At this time of year, we tend to look at the past and resolve to make changes in how we will act during the year in front of us; prosecuting criminal cases requires the same analysis of past performance to improve future effectiveness.
As the new decade begins, we review the events of the last decade, what worked well and what did not, in order to determine how we can further improve our performance in meeting our statutory duty to “seek justice.”
The law enforcement community is always at the forefront of determining whether criminal conduct has occurred at the events to which they respond. Our deputies, troopers and officers must make decisions at the scene in a relatively short time to address the issues at the event.
After they make their initial evaluation they make their arrest decision, if any, and compile the information to a case file. The case file is then reviewed to determine the appropriate action so far as charging a defendant or defendants and the file is forwarded to the appropriate prosecution office for further action.
The volume of cases being presented by law enforcement in the district and county attorneys’ offices has increased dramatically since 2010. The number of felonies has almost tripled and the misdemeanors have more than doubled.
Prosecutors are specifically directed by Article 2.01 of the Texas Code of Criminal Procedure as follows: “It shall be the primary duty of all prosecuting attorneys… not to convict, but to see that justice is done.”
No one else in the criminal justice system is charged with this responsibility, which makes prosecutors the gatekeepers to charging crimes in the courts. We take that responsibility and the statutory admonition very seriously when case files are presented to us and we screen those cases carefully.
Once the cases are submitted they are reviewed to determine what the appropriate offense is, or if the elements of the offense can be proven. If the elements of an offense are present then the case file is either presented to a grand jury or is charged by information and complaint. As a result of the increase in cases presented by law enforcement agencies the subsequent filings in both the district and county courts have also increased.
In the 2011 fiscal year 354 cases were indicted by the district attorney; in the 2019 fiscal year 959 cases were indicted, while during the same periods misdemeanor filings increased from 628 to 1,150.
These numbers reflect, among other factors of demographics, the impact that the high volume of traffic on I-35 and U.S. 82 has had on arrest events.
In order to effectively prosecute these cases in a manner that protects the rights of victims, the due process rights of the defendants, and the interest of the state of Texas, we must adapt to the times in which we live.
Several mechanisms must function properly for the criminal justice system to work. First, law enforcement personnel must have the resources and training to do their jobs on the street. Second, the prosecution teams must carefully evaluate and appropriately present the cases to the courts. Finally, the rate of completion by the courts for cases filed must exceed 100% in order to address the current cases and the existing backlog.
As we enter this new decade, our goal is to cooperate in the efforts to address the growth in criminal prosecution. To achieve this we need to address the changing dynamics that face law enforcement, support the people that keep our community safe, work together with the courts and file cases that are prosecutable.
Without implementing new means and ideas to the changing world of criminal conduct and criminals, our community will be at risk of losing its security.
John Warren has been district attorney for Cooke County since 2017 and Ed Zielinski has been the Cooke County attorney since 2013.