McLennan County District Attorney Barry Johnson made an impassioned plea Wednesday for more staffers, telling commissioners $300,000 in new hires and salary increases would streamline the criminal justice process and reduce chronically high jail inmate counts costing the county time and money.
Johnson, who defeated incumbent District Attorney Abel Reyna in the 2018 Republican primary, told commissioners having 1,100 inmates languishing in the county lockup “is unacceptable.” He promised change through increasing use of personal recognizance bonds, boosting pay for seasoned attorneys and vetting criminal cases as quickly as possible to determine their viability.
No longer should the county abide housing inmates for months, even years, only to have plea deals struck just as trials start, he said.
Johnson and First Assistant District Attorney Nelson Barnes proposed improving the efficiency of the DA’s office by hiring a legal clerk and attorney for the Child Protective Services department; adding a legal assistant devoted exclusively to grand jury preparation, indictments and extraditions; hiring an additional investigator; and hiring someone to provide full-time support for the discovery process that includes securing and sharing evidence.
New hires would add $250,000 to the DA’s personnel budget, while raises aimed at reducing turnover among the more seasoned attorneys would run about $50,000, Barnes said during an interview after the meeting.
The DA’s office now employs 31 attorneys and 30 support staffers.
Commissioners generally reacted positively to Johnson’s plan.
“I believe it is excellent, well-thought-out,” Precinct 2 Commissioner Pat Chisolm-Miller said. “I’ve known people who have stayed in jail a long time, so long they do not have a job when they get out, and they’re accused of relatively minor offenses. I think you should have your day in court, serve the time you’re supposed to serve. But you should not have your life destroyed.”
She hinted she would support Johnson’s proposed hires and budget increase.
“We can’t hold you accountable without giving you the tools,” Chisolm-Miller said to Johnson.
Precinct 1 Commissioner Kelly Snell echoed Chisolm-Miller’s sentiment, telling Johnson he would lean toward providing the financial support he needs.
“I think you’ve done a good job on your first budget,” he said to Johnson.
Precinct 4 Commissioner Ben Perry also indicated his support but asked if Johnson’s approach is being well received by law enforcement.
“We don’t mind helping you with this program, but it’s gotta work,” Perry said.
“If it doesn’t,” Johnson said, “I’ll come back with egg all over my face.”
He said he generally has received positive response from local law enforcement, though Waco Police Chief Ryan Holt “wanted to meet with me at 8 in the morning the next day,” when news broke about Johnson’s goal of having law enforcement reports on his desk within 48 hours of crime-related calls.
He said he still would like to have those reports within 10 days at the most.
“We would like to review cases even before a warrant is issued for an arrest,” Johnson said.
His goal is to reduce McLennan County’s daily jail population to 700 inmates from the 1,100 reported this week.
He even lobbied to have the inmate transfer system upgraded to allow larger groups to be ushered into courtrooms for pleadings one after the other. He would favor allowing felons to make pleadings on closed-circuit TV to avoid the expense and risk of transporting them for initial appearances.
The latter “is not legal now, but we’re doing some checking,” he said.
“To be brutally honest, for eight years, no, more like 30 years, the DA’s office approach has been, ‘Manana. When we get around to it.’ … That’s the culture we want to change,” Johnson said. “Delays cost time and money. We inherited a huge backlog of cases from the Twin Peaks situation. We hired three three attorneys to help with that. That bogged everything down.”
Reyna “also indicated he was going to be tough,” and maximum sentences became commonplace, he said.
But securing plea bargains brings efficiency, Johnson said.
State District Judge Ralph Strother said Johnson has met with other state judges and their staffs to outline his plan of action.
“I think it’s fair to say we all want to cooperate, do anything we can to speed up the process for the sake of everyone, law enforcement, defendants, the citizens of this county,” Strother said. “As the old idiom says, ‘Justice delayed is justice denied,’ and you are presumed innocent until proven guilty. Speeding up the process means getting cases resolved. It has nothing to do with punishment. There are a lot of moving parts to our system, a lot that people don’t see, especially how those parts come together.
“I hope our DA can get this squared away. I would think all stakeholders would like to see it done as quickly as possible.”