San Antonio Express News: ‘We need to do something’ — Bexar County DA, county judge move to combat family violence after E-N series


A month after an Express-News investigation put a spotlight on the problem, Bexar County officials unveiled proposals to spend up to $6.3 million to counter a surge in domestic violence by hiring more prosecutors and using tracking technology to protect victims from being ambushed by their abusers.

The money would allow the Bexar County District Attorney’s Office to hire nearly 40 more prosecutors, investigators, advocates and other staff members to strengthen domestic violence prosecutions and guide victims through the court system, among other changes.

“The Express-News has done a very good job in cataloging the issues that the county was weak on and that we haven’t done a good enough job on,” Bexar County Judge Nelson Wolff said Wednesday during a videoconference meeting with the newspaper’s editorial board.

Wolff was joined by District Attorney Joe D. Gonzales and County Commissioner Trish DeBerry.

“We need to do something, and we need to do something now,” Gonzales said.

People familiar with the plan said elements of it had been under discussion for months, but that the Express-News series, published in November, created a sense of urgency about acting.

Bexar County commissioners will consider the proposals during a special meeting on Dec. 21.

Wolff said there was strong support among commissioners for bolstering staffing in the DA’s office, where prosecutors who handle misdemeanor domestic violence cases have staggered under heavy caseloads.

But Wolff said he was unsure about the extent of support for a separate proposal for a new civil court to hear child protection cases.

Wolff said the county could tap money received through the American Rescue Plan Act to fund some of the domestic violence proposals.

The Express-News investigation, “Nowhere to Hide,” documented a sharp increase in family violence killings in San Antonio since 2016 and described the justice system’s shortcomings in holding abusers accountable and protecting victims.

The paper found that among Texas’ major urban counties, Bexar County had the highest dismissal rates and the lowest conviction rates for family violence assault cases from 2011 through 2020.

For instance, just 21 percent of misdemeanor family violence assault cases filed by Bexar County prosecutors ended with a conviction, the Express-News analysis found.

In Harris County, Texas’ most populous, the conviction rate was 41 percent. In Dallas and Travis counties, it was 27 percent. For the state as a whole, it was 35 percent.

Sixty percent of Bexar County’s misdemeanor family violence cases were dismissed over the same 10-year period, the Express-News reported. That was the highest dismissal rate among the state’s five most populous counties.

After the series ran, county officials asked leaders of the District Attorney’s Office, the courts, the county’s criminal justice office and the Bexar County Family Justice Center to draft proposals spelling out what they needed to address the crisis.

Gonzales submitted a proposal for $3.1 million to add 13 prosecutors, 11 investigators, eight victim advocates, four crime victim liaisons and one office assistant to work on misdemeanor family violence cases, the kind with the largest backlogs and longest delays.

Crystal Chandler, executive director of the Family Justice Center, a one-stop service center for victims of family violence, asked for $327,000 for more staff, including two coordinators for the county’s domestic violence high risk team.

The team, established in September 2020, focuses on cases in which abuse victims appear to be in imminent danger of being killed or severely injured by their abusers.

The team is made up of police, prosecutors, social workers and medical providers who meet regularly to share information about women at high risk and identify ways to protect them and deter their abusers.

Mike Lozito, director of the county’s Office of Criminal Justice Policy, Planning & Programs, submitted a $500,000 proposal for a new surveillance program to track domestic violence suspects and notify victims if their abusers come within a certain distance.

The victims would be alerted through an app downloaded to their smartphones. Law enforcement also would be notified.

The tracking device, called On Time Connect and manufactured by a San Antonio company, is worn on the suspect’s wrist, like a watch. A judge, in setting conditions for bail, could order someone charged with domestic violence to stay a certain distance away from the alleged victim and wear the tracking device at all times to ensure compliance.

If the suspect removed it, authorities would be notified automatically.

Civil District Court Judges Rosie Alvarado and Monique Diaz submitted a separate $2.1 million request to create a new civil court to handle Child Protective Services cases.

That funding also would pay for an associate judge to help with an overflow of cases and for legal representation for victims of domestic violence.

The proposals mark the latest effort by city and county officials to confront family violence in Bexar County.

In 2019, prosecutors, judges, policymakers and advocates joined forces to create a city-county collaborative aimed at addressing the problem in a comprehensive way.

More recently, county officials have made changes in how the courts handle domestic violence cases.

Previously, two judges were responsible for handling most cases, leading to big backlogs. Last year, seven other judges began handling some of the cases. Four more signed on earlier this year.

But some in the court system have said the problem is not too few judges but too few prosecutors to prepare cases.

Judge Rosie Speedlin-Gonzalez, who oversees one of two family violence specialty courts, has called for more prosecutors for the misdemeanor courts for more than two years.

“My request for additional resources has been consistent, and I’m glad to see that it’s finally happening,” Gonzalez said.

The Express-News series showed that domestic violence killings in the region have been climbing faster than homicides overall. In 2016, they accounted for 16 percent of all homicides recorded by the San Antonio Police Department and the Bexar County Sheriff’s Office. Last year, they represented 33 percent.

DA Gonzales applauded the newspaper for its role in reigniting the discussion over family violence, calling it “incredible work.”

This article originally appeared in the San Antonio Express News, you can read it here.

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