More judges needed to combat increase in criminal cases

FILE - Blackwell Thurman Criminal Justice Center (KXAN Photo/Kevin Schwaller)
FILE - Blackwell Thurman Criminal Justice Center (KXAN Photo/Kevin Schwaller)

AUSTIN (KXAN) – Every weekday morning at the Blackwell-Thurman Criminal Justice Center, a row of TV screens show dozens of names and the court that defendant is assigned to. Travis County officials say the list of criminal defendants is growing longer every year as the Travis County’s District Criminal courts are seeing more violent crime cases.

FILE - Inside Blackwell Thurman Criminal Justice Center where monitors display the docket. (KXAN Photo/Kevin Schwaller)
FILE – Inside Blackwell Thurman Criminal Justice Center where monitors display the docket. (KXAN Photo/Kevin Schwaller)

This influx in cases is prompting the Travis County Commissioners Court to request three more judges. The commissioners are set to take up the issue at its meeting Tuesday.

Number of Travis County Judges
County Courts: 7
District Courts: 9

Documents state that violent crime cases tend to have more jury trials and impact lengths of the jail stays. The need for three more judges is based on a weighted formula looking at available hours from judges and the time requirements for varying types of cases.

A letter from the Office of Court Administration states that its calculations also back up the need for three more district courts in Travis County and that the office plans to bring up the need to the legislature next year.

According to a presentation for the Travis County Commissioners Court, violent crime cases on Travis County dockets were up to 3,341 in the 2016 fiscal year compared to 2,769 in 2012, with family violence assaults, aggravated robbery, and robbery driving that increase.

The proposal put in front of the Travis County Commissioner’s Court Tuesday calls for the establishment of two new district courts by 2019 and adding a third in 2021. The first two courts, under an outline presented Tuesday, could go into the current Criminal Justice Center and a nearby building. But that would require a renovation and moving existing offices.

“It’s always going to be a budget thing for me,” said Travis County Commissioner Gerald Daugherty.

Daugherty says he understands the need for new judges, but he asked for the judges for suggestions for how to fund the county costs associated with adding new district courts.

Adding any new courts will first need the approval of the legislature.

Other Court Needs

While the criminal court needs more judges, the county’s Civil and Family Court System also has a large request of its own. That court’s needs stems from the same issue: too many cases. Last November, Travis County voters rejected a $287 million bond proposal that would have funded a new civil courthouse complex on Fourth and Guadalupe streets. Opponents of the 2015 bond said they weren’t against having a new facility, they were just concerned about the proposed location.

Attorneys and court staff have said on most days, the run-down Heman Marion Sweatt building on 10th and Guadalupe are full of people. So full in fact that it’s common to see attorney-client meetings right in the hallway.

The current courthouse has 158,000 square feet of space. The original proposal was to build a courthouse tower that would have more than three times the space and add 14 new courtrooms. Opponents of the 2015 bond said they’re not against having a new facility, they’re just concerned about the proposed location.

While the bond didn’t pass in 2015, Travis County is still working on potential sites that could be used for the new courthouse.

“After reviewing more than 20 sites, some as far as 10 miles from the Heman Marion Sweatt Courthouse, we are pleased to have narrowed the selection to five very promising sites,” said Travis County Judge Sarah Eckhardt in a statement last week.

The county says it cannot reveal the five locations as they are still in the negotiation phase but hope to select a final site by early 2017.

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