Cooke County Judge Jason Brinkley recently published a column in the Dallas Morning News accusing the Texas Legislature of driving up local property taxes through unfunded mandates surrounding the criminal justice system. While I can’t speak to non-criminal-justice costs in the column, his portrayal of the state driving jail and indigent-defense costs was flat-out false.
To be clear, I agree with Brinkley’s complaint that the state’s under-funded school-finance system, not county expenditures, were driving property-tax increases. That’s where the focus should be. But Mr. Brinkley veered off into bizarro-world when he described “unfunded mandates” in the criminal-justice system. Nearly all of this reeks of falsehood and misrepresents reality:
“When new state mandates cost money to carry out but don’t come with state funding, they act as state-imposed local property tax increases. Either way you look at it, these are costs that counties must cover, and they are increasing.
“For example, in Cooke County our indigent defense costs have increased by 80 percent over the past eight years and the criminal caseloads have more than doubled.
“We have seen a 50 percent increase in our jail population over the past eight years and in our costs for food and inmate health care. The upcoming requirements of the Sandra Bland Act are estimated to cost our county $400,000 a year, a 10 percent increase in our jail budget.”
Let’s dig into these claims. First, he’s right that Cooke County’s indigent defense costs have increased 80 percent, as the Indigent Defense Commission corroborates. And since Cooke County’s population has only nudged upward over the last decade, on its face that seems alarming.
What Judge Brinkley fails to tell Dallas News readers, however, is why indigent defense costs are rising. As it turns out, all of the increase may be attributed to increases in the total-case count, not new-state-government requirements. Despite crime declining throughout this period, the number of Cooke-County cases with appointed counsel rose from 379 in 2001 to 850 in 2018, or a 124 percent increase.
Why might that be? One possible answer: Prosecutors control how many cases are brought, and continued to increase case filings even after crime had been declining for years, not just in Texas, but nationally.
That’s what seems to have happened in Judge Brinkley’s jurisdiction. Cooke County’s population increased only slightly over the last decade, and crime went down. But in fiscal year 2011, according to Office of Court Administration data, felony district courts in Cooke County added just 430 new cases. In fiscal year 2018, they added 1,289.
That’s a 200 percent increase in felony cases brought by local, elected prosecutors in Cooke County during an era when crime declined. The Gainesville Daily Register has reported that much of that increase stemmed from increases in user-level drug prosecutions.
Obviously, most of the jail increase stemmed from the increase in cases. But it’s also a function of a refusal to enact bail reform. According to the Commission on Jail Standards, 63 percent of inmates in the Cooke County Jail as of December 1st were awaiting trial but were being held because they couldn’t make bond.
Judge Brinkley is blaming state government for problems being caused by local, elected officials. Both increased indigent defense and jail costs in his county resulted directly from decisions by local prosecutors, not anything the Legislature did.
Finally, the idea that the Sandra Bland Act will cost Cooke County $400,000 sounds like a major reach. I don’t doubt there are additional costs, mostly for additional training and record keeping; installing sensors or cameras so the jail can track whether guards make their rounds is probably the biggest one, but they don’t require cameras can view every cell. Looking at the full panoply of new requirements, it’s difficult to imagine the cost to tiny Cooke County coming close to $400,000. The claim appears especially suspect once you understand how much Judge Brinkley misstated other criminal-justice costs.
I’m not sure why county officials would want to pit themselves against the popular Sandra Bland Act. The new requirements were de minimis, and from a tactical perspective, they lose that debate, even if they win!
Nobody forced Cooke County prosecutors to increase felony prosecutions 200 percent over a period when their population barely inched upward and crime (real crimes, with victims, not prosecution of addicts) declined. And it’s childish to mask responsibility for those choices by loudly blaming someone else for them in the Dallas Morning News.
County officials should stop conflating the very real challenges facing the Legislature over school-finance and property taxes with their whining over having to pay for traditional duties they’ve been performing for decades. It’s reasonable to seek relief regarding property taxes, but the state legislature isn’t responsible for most of the justice-system problems county officials are decrying in their media blitz.
Scott Henson, Austin
Editor’s note: A version of this letter was first published on Henson’s criminal justice reform blog, GritsForBreakfast.org.