The effect of the budget shortfall has hit home over the past two weeks at the Harris County District Attorney's Office. The Office, like all the other county offices, is having to do significant cutbacks on their operating budgets and that has unfortunately led to layoffs. They hit the support staff first, with members of the Central Records team being terminated a week or two ago, and then a few secretaries this week and last. Today, there were three prosecutors who were laid off (NOTE: I'm not going to put their names on here, and if you are leaving comments, I ask that you don't either).
The budget crunch isn't the Lykos Administration's fault, but they have a big job ahead of them -- they must continue to keep up with the massive amounts of cases in the courts and they have to do so with dwindling personnel.
It is time for a shake up in the Office's Organizational Flow Chart. They need more prosecutors in the courtroom and less in their offices in the morning. Here are a few of my thoughts on what might help:
1. Get Rid of the Deputy Dawg Positions (both of them) -- as I've mentioned before the Deputy Dawg position is one whose primary purpose was to coordinate the recruiting of pre-commitsfrom the various law schools around the State. The Office isn't hiring right now, so their position is about as useless as having an extra orchestra member on the Titanic after it hit the iceberg.
It is time to send Rachel Palmer and Justin Keiter back into the trial Bureau to do some real work, rather than just keeping stats. John Jordan will do just fine in his position of making sure the Misdemeanor Courts run smoothly.
Having two Deputy Dawgs when you have felony courts that aren't fully staffed is completely inexcusable.
2. Downsize or Eliminate the Child Abuse Division -- no, I'm not urging that the Office stop prosecuting Sexual Assault of a Child cases. I'm just saying that it is something that can be part of a Felony Two's job description. That has always been something that Felony Twos were expected to try. I never spent a day in the Child Abuse Division, but I tried more of the "kiddie cases" than I care to remember. Having a Division that just handles those cases within certain parameters is wasteful.
I can see Child Abuse remaining in place for child fatality cases involving such things as Shaken Baby Syndrome. Those involve some specialized medical knowledge. But having a specialized division that just tries the same types of cases that any trial court Two does is work duplication. Your resources would be better served with having a more fully staffed court.
3. Figure out what exactly Roger Bridgwater and Hannah Chow do around there -- since Chow's water cooler placement program at the beginning of the Lykos Administration and Bridgwater's implementation of the DIVERT program, what exactly have they been doing with their time?
At last glance, Chow was somehow supervising intake and grand jury or something like that. Here's a newsflash, that's not a particular branch of the Office that needs a lot of supervision. And now that Bridgwater has DIVERT firmly in place, what exactly is he doing now?
I'm not naive enough to think that Lykos would ever cut lose one of her cronies, but I'd sure like to hear her justify why they are making the top salaries while we are laying off lower-payed, yet more useful court prosecutors.
4. Move Felony Threes/Misdemeanor Chiefs into Grand Jury rather than Felony Twos -- this idea actually kills two birds with one stone. Using Felony Twos (who are normally trying murders, sex cases, and other serious crimes) to do the mindless work of shuffling cases in and out of Grand Jury is like hiring Peyton Manning to be a football team's waterboy. The job of Grand Jury prosecutor isn't difficult. Those cases that are difficult to present to the Grand Jury should be presented by the trial court prosecutor handling the cases.
Furthermore, right now, your biggest spot of stagnation is at the Felony Three/Misdemeanor Chief level. You've had Felony Threes in their slots for well over a year because of lack of movement. I've mentioned before that this is ripe for some extreme burnout. If you add the spot of Grand Jury prosecutor to their position, you can give them a little more breathing room. Let them go from Felony Three to Misdemeanor Chief to Grand Jury Prosecutor and then back to being a Felony Three again.
5. Spend Your Freaking Asset Forfeiture Money on Some Part-Time Paid Interns -- you can't use the money on salaries, but you can use it for contract positions like law students eager for some criminal law experience. This isn't the first time I've mentioned this suggestion, but the logic still stands.
6. Send Your Special Crime Major Offender Prosecutors Back into the Trial Bureau -- under previous Administrations, Special Crimes was truly special. You had the best prosecutors handling the toughest cases. Now it is a reward position for favored prosecutors. If you are downsizing, and not spending the resources to go proactive on cases anymore anyway, why even bother having it? Seriously, if you aren't even going to bother sending a Special Crimes member out to the Tata crime scene, what exactly are they supposed to be doing.
Move those prosecutors back to being the Chiefs of Felony Courts and give younger prosecutors the benefit of their knowledge. As a general rule, Felony Chief prosecutors assigned to courts were never all that excited to have the big cases taken away from them by Special Crimes, anyway.
7. Think It Out Before Eliminating the Divisions You Do Truly Need -- Put the best prosecutors in those specialized divisions and keep them there! One of the Office's biggest assets right now is having John Brewer in White Collar and Identity Theft. He knows the material and he's good at training other prosecutors to be good with the material. This is a Division that actually needs to be growing despite the cutbacks in the budget, as these types of cases become more and more prevalent.
8. Lighten Up on the Non-Violent or (so-called) Victimless Cases and Return Some Discretion to Your Trial Court Chiefs -- you can save a lot of time and resources by giving more thought to those cases you are going to take to trial. I'm not talking about doing wholesale dismissals on drug charges or prostitution cases, but you might want to evaluate how much it is worth to you before going to trial. In my opinion, there is no excuse to ever be going to trial on a low-level PCS case over a year or two difference in the plea bargaining process. Especially not if there are murder cases set for trial and waiting to go. Let your chiefs make those decisions and let them make them without the fear of the Upper Administration going through old disposed files to chew them out later.
Times are tough right now in the D.A.'s Office, and they are apt to stay that way for quite some time. There are things that can be done to weather this storm, because you just simply have to. I don't envy the Upper Administration for having to make these tough calls, but they need to be thinking about the big picture in how to keep the Wheels of Justice moving. The more bad cuts they make keep To Do's from getting done on the average cases. Those To Do's mean more cases taking longer to work out or go to trial and that leads to jail overcrowding (not to mention the high potential for unjustified incarceration on people who can't make bond).
The bottom line is that there are some really big decisions to be made, and I hope that Lykos and the Gang is weighing out the big picture before making their decisions.