County officials hope to reduce the local inmate population by bringing in a new associate judge who will help set up a veterans court and who will fill in when district judges are unavailable.
McLennan County commissioners approved the creation of a general associate judge position Tuesday, with plans for the county’s judges to select someone to fill the role in the coming weeks.
McLennan County Judge Scott Felton, chief of the commissioners court, said he is optimistic the position will not only pay for itself but save the county money.
For one, the county will no longer have to pay for a visiting judge to help with the local caseload. The new judge will also be able to reduce delays in plea hearings, Felton said. The hearings are often pushed back for weeks if a trial runs long and prevents a judge from attending at the originally scheduled time. The delays result in inmates remaining in county custody longer.
“If they get put off for several weeks before they can go plea, then we would be paying for feeding and care of them while they are in (jail),” Felton said.
A local general associate judge will also become familiar with the sitting judges and typical sentencing levels to provide for more consistent judgments than can be expected with visiting judges, Felton said.
McLennan County’s jail population is a constant battle, Precinct 4 Commissioner Ben Perry said.
“We’ve got so many people sitting in jail that could plea,” Perry said. “It’s not that our judges aren’t working and trying to get it done in a timely matter, it’s just if they have a trial that runs long … there again we have potentially two weeks that we could have had people adjudicated and dealt with and out of our jail.”
High inmate count
Perry said McLennan County’s inmate population is twice as high as comparable counties, but it is unclear why. On an average day, there are 1,100 local inmates in McLennan County, he said. Though they both have smaller total populations, Bell County averages 500 inmates a day, and Williamson County averages 800 inmates a day, he said.
Through work on the veterans court the county is planning, the general associate judge will also assist in addressing some of the reasons individuals are in jail, Perry said.
County commissioners in July agreed to move forward with the special court specifically to address veterans facing criminal charges by focusing on treatment of mental health and addiction and emphasizing rehabilitation over punishment.
Judge Gary Coley Jr. of Waco’s 74th State District Court has agreed to handle veterans court cases in addition to his current duties, Felton said. It is unclear what the caseload will look like at this time, he said.
In 2016, 698 veterans were booked into the McLennan County Jail, and 675 were booked in 2017, Josh Borderud, an attorney and director of the Baylor University Law Veterans Clinic, has told commissioners.
The new judge will help create the veterans court and preside over the court when the sitting judge is not available. The person in that position will also sit in for all district court judges in the county when they are unavailable.