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As hundreds wait in Dallas County jails, officials fund a 'backlog court'

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So far this month, Dallas County data puts the average daily jail population at 5,671. That’s significantly higher than that yearly average for 2017, 2018 and 2019.

Hundreds of people accused of crimes in Dallas County are waiting a trial, languishing in jails because COVID-19 slowed down court operations.

Dallas County officials are setting up a “backlog court” with federal COVID-19 relief money to reduce the jail population. Fewer prisoners would mean less cost to the county. The County Commissioners Court approved the money during a meeting this week.

“In the last year, we are 10,000 cases down from where we were last year ... backlogged,” Commissioner John Wiley Price said.

The people waiting for their day in court are only accused of crimes — there has not been a proceeding to determine guilt or innocence.

Priority in the Felony and Misdemeanor Backlog Courts will go to cases older than a year and to defendants currently in the county jail. (Some of the backlog involves defendants who were able to post bond and are not in jail.)

So far this month, Dallas County data puts the average daily jail population at 5,671. That’s significantly higher than that yearly average for 2017, 2018 and 2019.

"The goal is to get to the pre-COVID levels,” County Administrator Darryl Martin said.

County detention facilities have a combined limit of about 7,100 people. Martin said county officials begin to get nervous when they approach 6,500, because it becomes more difficult to follow a rule that women and men must be kept out of earshot and eyesight of each other. It also becomes harder to keep minimum security inmates separate from maximum security inmates.

The proposed cost of the two courts is approximately $3,660,000, paid with money from the American Rescue Plan Act that President Biden signed in March. The money will pay for visiting judges, bailiffs, court coordinators, clerks, attorneys, investigators, and paralegals.

Commissioners added four bilingual legal secretaries to the original proposal to make sure the cases keep moving.

“If they don’t have office support, you can’t make it. It’s going to clog,” Price said.

Martin said the daily cost of housing an inmate is $67.20. The total budget for the county sheriff's department, which runs the jails, is $12 million per month.

The Texas Constitution and the 6th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution both guarantee defendants’ right to a speedy trial, but neither defines “speedy.”

According to the Fort Worth criminal defense law firm Varghese Summersett, there are several factors that play into whether defendants can successfully claim they were denied their right to a speedy trial, including the reason for the delay.

Got a tip? Email Bret Jaspers at bjaspers@kera.org. You can follow Bret on Twitter @bretjaspers.

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