Justice Reform

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Bexar County Criminal District Attorney Joe Gonzales speaks after being sworn in.

Bonnie Arbittier / Rivard Report

Bexar County District Attorney Joe Gonzales has signed a policy relaxing criminal charges on some marijuana misdemeanor cases.

Bexar County District Attorney Joe Gonzales was confused to find the family violence unit of the district attorney’s office in the white collar crime division. He removed it from that umbrella and established it as a standalone unit.

“I have no idea why that happened that way, but that’s not the way it was two administrations ago,” he said.

Gonzales took office in January and has since kept busy with the platform points on which he campaigned. Gonzales gave himself a six-month timeline when he was sworn in to begin working on a few key issues, including establishing a cite-and-release policy, reforming the bail bond system, and strengthening the district attorney office’s family violence unit. He has managed to tackle all of those so far.

Family Violence Case Backlog

One of the biggest challenges Gonzales faces at the moment is the number of family violence cases that are waiting to go to trial; 1,100 cases are pending in 10 felony courts. Gonzales decided to increase the number of felony prosecutors assigned to family violence courts from 22 to 35 attorneys, as well as ask more judges to take on family violence cases.

“There is a backlog of cases that are sitting and waiting to go to trial, but that’s more because only two county courts are dedicated to handling family violence cases,” he said. “If we had some of those family violence cases that are waiting to go to trial spread out among the other county courts, that might alleviate the trial backlog.”

Gonzales asked all of the county court judges to hear family violence cases, even if that was not their court’s original function.

“A large majority of the county court judges have been very willing to assist, so we’re trying to work on the process of transferring some of these cases to them,” he said.

Keeping Low-Level Offenders Out of Jail

Gonzales said he is close to announcing a cite-and-release policy that would allow officers to ticket low-level nonviolent offenders instead of incarcerating them. He has been working with the San Antonio Police Department as well as the Bexar County Sheriff’s Office on establishing a policy.

SAPD has been operating on a pilot program. Chief William McManus said in December that the police intended to expand the cite-and-release policy to include certain Class A and Class B misdemeanors. Bexar County also started its cite-and-release pilot program last year.

Under a separate new policy Gonzales issued Wednesday, his prosecutors are not to pursue criminal trespass cases if the person charged is homeless and has no other criminal or violent history. The move came after 63-year-old Jack Ule died in custody because he was unable to post $500 bail. Ule’s was the second death of a homeless individual charged with criminal trespass and unable to bond out from Bexar County Jail since December. The new policy was designed not only to reduce jail population but to keep people without money from sitting in jail for long periods of time. Gonzales defended the policy after the San Antonio Police Officers Association criticized it for giving homeless people a “free pass.”

“People with homes are not being arrested for criminal trespass and sitting in jail for months at a time,” Gonzales said. “If you have a home, chances are you have a job. And if you have a job, chances are you can bond out. If we see it is discriminatory, then we’ll revisit the policy. This policy is designed to tackle the problem we see now.”

Gonzales also has been directing his prosecutors to recommend personal recognizance bonds, where arrested individuals must sign an agreement to come back to court but do not have to post bail, for low-level nonviolent offenders. He stressed that all his office can do is recommend this option to the deciding judge.

“It’s still up to the magistrate judge to grant [personal recognizance] bonds,” he said.

Staffing the District Attorney’s Office

In a surprising reach across the aisle, Gonzales, a Democrat, offered jobs to several Republican judges that lost their seats in the “blue wave” of November 2018. Democrats swept the 13 County court-at-law seats contested in that election, as well as two County probate court seats and seven district court seats. He hired five of them, in addition to former Judge Melisa Skinner of the 290th Criminal District Court, who now serves as the lead prosecutor for the 144th District Court. Skinner lost her race against Democrat Jennifer Peña in November.

“I recognized the need to approach them and offer them positions in my administration because they are seasoned lawyers,” he said. “A lot of them came to the bench already with experience as former prosecutors. I just thought it was a natural fit to offer them positions in my office.”

Skinner said she and Gonzales have a long professional history – they both worked for the district attorney’s office and he had litigated cases in front of her while she was a judge. She said she was flattered when she received an offer from Gonzales to work in the DA’s office once again.

“I saw it as a very smart move,” she said. “That’s what he was wanting: experience and knowledge and fairness. … I considered it a very smart move to bring back people who have the experience he needed to make a base for his office, with a good amount of knowledge and experience to draw off of for the younger attorneys.”

Skinner said she has seen a difference since Gonzales’ arrival. For example, people held on felony cases must be indicted by a grand jury within 90 days, she said – something that wasn’t happening under the previous DA, Nico LaHood.

“People shouldn’t languish in jail,” she said. “They should either be charged or released. If the evidence isn’t there and we’re not prosecuting, we shouldn’t let them languish in jail. That was happening in the last administration. We’re trying to get this office back on track where that’s not happening anymore.”

DA staffers are working hard to keep the office running efficiently, she said.

“Whatever’s left over [from the last administration], we’re picking up,” she said. “And we get multiple new cases every single day. It’s very hard to catch up on a problem like that overnight. … I think each court is probably working collectively another 40 hours a week. It’s nighttime, weekends, through lunch, but that’s fine. It has to happen.”

So far, prosecutors have gone through 600 of the 2,100 unreviewed cases inherited from the previous administration, Gonzales said.

“When we walked in the door, there were boxes and boxes of files that had not been reviewed, and so we have spent the last few months going through those intake boxes. … Our intake section is doing a fantastic job, so we’re making some significant progress in that area,” he said.

Gonzales said some problems are easier to fix than others.

“The frustrating thing is some of these solutions are beyond my control, like manpower,” he said. “I can desire more people all day long, but it’s not my call. And I have to wait for the budget cycle to come around so that I can request additional help.”

Criminal Justice Reform

Gonzales said he’s satisfied with what his office has accomplished so far, but there’s more to do. He hopes to cement a legacy of being a district attorney truly committed to criminal justice reform.

“Historically, the mindset was always if you’re prosecutor, you have to be tough on crime, everything should require some incarceration, and that’s not the case,” he said. “One of the reasons that I left my career as a prosecutor early on is because punishment, like crime, is not black and white. There’s a lot of gray. And not everybody deserves to go to prison and not everybody deserves to go to jail.”

People in possession of a small amount of marijuana with no other criminal history would be one of the candidates Gonzales would like to see given a chance to move on without an arrest record.

“That’s what I hope to do in my office. … Those people who deserve a second chance ought to get a second chance,” he said.

Though he’s open-minded about marijuana’s legal status, he wants to consider the matter further before making any decisions, he said. He hasn’t formed a firm opinion on the decriminalization or legalization of marijuana entirely yet.

“There’s a national movement to decriminalizing marijuana,” Gonzales said. “I’m not there yet, I’m not saying that we ought to decriminalize marijuana, but I certainly think there is room to perhaps look at lessening the punishment for marijuana possession. … Not to say that I won’t change my mind, but for now, we have to take baby steps. Let’s talk about reform a little at a time.”

11 thoughts on “Bexar County DA Begins Streamlining Office, Working on Criminal Justice Reform

  1. The DA is doing a good job, but I don’t understand why he feels we need to take baby steps in decriminalizing marijuana. The idiocy and ineffectiveness of criminalizing marijuana is obvious and has a clear history rooted in racism. It needs to end now. If the DA doesn’t take steps to decriminalize it in his first term, we’ll vote for someone else next go around who will.

    • Three things:
      1. A district attorney doesn’t have the constitutional authority to anything found in the Texas Penal Code.
      2. All Joe can do is choose not to prosecute, offer less severe plea bargains, or choose to seek lighter punishments. But this will only happen on a case-by-case basis.
      3. Cite-and-release isn’t a baby step. It’s an important first step towards more fairness.

      • “Baby steps” were the District Attorney’s own words (quoted in the article above) to describe his spineless, slow-as-molasses trajectory on this issue.

  2. It’s understood that the DA can’t change the law. But as you say, he can choose not to prosecute POMs which would effectively decriminalize it in Bexar County.

    Cite and release is a good step, but it still leaves offenders with criminal records for an activity which in no reasonable person’s opinion should be considered criminal. This is unjust and causes long term societal problems. Joe is a good guy, but waffling on decriminalization is a strange position in my opinion.

  3. Our Joe should follow the lead of another Gonzalez (with a Z), the Brooklyn DA who refuses to prosecute adults for possession of cannabis because he possesses huevos. Too late in the game to continue to clog our overburdened justice system or to make adults pay for bone-headed “drug education” classes, ESPECIALLY now that cannabis with 3% or less THC is federally legal as I type this. The proverbial toothpaste is out of the tube! Will SAPD and BCSO waste even more time and resources by “field testing” percentages? Baby steps” on this issue are for folk who need to put on big boy pants, and see this for the civil rights issue that it is.

  4. Except his job is not to determine which laws to prosecute.

    A district attorney is an elected or appointed public official of a county or designated district whose duties are governed by state law. Generally, the duties of a district attorney are to manage the prosecutor’s office, investigate alleged crimes in cooperation with law enforcement, and file criminal charges or bringing evidence before the Grand Jury. Specific duties may include the following:

    1.) To attend on the grand juries, advise them in relation to matters of law, and examine and swear witnesses before them.

    2.) To draw up all indictments and to prosecute all indictable offenses.

    3.) To prosecute and defend any civil action in the circuit court in the prosecution or defense of which the state is interested.

    4.) To inquire whether registers have kept accurate required record books.

    5.) If a criminal prosecution is removed from a court of his or her circuit, county, or division of a county to a court of the United States, to appear in that court and represent the state; and, if it is impracticable, consistent with his or her other duties, to attend that court, he or she may designate and appoint an attorney practicing therein to appear for and represent the state.

    6.) To attend each special session of the circuit court held for the trial of persons charged with criminal offenses.

    7.) To perform other duties and exercise other powers as are or may be required by law.

    As much as I would like to see marijuana decriminalized, he cannot change the law from his position.

    • Except that it IS (in fact) his job to determine what to prosecute. If not for prosecutorial discretion, plea bargains would not exist! The adjudication of violent crimes would take decades (perhaps generations?) rather than years! Further, current Texas law does not consider a misdemeanor (including POM under four ounces) an “indictable offense.” No, Mr. Gonzales does not have any legislative ability, but he can help change this county for the better WHENEVER he is ready.

      • Yeah! DA has Power in the Bexar,County but needs to exercise it cause the Police department will do it for you! Your job that is !#Trump 2020,#DA do your job!

      • He is supposed to prosecute all indictable offenses, no pick and choose. And it is not t hff e DA’s job or scope to legislate.

        • For the LAST TIME: Possession of cannabis under four ounces is a MISDEMEANOR, meaning NOT an “indictable offense.” Next time you want to pretend to know something, try only using terms you can define. In any case, let’s hope (an admittedly watered-down) HB 63 becomes law! And take a moment to google prosecutorial discretion before commenting again…

  5. I’m a Disabled Veteran and receive medical from the Veterans Administration, marijuana helps to quell my anxiety issues. I have asked my VA Dr. if this can be prescribed. Unfortunately the laws in this state makes possession illegal. My hope is that DA Gonzales can help Veterans that suffer from PTSD with the reduction of prosecutions of POM.

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