Criminal Law
September-October 2008

Move your county’s justice system along more efficiently

Jana McCown

First Assistant District Attorney in Williamson County

How, you ask? By implementing a direct-filing system. Williamson County did—with great success. Here’s a blueprint for doing the same in your county.

Williamson County is a mixed rural-urban county at the edge of a major metropolitan area (Austin) and at one time was one of the fastest growing counties in Texas, if not in the nation. Like many other Texas counties, growth was adversely affecting our criminal dockets and caseloads. With no end in sight for the projected population increase, in mid-2004 the Williamson County District Attorney’s Office began planning to make major changes to the way cases were filed with the district clerk’s office and distributed to the district courts.

Our DA, John Bradley, and I had many discussions about making our office more efficient and, at the same time, evening out the ebb and flow of cases into the three district courts. We decided that it was time to implement a direct-file system. We started talking about this shift with the judges and district clerk long before we were ready to implement any change. The timing was right because the judges were feeling the increased burden too.

Having spent our early years prosecuting in Harris County, we both knew the benefits of having a file opened in the clerk’s office as soon as a case arrived. Getting the defendant into court before indictment is another key component. We also knew there were gaps in the system that allowed cases to age without activity at certain stages of the process. We began our quest for a system that would work in a county with a population of over 300,000 people and approximately 2,000 to 2,200 new felony cases a year. I believe, however, that many of the steps we took would work no matter your jurisdiction or county size; the Williamson County Attorney’s Office, for instance, recently initiated a direct-file system. Any prosecutor’s office could implement such a system and mold it to fit its practices.

How charges are filed

When a law enforcement agency decides to file a felony criminal case, the officer involved can go to any magistrate in Williamson County to present a complaint and affidavit to support issuance of an arrest warrant. This system of filing charges is decentralized and not supervised by any one agency or office. Having more than 15 different law enforcement agencies that might file a felony case makes it difficult for a single prosecutor to monitor the filings and make sure that we find out about all cases in a timely fashion.

Many counties across the state have similar filing issues, especially multi-county jurisdictions. The first potential problem is caused by this decentralized system of filing, because the prosecutor’s office will not know that a charge is pending unless and until someone, either the police or the magistrate, sends paperwork to the prosecutor’s office. Years ago in Williamson County, the law enforcement agency might even wait until an arrest was made before forwarding that paperwork, and occasionally (not too often) the statute of limitations ran because no indictment was sought.

We have not changed the basic method by which charges are filed, although future plans to make the process more centralized and accountable are in the “thinking about it” stage. It’s been my experience that when making major changes, it is best to work in baby steps. We all know how tough it is to convince a judge, clerk, or any adult who has been doing something the same way for years to make changes. You have to be prepared for complaints and give folks time to adjust before they will accept that a new way is really better.

Changing the old ways

Previously, when a defendant was arrested for a felony offense, a case file was opened only in the DA’s office. No file was created at the district clerk’s office until an indictment was returned or an information filed. Without a file that contained the public record, there was no place to put the original complaint, affidavit, bail bond, or any pretrial motions that might arise before indictment (i.e., competency exams, motions to raise or reduce bail, etc.). Only after an indictment was returned would the district clerk open his file and assign a cause number and a district court coordinator schedule a court date for the defendant to appear. This meant that 90 to 120 days (or longer) might pass without any significant interaction between the prosecution and defense. While pre-indictment plea offers were made on many cases, it is much easier to negotiate when the attorneys and defendant are in the same place at the same time.

Cases were also assigned to a district court and distributed to a prosecutor based on when information about the crime was received by the district attorney’s office. A file was then created and processed through intake and grand jury. All cases indicted during the grand jury term of a given court were assigned to that court and received a cause number. This system resulted in an influx of 220 to 280 cases into a single court during a three-month period, followed by approximately 40 to 50 additional cases over the next six months until the next grand jury term began. The prosecutors for that grand jury’s court were burdened with all the new cases for that term. The court would have a heavy influx of cases for three months, followed by a very small trickle for the next six months. The size of the dockets varied greatly between courts depending on when the grand jury was meeting. Therefore, we wanted to even out the case assignment and workload.

The challenge

We acknowledged in advance to the different judges, coordinators, and clerks that changes to our filing system would, of course, involve a transition period while the various offices learned and adjusted to the new procedures. As soon as the district judges and clerk gave final approval, letters were written to the defense bar and bail bondsmen to inform them of the new procedures before implementation. Everyone had the opportunity to ask questions ahead of time and during the first year of our direct-file system. We had regular monthly meetings and invited our intake attorneys, district clerk’s office, court coordinators, magistrate, and jail employees who were affected. At those meetings, we discussed how the system was working and whether adjustments were necessary. It became a collaborative effort to make it work smoothly. Luckily, it didn’t take too long before most people realized that the new system was better.

The process

When a defendant is arrested and charged with a felony, the following steps occur:

  1. Law enforcement agencies file the complaint and affidavit with the magistrate’s office in the jail when the defendant is brought to the jail.
  2. The DA’s office reviews all felony arrests within 24 hours of filing, except for cases that are magistrated over the weekend or a holiday (those are reviewed on the next business day). The purpose is to review charging decisions as early as possible; it usually takes less than an hour each morning. In the beginning, we frequently had to call either the law enforcement agency or a justice of the peace or municipal court judge’s office to obtain a copy of the complaint/PC affidavit, but we told law enforcement agencies about the changes and requested that officers leave that information at the jail with the suspect; eventually fewer and fewer calls had to be made.
  3. If felony charges are accepted, the district clerk opens a file by assigning a randomly chosen cause number pursuant to the method designated by the district judges. Both the DA’s office and the district clerk’s office review available information before a random assignment occurs to ensure a case or community supervision is not already pending, which would direct the new case to a particular court. If emergency protective orders are issued or conditions of bond ordered, those can also be filed with the clerk.
  4. At the same time the district clerk opens a file, the DA’s office also opens its own file. Copies of the PC affidavit are brought to the DA’s office and data entered in the computer, and we begin the process of gathering additional information (running a criminal history, requesting judgments, obtaining recordings, statements, and offense reports, etc.).
  5. Initial court dates are scheduled by the district judges and provided to the magistrate in advance. When an arrest is made between certain designated dates, the first court date for that time period has been pre-determined so that the defendant may be informed.
  6. After the court assignment is made and at the time of magistration, the magistrate can tell the defendant to which district court his case has been assigned and his first appearance date (ideally within two weeks of arrest). Prosecutors are instructed to make a pre-indictment offer at the earliest possible court setting. (It is especially easy to make a recommendation on state jail felonies at an early stage.) The pre-indictment offer may even be sweetened a little bit as incentive to plead the case early. Defendants are also admonished that if they make bond before their court date, they must still appear, and, if they are not indigent, they should retain an attorney to appear with them on that date. All of this information is on a written form that has been approved by the district judges.
  7. The defendant appears at what are designated as “pre-indictment docket” settings.
  8. If at any time a defendant desires to waive indictment and enter a plea, an information can be prepared and filed in the district clerk’s file. At the pre-indictment court dates, every effort is made to have a proposed information already included in the file so that it can simply be signed and given to the clerk.
  9. Once an indictment is returned, it is numbered and put in the same file originally opened at the time of arrest. No new cause number will be required unless multiple indictments are returned by the grand jury. More than one complaint may be filed together if it is likely that a single indictment will issue.
  10. After the indictment, defendants continue to go to court on dates decided by the district court (according to the schedule already in use).
  11. Where charges are referred to the DA’s office for consideration by the grand jury or when the defendant has not been arrested, the district attorney’s office conducts a preliminary review before files are opened in our and the district clerk’s office.
  12. When charges have been filed by law enforcement but no arrest has been made, the case will be filed after an assistant DA’s review.
  13. When no charges have been filed but an information has been forwarded to the district attorney’s office for presentation to a grand jury, if appropriate, the case will be filed after review by an assistant prosecutor. This involves having the agency draft a complaint and obtain a warrant. The clerk then uses the original complaint to open a file and assign a cause number.
  14. When a charge is referred without obtaining a warrant and it is a likely no-bill, it is presented to the grand jury without first filing a complaint or direct filing. If the defendant is indicted, the case can be assigned a cause number and court at that time based upon the filing of the indictment.
  15. If at any time during the above process the defendant is arrested, the case shall immediately be handled as an arrest case as set out above.

Advantages to direct filing

Now that we’ve had this system in place for over two years, its advantages are clear. They include:
• a more evenly paced distribution of felony cases into the district courts;
• defendants may be jailed for shorter periods because they are not waiting for an indictment;
• the district courts acquire jurisdiction earlier for cases filed through the magistrate;
• earlier assignment of a cause number;
• cost savings due to earlier diversion to the county attorney’s office, those cases that are declined, and a smaller jail population;
• a defendant begins appearing in court approximately 60 to 90 days earlier, thereby providing opportunity for earlier resolution of cases;
• the district clerk’s file provides better access to filed complaints (which are public records);
• there is a place to file the original bail bonds; motions to revoke, raise, or otherwise change bonds; motions requesting mental health exams and orders; and writs of habeas corpus;
• mental health exams can be ordered earlier; and
• pleas can be negotiated and entered earlier.

The results

Effectively changing the filing system and improving efficiency required the cooperation of many elected officials. I’m happy to say that Williamson County rose to the challenge and welcomed changes that would improve the exchange of information and move felony criminal cases more quickly through the system. The Williamson County District Attorney’s Office also modified our intake system to complement the changes and move the charging decision process earlier in the overall timeline.

It took abut 18 months from when we contemplated the change until the full implementation in January 2006. In hindsight that sounds like a long time, but we moved slowly to allow everyone to adjust and to give people time to anticipate the impact on their individual offices and budgets. Once we began, judges had to determine how to distribute the 300 or so cases that were already pending (filed and given cause numbers) in our office. After the initial large influx of cases, it took about six months before judges began to see their dockets even out. The random assignment instead of grouping by grand jury works extremely well in that respect.

In the first six months of that preliminary 18-month period, screening at the magistrate’s office diverted a significant number of cases to other agencies, and charging decisions and corrections were made at an earlier stage than in the past. During the first six to 12 months of tracking the pre-indictment pleas, 20 to 25 percent of defendants resolved their cases with a pre-indictment plea. That number has continued to rise, and currently we consistently plead about a third of all cases before indictment. With the decrease in the number of cases that must be presented to a grand jury, we have fewer grand jury dates during a three-month term and fewer individual dates where grand jurors work late into the evening.

The defense bar has welcomed the change because it moves cases more quickly and the exchange of information occurs earlier. Even the bail bondsmen are happy because in most cases they can now find out the first court date by the time their defendant is released from jail. The jail population is also positively affected because of the earlier resolution of cases. All in all, it was a successful transformation and one that we believe can be just as successfully duplicated in other jurisdictions. ✤