Bexar County District Attorney Joe Gonzales has released a Midterm Report detailing how the office progressed in the first two years under his leadership, most of which was greatly impacted by COVID-19.
“It is important for the public to know how the District Attorney’s Office functions, from our staff’s workload to policies we have implemented that we believe allow our staff to focus on violent crime and will prevent people from languishing in jail for minor, non-violent crimes,” Gonzales said.
One of those policies includes the implantation of cite and release in mid-2019, allowing officers to issue a citation for some low level offenses. It has prevented more than 3,500 people from going to jail, a savings of $2.6 million in jail booking costs alone. Each of those people have also had the opportunity to avoid having that offense on their criminal records if they successfully complete the diversion programs.
The report also details other policies D.A. Gonzales has implemented:
- Lab report policy: Certain drug cases will not be accepted for prosecution until a lab report is available. Prior to the January 2021 policy, a defendant could sit in jail for 90 days or more for possessing a very small amount of a substance while prosecutors waited to determine if that substance was an illegal drug. Depending on the lab, the reports could take more than one year to be completed.
- Drug declination: In May 2019, the D.A.’s Office implemented a policy that it will not prosecute possession of less than 1 ounce of marijuana or controlled substance cases under .25 grams (the equivalent of ¼ of a packet of Sweet ‘N Low) unless the defendant is a danger to the community.
- Bail reform: A “presumption of release” policy was implemented in the spring 2019. Prosecutors are required to recommend release without cash bail for all defendants charged with misdemeanor and state jail felonies unless that person is a danger to the community or the victim or the defendant is a flight risk.
None of the policies of the Bexar County District Attorney’s Office prevents law enforcement from making an arrest.
In January 2019, the Family Violence Division discovered a backlog of nearly 2,000 cases that had been awaiting review from previous administrations. The division staffing was increased by more than 50% to help clear that backlog and continue to file cases in the courts where they await disposition.
More than 60,000 cases were filed following arrest by a law enforcement agency with the Bexar County District Attorney’s Office in 2019 and more than 50,000 were filed in 2020. Those cases consist of misdemeanor and felony offenses, all of which must be reviewed to determine whether they should be accepted and filed in court for prosecution.
The report also includes information on case resolutions.
“There is a dramatic decrease in case dispositions from 2019 to 2020 because jury trials came to a halt in March once COVID-19 protocols were put into place by the local administrative judge. While very few cases are resolved by jury trial, most are handled by plea agreements. Our prosecutors were able to review cases remotely and participate in Zoom hearings. Anyone who has viewed or participated in those virtual court proceedings knows that while the wheels of justice continued to move, it was at a much slower pace. In-person court hearings have started on a staggered schedule, but we still have a long way to go before all of our courts are able to resume jury trials at the pre-pandemic pace,” Gonzales said.
The last year also allowed the District Attorney’s Office time to take a closer look at operations, especially after the killing of George Floyd in May 2020. Upon taking office, D.A. Gonzales had already ordered all officer-involved shootings reviewed by the Special Crimes Division be presented to a Grand Jury to determine if there was any criminal wrongdoing on the part of the officers. In October 2020, D.A. Gonzales obtained funding for a Civil Rights Division to handle those shootings as well as excessive force complaints.
“Because these are the only cases this division handles, the team can dedicate their time to these complicated cases. While the Texas Legislature has not indicated they will take action to put into place any independent process for review and prosecution of these cases, this is the best solution we have. If a Grand Jury returns an indictment, this division will take the case to trial. If the Grand Jury returns a no bill of indictment, our office will release a memo detailing the facts of the case and the laws,” Gonzales said.
Up until January of 2021, law enforcement officers walked in cases filled with papers and CDs containing additional evidence, like photos and videos. Each of those documents and files needed to be scanned; steps that often delay the review process. Now, with the implementation of the BexarEIS system, officers are able to upload their files digitally. This saves officers the time of having to physically come to the courthouse to deliver their cases and allows our staff to begin the review process in a more efficient manner.
For the first time in Bexar County, D.A. Gonzales has made public dashboards illustrating cite and release, magistration, family violence and criminal trial data. Other dashboards are planned to be added in the coming months.
“We continue to identify more ways to make it easy for the public to see what this office does and to understand our efforts to both help reform the criminal justice system and keep the citizens of Bexar County safe,” Gonzales said.
To learn more about changes to the Bexar County District Attorney’s Office and its progress, you can read the full report here.