County commissioners allocated $3.3 million in federal coronavirus recovery dollars to bolster domestic violence resources in the courts system and other parts of Bexar County.
Several judges requested even more help, given the scope of the need.
Bexar County Judge Nelson Wolff called a special meeting of the Commissioners Court on Tuesday to discuss the increase of domestic violence cases in the county’s courts.
In order to alleviate the case backlog, the county budget office recommended taking $3.3 million of American Rescue Plan Act funding and putting it toward the county criminal courts that handle misdemeanors, the district attorney’s office, the civil district courts and the office of criminal justice.
Family violence cases have risen steadily, even pre-pandemic. A report from the Bexar County budget office found that between fiscal year 2016 and 2020, misdemeanor family violence assault case filings have increased by 15.2% even while overall misdemeanor caseload decreased by 32.7% during the same time period.
The coronavirus pandemic exacerbated the problem, not only because courts shut down, but also due to the higher number of family violence cases filed with the judicial system.
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Violence Assault Cases
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The county’s budget office recommended adding visiting judge courts to help hear more domestic violence cases and reduce backlog. Commissioners ultimately approved that recommendation, but several judges expressed their dismay at only having temporary judges to handle the backlog.
Judge Kimberly Burley of the Bexar County Children’s Court was one of a number of judges who requested funding for another full-time associate judge to handle family violence cases. She told commissioners she often does not even have time to take a lunch break due to the volume of cases she has to address.
“Please understand, this is not a complaint about the work that we do,” she said. “We enjoy the work that we do. It is very rewarding. But the children and families of Bexar County deserve more. They deserve for us to be able to give more to these cases.”
Judge Rosie Speedlin Gonzalez of County Court 13, which is one of the two county courts dedicated to domestic violence cases, argued that visiting judges would not be fully equipped to take on family violence cases. She also advocated for adding more full-time judges to address the backlog, saying that “stop-gap” measures don’t lead to success.
“I’m asking you as stewards of public money to consider setting aside political theater and investing in the future of our county, putting processes and protocols in place that we won’t get to see but will benefit our children and our grandchildren,” she said.
“We are a growing community. We brag about what a prosperous business community we have, but in truth that’s just a charade. Because we have such a sick and traumatized community. And unless we start to address that sickness, that trauma, it will all come crumbling down.”
County Manager David Smith said that Tuesday’s action had a narrow goal: to tackle the backlog of domestic violence cases, which county staff estimates will take a couple of years to go through. The recommendation is about getting the backlog adjudicated, he said, rather than trying to solve the problem of domestic violence in total.
County commissioners voted to approve staff’s recommendation to put $2.7 million toward new and pending misdemeanor family violence cases, which would include paying for two visiting judges and staff to support those two temporary courts, such as coordinators, bailiffs and prosecutors for the district attorney’s office.
The $3.3 million also includes $542,995 for a GPS-supervision program to be administered by the county’s Office of Criminal Justice. Through the program, a GPS wristwatch notifies victims and the county when a defendant violates court-ordered distancing.
Commissioners allocated $414,946 for the civil district courts, which would cover a deputy sheriff bailiff and district clerk position as well as giving $250,000 to Texas RioGrande Legal Aid so the nonprofit can provide legal services to victims and children.
Bexar County Judge Nelson Wolff reminded his colleagues on Tuesday that the Commissioners Court allocated $780,336 to the Children’s Court in the fiscal year 2022 budget as well. Adding the $414,946 from ARPA funds, “that makes it a little over $1 million” going to the civil courts, he said.
Though commissioners unanimously approved the $3.3 million ARPA allocation, Commissioner Rebeca Clay-Flores (Pct. 1) wanted to note that providing more money to the courts would not be the only way they addressed Bexar County’s domestic violence problems.
“It’s also about the schools. It’s also about the nonprofits,” she said. “It’s about all of us working together.”