Bexar County Criminal District Attorney Joe Gonzales speaks after being sworn in.
Bexar County District Attorney Joe Gonzales has signed a policy relaxing criminal charges on some marijuana misdemeanor cases. Credit: Bonnie Arbittier / San Antonio Report

Bexar County District Attorney Joe Gonzales was confused to find the family violence unit of the district attorney’s office in the white collar crime division. He removed it from that umbrella and established it as a standalone unit.

“I have no idea why that happened that way, but that’s not the way it was two administrations ago,” he said.

Gonzales took office in January and has since kept busy with the platform points on which he campaigned. Gonzales gave himself a six-month timeline when he was sworn in to begin working on a few key issues, including establishing a cite-and-release policy, reforming the bail bond system, and strengthening the district attorney office’s family violence unit. He has managed to tackle all of those so far.

Family Violence Case Backlog

One of the biggest challenges Gonzales faces at the moment is the number of family violence cases that are waiting to go to trial; 1,100 cases are pending in 10 felony courts. Gonzales decided to increase the number of felony prosecutors assigned to family violence courts from 22 to 35 attorneys, as well as ask more judges to take on family violence cases.

“There is a backlog of cases that are sitting and waiting to go to trial, but that’s more because only two county courts are dedicated to handling family violence cases,” he said. “If we had some of those family violence cases that are waiting to go to trial spread out among the other county courts, that might alleviate the trial backlog.”

Gonzales asked all of the county court judges to hear family violence cases, even if that was not their court’s original function.

“A large majority of the county court judges have been very willing to assist, so we’re trying to work on the process of transferring some of these cases to them,” he said.

Keeping Low-Level Offenders Out of Jail

Gonzales said he is close to announcing a cite-and-release policy that would allow officers to ticket low-level nonviolent offenders instead of incarcerating them. He has been working with the San Antonio Police Department as well as the Bexar County Sheriff’s Office on establishing a policy.

SAPD has been operating on a pilot program. Chief William McManus said in December that the police intended to expand the cite-and-release policy to include certain Class A and Class B misdemeanors. Bexar County also started its cite-and-release pilot program last year.

Under a separate new policy Gonzales issued Wednesday, his prosecutors are not to pursue criminal trespass cases if the person charged is homeless and has no other criminal or violent history. The move came after 63-year-old Jack Ule died in custody because he was unable to post $500 bail. Ule’s was the second death of a homeless individual charged with criminal trespass and unable to bond out from Bexar County Jail since December. The new policy was designed not only to reduce jail population but to keep people without money from sitting in jail for long periods of time. Gonzales defended the policy after the San Antonio Police Officers Association criticized it for giving homeless people a “free pass.”

“People with homes are not being arrested for criminal trespass and sitting in jail for months at a time,” Gonzales said. “If you have a home, chances are you have a job. And if you have a job, chances are you can bond out. If we see it is discriminatory, then we’ll revisit the policy. This policy is designed to tackle the problem we see now.”

Gonzales also has been directing his prosecutors to recommend personal recognizance bonds, where arrested individuals must sign an agreement to come back to court but do not have to post bail, for low-level nonviolent offenders. He stressed that all his office can do is recommend this option to the deciding judge.

“It’s still up to the magistrate judge to grant [personal recognizance] bonds,” he said.

Staffing the District Attorney’s Office

In a surprising reach across the aisle, Gonzales, a Democrat, offered jobs to several Republican judges that lost their seats in the “blue wave” of November 2018. Democrats swept the 13 County court-at-law seats contested in that election, as well as two County probate court seats and seven district court seats. He hired five of them, in addition to former Judge Melisa Skinner of the 290th Criminal District Court, who now serves as the lead prosecutor for the 144th District Court. Skinner lost her race against Democrat Jennifer Peña in November.

“I recognized the need to approach them and offer them positions in my administration because they are seasoned lawyers,” he said. “A lot of them came to the bench already with experience as former prosecutors. I just thought it was a natural fit to offer them positions in my office.”

Skinner said she and Gonzales have a long professional history – they both worked for the district attorney’s office and he had litigated cases in front of her while she was a judge. She said she was flattered when she received an offer from Gonzales to work in the DA’s office once again.

“I saw it as a very smart move,” she said. “That’s what he was wanting: experience and knowledge and fairness. … I considered it a very smart move to bring back people who have the experience he needed to make a base for his office, with a good amount of knowledge and experience to draw off of for the younger attorneys.”

Skinner said she has seen a difference since Gonzales’ arrival. For example, people held on felony cases must be indicted by a grand jury within 90 days, she said – something that wasn’t happening under the previous DA, Nico LaHood.

“People shouldn’t languish in jail,” she said. “They should either be charged or released. If the evidence isn’t there and we’re not prosecuting, we shouldn’t let them languish in jail. That was happening in the last administration. We’re trying to get this office back on track where that’s not happening anymore.”

DA staffers are working hard to keep the office running efficiently, she said.

“Whatever’s left over [from the last administration], we’re picking up,” she said. “And we get multiple new cases every single day. It’s very hard to catch up on a problem like that overnight. … I think each court is probably working collectively another 40 hours a week. It’s nighttime, weekends, through lunch, but that’s fine. It has to happen.”

So far, prosecutors have gone through 600 of the 2,100 unreviewed cases inherited from the previous administration, Gonzales said.

“When we walked in the door, there were boxes and boxes of files that had not been reviewed, and so we have spent the last few months going through those intake boxes. … Our intake section is doing a fantastic job, so we’re making some significant progress in that area,” he said.

Gonzales said some problems are easier to fix than others.

“The frustrating thing is some of these solutions are beyond my control, like manpower,” he said. “I can desire more people all day long, but it’s not my call. And I have to wait for the budget cycle to come around so that I can request additional help.”

Criminal Justice Reform

Gonzales said he’s satisfied with what his office has accomplished so far, but there’s more to do. He hopes to cement a legacy of being a district attorney truly committed to criminal justice reform.

“Historically, the mindset was always if you’re prosecutor, you have to be tough on crime, everything should require some incarceration, and that’s not the case,” he said. “One of the reasons that I left my career as a prosecutor early on is because punishment, like crime, is not black and white. There’s a lot of gray. And not everybody deserves to go to prison and not everybody deserves to go to jail.”

People in possession of a small amount of marijuana with no other criminal history would be one of the candidates Gonzales would like to see given a chance to move on without an arrest record.

“That’s what I hope to do in my office. … Those people who deserve a second chance ought to get a second chance,” he said.

Though he’s open-minded about marijuana’s legal status, he wants to consider the matter further before making any decisions, he said. He hasn’t formed a firm opinion on the decriminalization or legalization of marijuana entirely yet.

“There’s a national movement to decriminalizing marijuana,” Gonzales said. “I’m not there yet, I’m not saying that we ought to decriminalize marijuana, but I certainly think there is room to perhaps look at lessening the punishment for marijuana possession. … Not to say that I won’t change my mind, but for now, we have to take baby steps. Let’s talk about reform a little at a time.”

Jackie Wang covered local government for the San Antonio Report.