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As Dallas County Jail population grows, felony judges push back against commissioners’ criticisms

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Dallas County commissioners have blamed felony judges for overcrowding in the Dallas County Jail.

Felony judges in Dallas County are pushing back against accusations from commissioners that they need to do more to move criminal cases to reduce overcrowding in the Dallas County Jail.

The majority of the felony judges in Dallas County are pushing back against accusations from commissioners that they need to do more to move cases.

It’s a longstanding dispute that’s reaching a new peak as the jail population continues to climb.

“In all situations where the Criminal District Court Judges are legally empowered to act to address this group of defendants, they do so in a timely manner,” judges wrote in a letter released Thursday.

The number of inmates in the Dallas County Jail was 6,319 on Thursday. There are 7,204 beds, which puts the jail at about 88% capacity.

This has county officials and staff searching for ways to reduce the jail population.

“We’re in dire circumstances here,” Dallas County Commissioner John Wiley Price said at a Tuesday meeting.

Price noted Harris County recently approved $25 million to send part of their jail population to West Texas because of space requirements. Hundreds of Houston-area inmates are already at a jail in Louisiana.

Price warned that Dallas County was perilously close to its own limit. “Given our classification system, we’re up against it,” he said.

Commissioners have criticized felony district court judges for months, arguing that some do not work full hours or need to change their practices.

Commissioner J. J. Koch, observing that he and his colleagues approve county spending and control $18,000 of judges’ salaries, suggested a small pay cut of about $20 to send a message.

“I don’t see them working with us in a meaningful manner until they know that we mean business,” Koch said.

In their letter, 13 of 17 felony district judges said there are many reasons for the rising jail population, several of which are outside their control.

"The remedies proposed at [commissioners court] meetings are typically violative of the law or devoid of an understanding of court processes and procedures,” the judges said. “Judges are willing and have always been willing to address Commissioner’s concerns, providing of course, that those discussions are conducted in a professional manner.”

Dallas County Judge Clay Jenkins told KERA on Thursday he believes there should be a uniform set of rules to speed things along. But he noted that judges are elected officials in their own right and don’t answer to commissioners.

“I and the commissioners court, even if [we] vote five to nothing, cannot make judges exercise their discretion in an individual case or how they run their courtroom differently than they choose to,” Jenkins said.

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

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Bret Jaspers is a reporter for KERA. His stories have aired nationally on the BBC, NPR’s newsmagazines, and APM’s Marketplace. He collaborated on the series Cash Flows, which won a 2020 Sigma Delta Chi award for Radio Investigative Reporting. He's a member of Actors' Equity, the professional stage actors union.