Scott Ball / Rivard Report
Bexar County commissioners Tuesday approved two pilot programs meant to help control population spikes in the Bexar County Adult Detention Center.
According to current jail metrics reports, the jail population on April, 10, 2016 was 3,446 inmates. On April 9 of this year, the population was 3,893. As of last month, the Violent Crime Task Force – a joint effort among the San Antonio Police Department, the Bexar County Sheriff’s Office, the District Attorney’s office, and federal partners – has arrested 977 people in 2017.
To address the increased jail population and staff shortages, the Sheriff’s office has had to request additional funds from the County to cover mandatory overtime hours for jail employees.
The full-time Felony Jail Impact Court and the part-time Felony Plea Court – approved Tuesday – aim to speed up inmates’ trial and plea processes, respectively, thus reducing the amount of time they spend in jail.
Currently, it isn’t unusual for inmates to have to wait months in jail before going to trial, said visiting judge Laura Parker, who is leading the Impact Court.
“[Elected judges] have a lot of other things going on, so it’s hard sometimes to get through as many trial cases as they’d like because of all of their other obligations,” she told the Rivard Report. “[The Impact Court] is just another tool to try to tackle the jail population for those defendants that don’t want to plead, and to be able to have their day in court sooner than later.”
The Impact Court pilot will increase dispositions and will target those in jail who are charged with a felony offense and are requesting a trial. Parker anticipates the majority of the cases to be aggravated sexual assaults or other sex crime cases since “those are hard to plead and there are a lot of them,” leaving more complicated cases, such as death penalty cases, for elected judges to handle.
The County used to have an impact court, Parker said, but it was discontinued due to a shortage of courtrooms in the courthouse. The new court will differ from the previous one, she said. She will have a 20-case docket at all times, with two cases from each of the 10 criminal district courts.
This model keeps “constant pressure” on cases that could otherwise continue getting pushed before trial, Parker said.
Similarly, the Felony Plea Court pilot, recommended by Judge David Peeples, will take pleas from two rotating district courts every other week. That court will utilize the Civil Presiding Courtroom, as well as the County’s Double-Height Courtroom on weeks when County commissioners do not meet.
The Impact Court will operate full-time out of the former magistrate court in the courthouse basement. Commissioners Tuesday agreed to allocate $227,531 toward operational costs for both courts, including renovations, staffing, and technology needs.
Officials will conduct weekly and monthly reports evaluating the programs and will report back to commissioners in June with the results.
The two pilot programs complement other existing efforts to reduce the jail population, including the Sheriff’s office increased use of GPS trackers, housing 30 inmates at the Karnes County Correction Center at no cost to Bexar County, adding an additional day for parole hearings, and ordering substance abuse treatment services as an option for jail release.
“We’re just looking forward to this pilot program and to see what it’s going to do for our jail population, our manpower needs, and our overtime costs,” said Bexar County Sheriff Javier Salazar. “For sure it’s going to have a positive impact on that.”
Parker is a former District Court judge who created and presided over the 386th Juvenile District Court. Over her tenure, she presided over other specialty courts that dealt with young sex-trafficking victims, adolescents with mental health issues, and drug-dependent youth in the justice system.
She was ousted from office in the November elections, and said she’s ready to get back to work.
“I’m ready to be on call and do what I can to reduce the jail population, and get people who are wanting to get a trial heard sooner than later,” Parker said.
“… I’m planning to give it all I have.”