The Senate Committee on Finance met July 12 to discuss two interim charges: 1) to monitor appropriations and spending supporting Operation Lone Star (OLS) and 2) to monitor the implementation of recent bail bond reform legislation, along with its economic impact on the judicial and correctional system.
Several county officials testified. Tonya Ahlschwede, District Attorney for the 452nd Judicial District and chair of the Border Prosecution Unit (BPU), testified on the OLS charge. Ahlschwede said the BPU used the $15.1 million in funding from general revenue and $3.7 million from supplemental funding it was allotted to pay for 51 attorneys, including 30 local counsels, three regional counsels, 11 anti-gang counsels, three human trafficking counsels and five OLS counsels. The BPU has been reaching out and assisting any county attorney affected by the criminal trespass initiative. They are currently helping Kinney, Maverick, Uvalde, Webb and Zapata counties. Ahlschwede sees a challenge in finding enough prosecution resources for the resource-intensive smuggling and human trafficking cases. She urged that the impact on all county offices should be considered and that local control is the key when providing assistance to affected counties.
While the funds appropriated by the Legislature for OLS have been a lifeline, Goliad County Sheriff Roy Boyd told the committee that his office still faces staffing, equipment, technology and funding shortfalls and lacks adequate jail space. Unfortunately for jurisdictions in his area, the Department of Public Safety and the State of the Texas do not offer space for the Sheriff's department because they are too far outside the border area. When their jails are full, their only options are to let criminals go or find someone in another county who can take them, Boyd said. Sen. Lois Kolkhorst (R-Brenham) said she hopes the Finance Committee can find a way to help Sheriff Boyd and others whose counties are located in the corridor.
Harris County District Attorney Kim Ogg, Harris County First Assistant District Attorney David Mitcham, Comal County Criminal District Attorney Jennifer Tharp, Waller County Pct. 2 Justice of the Peace J.R. Woolley, Gillespie County Sheriff Buddy Mills and Shannon Edmonds, director of government relations for the Texas District and County Attorneys Association, testified on the second interim charge regarding bail bond reform. Judge Woolley and Sheriff Mills both testified that because the newly implemented Public Safety Report System (PSRS) does not integrate with county case management systems or jail systems, Senate Bill 6 has added a significant amount of time and effort to the booking and magistration processes. They both requested that the state assist by funding integration between the systems. The committee chair, Sen. Joan Huffman (R-Houston), responded that she believes money can be found for this purpose.
Tharp and Ogg testified that SB 6 has been a useful tool in bail bond reform. Ogg said the upward trajectory of defendants out on multiple bonds has begun to level off in Harris County. Tharp said the list of "violent offenses" enumerated in SB 6 could be looked at and that the offense of felon in possession of a weapon should be added to the list. She also testified that it is not always clear from the PSRS if a felony has been disposed of and that it is critical that everyone is promptly entering information into the system. Tharp added that additional state funding for local community supervision and corrections departments to put violent offenders on GPS monitoring would be helpful in ensuring that victims are protected and defendants show up for their court dates.
Finance Committee members assured local officials that they were willing to work with them on solutions and tweaks to the recently enacted legislation. They said they would be monitoring the situation closely as updates are made to the PSRS software.
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