Commissioners Court to hold special session Dec. 21; DA’s Office to ask for $3.1 million
By David Ibañez and Courtney Friedman
SAN ANTONIO – Bexar County officials on Wednesday announced some comprehensive initiatives to address the rising caseload of family violence cases in criminal and civil courts.
The strategy includes an overview of current caseloads, services to assist and protect victims and a new approach to monitor abusers.
Bexar County Judge Nelson Wolff said that the Commissioners Court will hold a special session on Dec. 21 to hear from civil district judges, the Bexar County District Attorney, the Bexar County Family Justice Center and other key players on funding requests for programs.
“We need to do something, and we need to do it now,” said District Attorney Joe Gonzales, who acknowledged that the problem existed before he took office. “We’ve always known we’ve had a problem dealing with the backlog of these kinds of cases.”
Bexar County Director of Criminal Justice Policy, Planning and Programming Mike Lozito said he plans to file a funding request for $2.1 million that will be used to handle protective orders in the civil courts.
Lozito said funding is the only way to equally distribute the huge number of family violence cases.
The money would also be used for intensive supervision of high-risk perpetrators. Lozito is proposing that perpetrators wear a GEO fencing watch so that when the defendant gets within a certain distance of a victim, the victim will be warned via an app. The warning also applies when the perpetrator takes off the watch.
Bexar County Family Justice Center Director Crystal Chandler said the center is on track to help nearly 6,000 domestic violence survivors this year with free services and resources in person and virtually. Prior to 2019, the center helped 3,800 victims annually.
“With staff stretched thin, this has created many challenges,” Chandler said.
Chandler said she will be asking the Commissioners Court for two more coordinators who help victims involved in high-risk programs. She will also ask for additional funding to hire two more investigators ($327,000), two prosecutors ($189,000) and an advocate for the DA’s Office for a program that helps get protective orders for high-risk victims quickly.
Gonzales said his office has been proactive in dealing with the case backlog. He said that personnel was restructured to focus on domestic violence. He also said that six county court judges last year agreed to take on some family violence cases that weren’t originally assigned to them.
“But even that hasn’t been enough because we see a continual increase in family violence cases,” he said. “What we’ve seen is an increase of almost double since 2015.”
Gonzales said his office recently looked at best practices in other counties and how they handle caseloads. He said his prosecutors handle 750 cases annually compared to about 300 per prosecutor in Tarrant, El Paso and Harris counties.
“That’s staggering, that’s impossible. That’s not giving our prosecutors enough time to prepare for these cases to take them to trial and try them,” he said.
Gonzales also said that early intervention and early resolution are key to handling cases. He said reaching out to victims within 24 hours and letting them know they are working on the case will give them confidence that the DA’s Office is working on the case, and that will go a long way in helping prosecute offenders.
The two women on the Commissioners Court delivered some very passionate pleas that they are serious about fixing the problem.
Precinct 3 Commissioner Trish DeBerry called domestic violence “a scourge on this community. I will tell you that this is a public health crisis.”
DeBerry said she and Precinct 1 Commissioner Rebeca Clay-Flores are two females on the court “that take domestic violence very, very seriously. I am going to say today that this court has not patience, has no tolerance, has no appetite for the large dismissal rate that he have in Bexar County. No longer will victims stay victims, not on my watch.”
Clay-Flores said that a large part of her childhood trauma was due to her family being victims of domestic violence. She said that she wishes that her family had access to resources when she was a little girl.
“Domestic violence affects children and keeps them in the same kind of violent cycles throughout their lives,” she said.
Wolff said that the special session of the Commissioners Court will be ready to tackle the issue.
“I think we’re ready to address this issue and I think you will find the Commissioners Court will step up and do the right thing as we make a decision on that very important day,” he said.