Wow, it must be Guest Contributor Day around Unfair Park. Because next up to the virtual podium is none other than Dallas County District Attorney Craig Watkins, who sent Unfair Park this morning an "opinion editorial" concerning a Dallas Morning News editorial that ran last Friday.
We figure this now opens the floodgates for other elected officials to send us their op-eds. We figure, better that than more press releases for solid-gold facials, not that there's anything wrong with 'em. The district attorney has the floor, after the jump. No doubt, he will appreciate any feedback our Friends would like to offer there as well. --Robert Wilonsky
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In response to the editorial, “One, Two, 68, 483: County’s wishful budgeting doesn’t add up,” published in The Dallas Morning News on August 3, 2007, I would like to take this opportunity to inform the citizens of Dallas County of the critical staffing needs at the District Attorney’s Office and why the 68 requested positions are important.
First of all, the budget process is a long and tedious process. In fact, in January of 2007, we began evaluating this office and formulating a plan that would adequately provide protection for the citizens of Dallas County. During the evaluation process, we went section by section and reviewed the number of pending cases and the number of prosecutors responsible for handling those cases.
We learned that Dallas County prosecutors have a responsibility of more than 300 cases per prosecutor in the felony division and more than 600 cases per prosecutor in the misdemeanor division. That’s roughly one-third more cases than a prosecutor would typically handle in other counties comparable in size to Dallas County. Thus, it was obvious to me that we had too few prosecutors handling too many cases, and for too many years this office had not been updated to keep up with the pace and the new ways that criminals prey on victims.
During a former Dallas County District Attorney’s 12-year era, there were no new positions requested for the office. That decision has had a lingering effect on the office’s ability to keep up with the times. To my immediate predecessor’s credit, he did make requests for new positions and equipment upgrades, as well as a pay increase for the hard-working assistants. Fortunately, he was able to secure the much-deserved raises. And if you looked at his budget request over the last eight years, you would see similarities in our recent request for new positions.
To this end, we prioritized what we needed to get up to speed and live up to our responsibility to improve the criminal justice system in Dallas County. My decision to request only 68 positions was very conservative. In other words, I prioritized before making the request. I could have asked for many more positions that would have greatly assisted this office in prosecuting offenders, but chose to ask for only the number that we had to have.
Every year each county department is afforded the opportunity to present its budget request to our elected County Commissioners. It is the responsibility of the Commissioners Court to evaluate these requests and vote on what they deem appropriate. These requests come in the form of written briefs that are presented well before the opportunity to verbally defend the requests. During oral argument I gave five-minutes of impassioned opening remarks, while the remaining 55 minutes were devoted to very specific statistics and supporting evidence as to why we need the 68 positions.
During our presentation, it was requested on several occasions by Commissioners to prioritize. Well, we did. Essentially, we prioritized twice. First, before making our request, and again, during the presentation. What critics of our request fail to realize, is that with this new administration, it is not business as usual. Our current budget request reflects the bare necessities. Our office actually needs much more than we asked for, but in light of where we are fiscally, we asked for what we absolutely must have to operate efficiently.
If the two positions the county’s budget director believes we need are the only positions approved for the next fiscal year, what am I to say to our elderly citizens who are being preyed upon by criminals, when we don’t have the resources to focus on cases involving financial exploitation of the elderly? What does the budget director suggest I say to those hard-working, law-abiding tax payers who’ve had their identity stolen or whose property values have fallen due to mortgage fraud, yet our office still does not have a mortgage fraud prosecutor?
Do I tell the family and loved ones of Officer Nix, who was killed in the line of duty by a probation absconder that we don’t need the resources to track down absconders to prevent this from happening again? Am I to tell the 13 exonerated individuals who were wrongfully convicted by Dallas County’s criminal justice system and collectively spent 185 years behind bars for crimes they did not commit, that the county’s budget director is the authority on what resources are or are not needed at the District Attorney’s Office? How does the budget director suggest I tell the citizens of Dallas County that according to him, we failed to prioritize and that we only need two new positions to adequately protect the 2.3 million citizens in Dallas County?
So it basically comes down to this -- either the Commissioners will recognize the urgency in approving the 68 new positions we’ve requested so the District Attorney’s Office can operate at its full potential without burning out the current staff or they will only approve two positions, leaving us with a criminal justice system that is sorely lacking in resources as it has been for the past 20 years. The Commissioners have a difficult job before them in balancing the budget with the growing needs of our criminal justice system. I wish them the best as they painstakingly prioritize the needs of Dallas County.
Craig Watkins Dallas County District Attorney