The county is starting to see the benefits of an associate judge who commissioners hired in October to help clear the felony criminal docket, officials said Tuesday.

County Judge Scott Felton said the new system is working as predicted when the county hired Judge David Hodges.

At $70 a day per inmate, jail costs add up quickly when defendants are awaiting their day in court longer than needed, Felton said.

The full-time district judges immediately put Hodges to work, and his schedule is already booked through May, Hodges told commissioners Tuesday.

“They have gotten used to using me pretty quickly,” he said.

Judge Matt Johnson of Waco’s 54th State District Court recently had 12 hearings on plea deals in felony cases scheduled for the same day he started a felony jury trial, Hodges said. Before Hodges started, the hearings would have had to be pushed back five to six weeks, he said.

“I took those pleas that day, disposing of 12 to 14 cases,” Hodges said. “Each one of those defendants were cases ready to go to (the Texas Department of Criminal Justice.) What we’re trying to do is dispose of those cases more quickly.”

Jury selection, plea deals

He has filled in for both Johnson and 19th State District Judge Ralph Strother, sometimes selecting a jury for a trial, sometimes handling plea deals.

“They are scheduling me pretty far out,” he said.

Two things, more courtroom space and more court reporters, would make the process go smoother, Hodges told commissioners.

Contract court reporters are hard to come by, and are needed for any felony case, he said.

More space, however, is already on the way. Hodges said he uses whatever courtroom is open, but that limits scheduling opportunities.

Before Hodges was hired, commissioners had started discussions about converting the law library on the fourth floor of the courthouse into a courtroom. That conversion is now underway, and the law library will be moved to the courthouse annex building, Felton said. Furniture for the new courtroom is scheduled to arrive in about six weeks, he said.

County commissioners also plan to have a work session soon to discuss space in county facilities, which has surfaced as an issue among growing departments.

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