As of July, Bexar County courts faced a backlog of about 5,600 domestic violence cases with only two judges specifically assigned to handle them.
Now, more county judges have agreed to hear domestic violence cases, following a resolution passed by county commissioners Tuesday.
The resolution, brought forward by Precinct 3 Commissioner Trish DeBerry, asked the other county court-at-law judges to accept domestic violence cases and pledged to provide resources to the district attorney’s office to address the backlog.
Between 2015 and 2020, domestic violence cases in Bexar County have risen by 78%, District Attorney Joe Gonzales said. Domestic violence cases also made up more than a quarter of all misdemeanor cases sent to Gonzales’ office in 2020. As of July 5, there were 5,639 family violence cases pending in the courts.
Because only two out of 15 county courts-at-law are specifically dedicated to hearing domestic violence cases, Gonzales hopes spreading the workload across the rest of the judges will help with the backlog, though he said it was up to the judges to redistribute their cases. He told commissioners that as of Tuesday six judges had agreed to take on domestic violence cases to help alleviate the backlog.
Gonzalez told commissioners that designating two county courts to handle all family violence cases 30 years ago “was an experiment that I think failed,” and “it may be time to rethink that.”
By Thursday, five more judges had agreed to take cases to help alleviate the backlog, DeBerry said. The remaining two are still considering it, as they themselves have sizeable dockets already, according to Judge Ron Rangel of the 379th District Court.
Rangel serves as the local administrative judge for the felony courts, but does not have direct oversight of the county courts-at-law, which deal with misdemeanor cases. (Judge John A. Longoria of County Court-at-Law 5, who serves as administrative judge for the county courts-at-law, was not available Thursday.)
Rangel said Thursday he also supports the second part of the resolution, in which commissioners pledged to aid the district attorney’s office by providing resources to help clear the domestic violence case backlog.
“I did have a conversation with Joe Gonzales about this issue over the weekend,” Rangel said. “He indicated that family violence cases require more work on their end because they are dealing with complainants very often in situations that need resources.”
The longer a domestic violence case goes unheard, the longer people involved in the case have to wait for help, Rangel said. For example, a judge cannot mandate counseling or put someone into inpatient treatment for substance abuse issues if relevant until a case is resolved.
While outside agencies might be able to provide housing or counseling while domestic violence cases are pending, “through the actual court system, we cannot assist anybody until the case is adjudicated,” Rangel said.
The backlog also keeps people in jail longer than necessary, said Judge Rosie Speedlin Gonzalez of County Court 13, which is one of the courts assigned to specifically address domestic violence cases.
“We need more resources so that we don’t keep overloading the jail with domestic violence offenders, people waiting to go to trial, violators of pretrial services types of conditions,” she said.
She added that in order to equip the other judges to hear domestic violence cases, the budget must expand to make sure judges are trained on domestic violence and courts have victims advocates trained on domestic violence as well.
“If [County Manager David Smith] is going to have to look at a budget where there are judges that are stepping up that want to do the work in addition to [County Courts] 7 and 13, then we cannot look at that without increasing our budget exponentially to make sure that everyone has the right type of training to do those cases,” Speedlin Gonzalez said.
The county is at “a critical juncture” with domestic violence cases, DeBerry said, as the coronavirus pandemic only exacerbated the backlog and caused further delays in the court system.
“We as a court cannot mandate, but we can certainly advocate for [this],” she said on Tuesday. “So considering this as a crisis, as far as I’m concerned, and especially women in crisis, we’ve got to do something.”