Tarrant County wins TAC Best Practice Awards

Tarrant County officials reform criminal cases, pandemic-related practices

By County magazine staff

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A new intake process in the Tarrant County Criminal District Attorney’s Office streamlines the evaluation of misdemeanor domestic violence cases, enhancing the county’s search for justice. And during the pandemic shutdown, the Tarrant County clerk’s office rose to the occasion, adapting existing equipment to continue to provide an essential service while keeping county employees and the public safe from the coronavirus that causes COVID-19.

In recognition, the Texas Association of Counties has given Tarrant County two 2020 County Best Practices Awards.

Intimate Partner Violence/Domestic Violence Initiative

In 2016, Tarrant County Criminal District Attorney Sharen Wilson put together a team to identify and prosecute felony intimate-partner violence cases and assist the victims of these crimes. Prompted by the unit’s effectiveness, she decided to reform the intake process for Class A misdemeanor domestic violence cases. Like its predecessor, the new initiative, implemented in December 2019, draws on the special knowledge and skills of an expert team to better review and more quickly determine the legal goals for each case that comes before it.

The desire to identify misdemeanor cases that could signal future felonies and Wilson’s efforts to reduce domestic violence in Tarrant County motivated the new misdemeanor review process. The initiative has found cases that were filed as misdemeanors that should have been filed as felonies. It also has found some cases that shouldn’t have been filed at all.

Getting the charge right has been one of the initiative’s two big benefits, Wilson said. The other benefit, she said, has come from reaching out to victims.

“We contact the victim. And that has made a huge difference,” Wilson said. “As we contact them, they’re more likely to stay attached to the case for trial, for the prosecution.”

As of mid-November, the review team had looked at more than 1,500 misdemeanor cases submitted by law enforcement, according to Wilson’s office. The team had accepted 1,181 cases, or 79%, for prosecution and enhanced 221 cases (19%) to felony charges. A total of 898 contacts (76%) were made within the first 24 to 48 hours after a case was filed.

Videoconferencing Kiosk for Marriage License Processing

Because of requirements set by the state, county clerks typically process marriage licenses in person. Determined to maintain this important service during the pandemic while remaining compliant with state law and following social distancing guidelines, Tarrant County Clerk Mary Louise Nicholson’s office came up with a suitable face-to-face alternative: a videoconferencing kiosk housed in a separate room. By using existing resources, the kiosk was up and running on March 26, 2020, within 24 hours of its conception. It enabled employees to verify and issue marriage licenses while keeping themselves and the public safe.

“While most people would immediately think those seeking a license were simply spring brides looking to keep their wedding date despite the pandemic, we discovered it was couples who experienced immediate life-changing events of losing jobs and health care benefits for family, both civilian and military servicemen and women,” Nicholson said.

“Our office needed to be prepared to provide one of life’s most important documents for these couples. And I am proud to say, our team stepped up, and we met our statutory responsibility for Tarrant County residents, as well as other contiguous county residents.”

“Dedication to excellence and serving the public are the common threads that run through these two award recipients from Tarrant County,” TAC Executive Director Susan M. Redford said. “We hope these awards inspire other counties to continue delivering new solutions to better serve Texans.”

Every two years, TAC’s County Best Practices Awards Program recognizes noteworthy innovations and solutions that increase efficiency, improve operations or overcome obstacles facing county governments. These innovations and solutions help Texas counties better serve their residents. The best of them also serve as models that other counties can shape to fit their particular needs.

Tarrant County was one of six Texas counties selected to receive a TAC 2020 County Best Practices Award. Look for more spotlights in future issues of County magazine. Learn more about the County Best Practices Awards Program at www.county.org/bestpractices.