GEORGETOWN, Texas --0 Williamson County District Attorney Shawn Dick is calling the more than 200-case backlog an emergency item.
Dick, who took over in January, is dealing with a backlog of almost six months of case work. The 218 old cases were recently uncovered in an empty office. He spoke to Williamson County Commissioners on Tuesday, asking for money to help clean up the mess.
Dick is asking for three things: A new discovery clerk position, higher salaries for three already approved new intake lawyer positions, and a shuffle of funds to allow investigators to work overtime. He said these things will help with the backlog, and the growing daily casework.
"If we can pay our investigators, who are police officers that work in my office, they can help us with the backlog just by working overtime,” said Dick.
As for the higher salaries for intake lawyer positions, Dick said it's important to be competitive.
"I've interviewed well over probably 40 lawyers, I've received applications from probably hundreds of attorneys and in those interview process I try to find out where do you need to be to come work for us, what salary range do you need to be in, and we're competitive but we're kind of right at the lower end of the competitive market to get good attorneys, the kind of quality attorneys that I've been looking for,” said Dick. "I won't be able to hire a couple of the lawyers that I've interviewed and would be interested in hiring, if I can't get their salary a little bit higher."
The commissioners approved the positions in 2016, before Dick took office.
"I assumed I could hire in those attorneys at a little bit higher salary and the quality of applicants I'm getting I want to be able to hire them in at a little bit higher salary than I have funding for, so I was requesting additional funding for those positions," said Dick.
Dick said the old cases range from forgery to sexual assault on a child dating, and date back to 2013. He said no one ever entered them into the computer system.
"They had just been submitted to our office and they just sat there in a stack,” said Dick.
He said they’re currently working on them, but said it can be difficult to build a case since witness memories fade, and evidence ages.
"Some of the cases weren't really that strong to being with, some of the cases were pretty strong and I think you’ve seen some of those cases get filed over the last month," said Dick.
They also have a backlog of 1,500 discovery requests from defense attorneys wanting to see the evidence on their clients. Dick says they get more each day.
Dick said they inherited a back log of 4-6 months of casework, saying previous DA Jana Duty was short staffed.
"The cases that are back logged are cases that the person is being detained in jail,” said Dick, although he said they don’t know how many.
"I think it's better for everyone involved the quicker we can get these cases to court, it doesn't mean that every case is going to get to court quickly, there are cases that just take time. There are lab results that we have to wait on there's information that we have to wait on but by in large the more efficient that we can be with our time, the better off our county is," said Dick.
According to Dick, the lawyers are already working long hours, and have an average of 300 cases at a time.
"We also have new cases coming in every single day, the attorneys are already responsible for getting their own backlog done in their own courtroom, plus they're responsible for worrying about the new cases coming in and then on top of that they're also doing discovery requests and additional things around the office, it just really strains our resources," said Dick.
He hopes to get the average caseload down to 200.
"We start to give the advantage away if we don't even know our cases,” said Dick.
But still he worries about burnout.
"They already have the kind of job that you could burn out you're dealing with very serious cases, very depressing life situations you know injuries to children and loved ones, you're dealing with families whose loved one has been lost and they do this on a daily basis you want to make the rest of their job as easy as possible, so that they still have the heart and the passion to go out and do their job every day in the courtroom and so that's why I'm trying to balance those needs of getting our office caught up and at the same time making sure they have the same energy and passion to go do their job everyday," said Dick.
The commissioners said they're concerned about the emergency term and say they want to make sure Dick is appropriately using the department's money he was already given.
"I had to cut some people's salaries because of the limited dollars we had to allocate around the office, so I would love to pay all my employees at the maximum if I could, but unfortunately that's just not the way that it works, and like I said in there I want to be a good steward of our money and county resources," said Dick.
He expects the tab to run about $50,000 for these requests for this fiscal year. The money will then be requested again for the next budget.
Tuesday the commissioners didn't take action, and instead plan to discuss it again next week.
GO HERE to read the budget details.