Fewer case filings threaten jobs
Misdemeanor arrests by law enforcement and case filings by the county attorney’s office have dropped so dramatically that layoffs will occur in the Adult Probation office this summer if more cases are not prosecuted.
Misdemeanors include some DWI and family violence cases as well as drug offenses, assault, theft, criminal mischief and other crimes.
Class A and Class B misdemeanor crimes can carry jail time, but offenders are sometimes placed under the supervision of a probation officer. The Community Supervision & Corrections Department is funded through probation fees.
Despite Hood County being designated by the U.S. Census Bureau as the ninth fastest-growing county in the country, cases are down to the lowest point in the history of the county attorney’s office, according to county Court-at-Law Judge Vincent Messina. He served as county attorney from 1992-1996.
Fines and court fees from misdemeanor cases fund the county court-at-law. Fines can be up to $4,000 for a Class A misdemeanor and up to $2,000 for a Class B. Class C misdemeanor fines do not exceed $500.
Messina recently informed the Commissioners Court of the downward trend and warned the county judge and commissioners about its potential impact.
The judge told the HCN, “The case filings in my court have dropped significantly over the past three years.”
County Attorney Matt Mills took office three years ago this month.
However, Mills said that the reduction in case filings is not because he is failing to hold accused offenders accountable but rather because there have been fewer cases to file. He said that arrests by local law enforcement and state troopers are down and that the Granbury Police Department “has been the one constant in terms of sending us cases.”
Mills cited possible reasons for the decline in arrests, including law enforcement staffing issues, changes in laws and a different focus among law enforcement agencies, such as when the Department of Public Safety sends more state troopers to the border.
Regardless of who is responsible, the steady decline in misdemeanor case filings resulted in a challenge to Mills in his bid for re-election to a second term.
Stuart Neal, a former prosecutor in that office under former County Attorney Kelton Conner, cited a lack of prosecutions as his reason for challenging Mills in the March 3 Republican primary. Neal also worked as a prosecutor in Johnson County.
Email exchanges obtained by the HCN through an Open Records request show that Messina began communicating with Mills about the lower number of case filings early last year.
In an email that Mills sent to Messina last February in response to the judge’s concerns, he stated that his office had not made any “seismic changes on case filings” since he took office.
“Overall, I might decline one or two more cases per 100 than previous administrations,” his email stated. “But all of the talk I heard while I was campaigning about how I wouldn’t prosecute any of this or that type of case hasn’t proven to be true.”
A source within county government who did not want to be named told the HCN that law enforcement officials are upset with the number of cases Mills has been rejecting.
The HCN was unable to obtain comment from Gran-bury Police Chief Mitch Galvan because he is out of the office recovering from surgery.
Though he communicated with the HCN by email on Monday to say that he may not return to the office until next week, Galvan did not provide comment regarding misdemeanor prosecutions by the county attorney.
Sheriff Roger Deeds refuses to communicate with the HCN or to allow any of his staff to do so.
Email exchanges involving Messina, Mills and Chief Deputy Dean Armstrong in County Clerk Katie Lang’s office included Armstrong’s claim that 588 defendants obtained bonds but no cases were filed against them by the county attorney’s office. He also stated that more than 260 cases had passed the statute of limitations.
Mills said that the numbers were wrong and that he quickly found five cases “just right off the top” that had in fact been filed and the defendants had “pled out.”
He said he believes confusion may have occurred because that office receives records of bonds.
Mills said that the county clerk’s office might still have on its books cases “that were declined two years ago,” making it wrongly appear as if there is a backlog of “a bajillion” cases.
Mills said that he feels claims to the public of significantly reduced case filings are politically motivated and noted that his statements of lower jail numbers – 1,367 bookings in 2016, 1,044 in 2017, and 1,048 in 2018 – are backed up by documentation that is available through the Hood County Jail to any requester.
He noted that the spreadsheets, which he provided to the HCN, show a “marked decline” in arrests, and that any claims that his office is widely rejecting cases for prosecution is “outright nonsense.”
The email exchanges obtained by the HCN included Messina advising Mills to get DWI cases on the docket while waiting for lab results and to communicate with the county clerk’s office when cases are declined. Mills expressed a willingness to do so.
The exchanges also include an email from Mills stating that he spoke with a representative of the Department of Public Safety who “said she used to file a year’s worth of cases in a cabinet, but now can fit two years’ worth of cases in the same space.”
Shelli Berry, director of the Community Supervision & Corrections Department, otherwise known as Adult Probation, said she anticipates laying off two administrative staffers in August if more misdemeanor cases aren’t prosecuted.
Berry said that the layoffs will mean that probation officers will be required to do more of their own data entry and clerical work, leaving them with less time to “effectively supervise probationers.”
POLITICS AND PUBLIC SAFETY
The reason for fewer arrests in Hood County is not clear. Crime rates tend to correlate with population growth, and the county is growing rapidly.
Mills noted that he has no authority to arrest people and that his office “can only charge what comes in.”
Greg Neal, a former Hood County deputy who is challenging Deeds in his bid for a fourth term, feels that the dropping arrest numbers are likely due to a combination of factors, including poorly done investigations and some investigators simply dropping cases and blaming prosecutors if the prosecutors ask for more investigative work to be done.
Mills said that requests for additional investigation may occur at times with more serious felony cases, but his office rarely makes such requests.
Neal also stated that “the lack of deputies in patrol reduces the number of arrests.”
At times there may be six or seven deputies per 12-hour shift, he said, but oftentimes there are only four due to training, vacation time, sick leave or family emergencies.
Neal said as well that the department is “top heavy,” partly because there are “too many investigators” and partly because the sheriff needs to be allowed to hire more deputies.
“A large percentage of the time there are only four (deputies) working the whole county,” Neal said. “Those deputies are running back and forth answering calls, so, no crime fighting.”
Neal added, “This county is growing way too fast to think you can still work with minimal numbers.”
Messina stated, “It goes without saying that not filing misdemeanor criminal cases sends the wrong message to those folks that are inclined to violate our criminal laws and statutes.”