Travis County DA: 800 case backlog at trial court, more paralegals needed

Travis County seal

AUSTIN (KXAN) – Travis County DA Rosemary Lehmberg sounded the alarm last spring, now her prediction a year-old law aimed at ensuring defendants in District and County Court cases have access to all available evidence would necessitate hiring new paralegals to handle the added workload – has come before Commissioners’ Court.

Documents presented to Commissioners Tuesday show Trial Court lawyers faced a backlog of 800 cases in November. This is despite the hiring of a total of eight people in June for both the District and County Courts (Those include 4 paralegals in District Court, 2 in County Court along with one Senior Office Manager and an Evidence Technician).

‘During the quarter year period from August 1 to October 31, 2014, the four Trial Bureau Paralegals produced and documented discovery in 788 felony files. The projected yearly discovery capability of these four paralegals is 3152 cases. The average number of felony files handled by the Trial Bureau for the past several years is 9,700.’

County meeting briefing notes show the District Court Family Justice Division is equally affected and compromising the best use of attorneys’ time: ‘Since the passage of the Michael Morton Act, individual FJD prosecutors in both the criminal unit and the juvenile unit have been trying to keep up with the discovery for their individual caseloads. These prosecutors spend a significant amount of time each day scanning, copying and redacting documents in an effort to help the paralegals. This time could and should be better spent by these prosecutors on trial preparation.

‘In September, they produced properly documented discovery in 119 cases. By the end of September, the backlog stood at 79 cases. In October, they processed 98 cases and the backlog had increased to 143 cases. In November, they processed 68 cases and the backlog again increased to 240 cases.
The Criminal Unit of the Family Justice Division (FJD) of the Travis County District Attorney’s Office handles intake, grand jury presentation and prosecution of all of the
intimate partner assault/family violence and strangulation cases, and all of the sexual assault and physical abuse cases against children under the age of 17. The Juvenile Unit of the Family Justice Division handles intake, petition preparation, and prosecution of all juvenile criminal cases committed by juvenile respondents under the age of 17.
The number of new FJD criminal cases average 1300 per year and over 1400 juvenile cases per year. Both are continuing to increase each year.

Vacancy game

The County’s Budget office is looking at the cost of creating eight new mid-year paralegal and related positions at the District court and four at the County Court. That would be on top of extending the current eight positions which were paid for using internal mid-year savings and could now cost more than $500,000 to fulfill the rules of the Morton Act.  County budget staff are also seeing if 6.5 vacancies at the County Court and nine at District Court can be incorporated into the Morton staffing request.

The Morton Act was named after Michael Morton, the Williamson County man who spent nearly 25 years in prison after the then-prosecutor in the case was later found to have deliberately withheld evidence that would have cleared Morton. Another man was eventually convicted of the murder after Morton was freed.

KXAN first reported the potential backlogs in July as they related to not only courts, but law enforcement.

County notes also show a possible technological solution from Tarrant County. Prosecution teams there already had an electronic document filing system in place allowing law enforcement to upload relevant case files. The system also indexes those documents. The system was then configured to alert staff to cases where evidence is missing. In Travis County, some of that work is still done manually, documents show.

It’s hoped a system called the Techshare project touted by the Conference of Urban Counties will be implemented in the near future. What’s more some Counties are also used automated redaction software to cut down on time needed for that arduous task.

 

 

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