D.A.’s Office Unveils State Jail Court

Prosecuting drug possession and third theft offenses

District Attorney Margaret Moore (Photo by John Anderson)

Beginning Friday, June 1, the Travis County District Attorney's Office will process certain drug-related cases through a new court, to be known as the State Jail Court. These are cases that, according to a procedural proposal sent to the Austin Criminal Defense Lawyers Association in March, are "less driven by criminology or depravity and more driven by addiction" or dependence, and could be best treated by counseling and treatment. The cases D.A. Margaret Moore plans to include are state jail level drug possession and theft third offense cases. In 2017, her office received 3,376 referrals for cases that fit the first offense. Moore would like to see a single forum adjudicate those, instead of sending them through the district judges' dockets. That'll take place in the Blackwell-Thurman Criminal Justice Center's Magistrate Court, under the supervision of Assistant District Attorney Rob Drum­mond and two other prosecutors.

Moore anticipates the new court streamlining the resolution of such cases, thereby alleviating the burden on her office's Grand Jury Division and the prosecutors – and reducing the amount of time defendants must spend contemplating the fate of their case, as well. Her office has assembled a recommendation matrix (based on severity and frequency of arrests) to consult at "offer settings," where defendants will have an opportunity to plea out, issue a counteroffer, or take their case to a pre-jury setting.

While the state believes the new format will reduce the amount of time it takes to resolve a defendant's case, and provide said defendant with what could be a more effective means of rehabilitation than incarceration, defense attorneys worry that the standardization will incentivize defendants to agree to low-stakes sentences (like deferred adjudication, counseling, or treatment) in exchange for a conviction on their record. The ACDLA came out against the court, mostly because of those specific fears: inflexible timelines "which inhibit investigation and mandatory immigrations assessments"; and "the deprivation of the Defendant's constitutional right to have an elected judge hear his entire case." Even if the defendant rejects the state's offer, the case stays in Mag Court until the Monday of their trial.

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Margaret Moore, Rob Drummond

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