How hard do Travis County’s judges work?
For years, some in the county’s criminal justice community have quietly suggested that a few of them don’t earn their keep, questioning their caseload and workday schedules, particularly as the judges pushed to increase their numbers to contend with a rising population.
Travis County Judge Sarah Eckhardt recently launched a new method to track how busy the judges are in the 19 county-funded civil and criminal courts. She says it’s about transparency and fiscal responsibility.
But some of the judges say her statistics won’t provide an accurate appraisal of what they do.
“It is our job as a Commissioners Court to manage the budget, including our largest investment, which is our civil and criminal justice system,” Eckhardt said. “From a budget standpoint, we want to put measurements in place to ensure that our investment is a wise one.”
A number of judges originally balked at Eckhardt’s idea to gather information on their workload.
During an October meeting of the Commissioners Court, Eckhardt said: “Judges got pretty excited in a not-positive way … I said to a couple of them, ‘I’m not trying to get you.’ If you talk to a judge about why this number looks like this and somebody else’s number looks like that there’s a lot of good information to gather about why things are the way they are.”
Taxpayers spend about $1.5 billion on the county’s justice system annually, including the costs of operating the jail, law enforcement, and the civil and criminal courts.
Over the years, the county also has contended with adding courts and new judges to staff them. It added two district courts in the past two years, one civil and one criminal. The criminal court is not expected to open until 2019. Their combined cost will be about $2.5 million a year.
Over the past few months, Eckhardt and the county staff have started to track data that include the total number of cases and how they are resolved by each court. In addition, they are tracking types of charges and their outcomes, including how long it takes for cases to make their way through civil and criminal courts.
Eckhardt said she recognizes that the data don’t account for whether elected judges are hearing cases or whether the county is paying visiting judges to handle cases while judges presiding over the courts are away on vacation, on medical leave or attending conferences.
Judges, who earn $158,000 a year, contend that the statistics don’t account for those who manage specialized dockets or have cases that are more complicated and take longer to resolve.
District Judge Brenda Kennedy, the county’s presiding criminal judge, said judges are receptive to having their caseloads evaluated, but the numbers alone won’t give a full picture.
“We have all types of statistics that are available,” she said. “From what I’ve seen that’s being proposed, I’m not sure it will reflect with accuracy what is happening in our district courts. There are a bunch of numbers they could look at, but to understand what we do, you would have to inquire much further. There are a lot of exceptions and caveats.”
Roger Jefferies, the county executive director for justice and public safety, said the data will “help us ask questions that might help us lead to improvements in the system.”
“I think it is terrific that we are providing the public a window into the operations of our criminal justice system,” Jefferies said. “The public has a right to know how well we are utilizing those resources.”
Eckhardt said that although it is difficult to glean many conclusions from the data so far, they do indicate that the county’s rate of disposition is slightly below a county goal. The courts are resolving cases at a rate of 0.9 cases for each new case that is filed. That’s less than the desired 1.0.
“That means we are adding to our backlog on a monthly basis,” she said.
Eckhardt said that over the next few months, she and other county officials, including those from other agencies such as pretrial services and the jail, will be working to obtain additional data that she hopes will provide a better window into judges’ workflow. She said she also wants to compare Travis County’s information with other Texas counties’.