Compliance means no grants are lost
The county, in a unified multi-departmental effort, successfully met the governor’s Criminal Justice Division demands for compliance this week. Webb County received a memo from the Criminal Justice Division in December warning that county officials had until Aug. 1 to report to the Texas Department of Public Safety at least 90 percent of case dispositions of all jurisdictions, including city entities; a non-compliant county would be ineligible to receive Justice Assistance Grants funds.
This fiscal year, the Justice Assistance Grants provided more than $242,000 to the drug court program and another $303,000 to the Webb County Sheriff’s Office. At the start of this year, the county was at 21 percent, said Marisela Jacaman, chief assistant district attorney. Department heads from the district attorney’s office, district clerk’s office and sheriff’s office worked together to identify where the problems were occurring following the state’s warning, according to Joe Lopez, 49th District Court judge.
District Clerk Esther Degollado said though the office had been reporting dispositions for years, omissions in fields that were required to be filled when it was electronically received by the state resulted in rejections. The oversight prompted a six month crunch to manually input hundreds of dispositions dating back to 2006. While criminal district clerks worked after hours and on weekends, District Attorney Isidro R. Alaniz said his office hired 12 temporary employees tasked with daily inputting.
“What was at stake here would have affected not only Webb County but the municipality of Laredo in terms of receiving grants and state funds. I’m happy and proud that for the first time in the history of this county, we were compliant,” Alaniz said.
The departments also have plans to improve how they regularly communicate interdepartmentally. The district attorney’s office installed new electronic reporting software in August, with plans to connect the system with law enforcement agencies and send data directly to the state.
Eddie Olivares, district attorney management system officer, said the case management system is dramatically different from the previous system, used by several other departments. Limited search and navigation capabilities hindered the previous system.
“It was a glorified case list, spreadsheet and little else,” Olivares said.
Jacaman said the office’s long-term vision for the system involves an automatic rotation down the pipeline of departments. “Ideally, it gets input once at the jail and we keep adding,” Jacaman said. “Right now, someone gets arrested; it gets entered at the jail; it comes to our office (from the arresting agency); it’s entered; we go to court; it’s entered again,” said Jacaman, emphasizing the multiple opportunities for human error and delays.
On July 16, a delay resulted in the release of an inmate charged with murder. Following a re-indictment and dismissal of the original case, Mario Alberto Garza Jr., was released from jail. Because a warrant hadn’t been filed by the courts, the jail had no legal grounds to keep the defendant behind bars regardless of the re-indictment, jail officials said.
A warrant was signed the day after his release, and Garza was arrested without incident on July 21. Currently, departments share access to a county network but have departmental viewing capability limitations, said Kristina
Guerra, Webb County Sheriff’s Office spokeswoman.
“At some point, we would like to be able to get the information the district attorney’s office is getting, data from different law enforcement agencies in our system, and the obvious way would be to go through a system that is the same or similar to what the district attorney’s office has now,” Lopez said.
Lopez said several systems are being considered, one of which is by New Dawn. “At this point, I’m asking for a new software for the whole district clerk’s office. Budget constraints make it unlikely,” Degollado said.
Lopez and Degallado said such a system would likely not come into fruition for two to three years.
This article originally appeared in the Laredo Morning Times on July 30, 2012. Download the pdf here.