Selection Process for Dallas’ Municipal Judges: Fair and Transparent

The courts in the City of Dallas do not function well. People who receive tickets regularly ignore them, the technology in the courts is antiquated or non-existent, police officers serving as witnesses regularly do not show up, and cases are repeatedly reset, resulting in dismissal. This has created a system that rewards people who ignore city tickets, whether they’re for code violations or traffic citations. That’s unfair to people who pay their tickets as well as to residents who have to live in neighborhoods where absentee landlords let homes deteriorate into drug houses with impunity, where violators stack junk vehicles on their lawns with no repercussions, and where our roads are less safe because speeders rejoice at our lax system. This must change.

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Council Approves Important City Court Improvements

While serving as chair of the City Council’s Judiciary Committee, one of my goals has been to get the council more educated about and involved in the city’s court system.  For too long, the city had neglected the municipal courts, resulting in back-logged cases, a low collection rate on fines, out-of-date or non-existent court technology, poor customer service, and an inefficient use of tax dollars and city resources.

So for the last three years, we have improved how we select our municipal judges as well as embarked on a much-needed efficiency study of our courts.  Both efforts have resulted in substantial improvements in our court system, and provide a blueprint for continued changes.

I remember when Councilmember Jerry Allen and I toured our municipal courts three years ago along with judges, bailiffs, court administrators, police, and prosecutors.  One thing that stood out was the inefficient system for processing police citations.

Boxes of handwritten tickets were delivered to the court daily.  The tickets were sorted by one group of people, scanned in by another, then another group manually entered the information into the computer system.  The process was not only unnecessarily labor-intensive, but rife with opportunity for mistakes.  If a date were mistyped or a name entered incorrectly at any point in the process, the ticket could be tossed.  That meant people violating the rules of the road would go unpunished, as well as revenue being lost to the city.  The process could take as long as ten days to enter a citation into the computer system.  So if you wanted to pay your citation, you couldn’t for at least ten days.

So yesterday, the Council approved a contract for a new “e-citation” process which will help eliminate this tedious and outdated manual paper ticket process currently used by our police and courts.

Phase 1 of the new system will cost $620,000 over five years but will result in saving and revenue enhancements of $1,370,000.  This project is part of the ongoing implementation of our efficiency study, and in January and February, we will bring to additional changes before the council for approval. 

Over the last year and a half, we’ve made significant progress:

  • Collection of fines is up $3 million
  • Average revenue per case is up from $69 to $83
  • Docket capacity is up 70%
  • The time it takes to get a court date has been reduced from 9 months to 3 months

I’m proud of these significant improvements to our court system and pleased to have had the opportinity to work with my council colleagues and city staff who were equally committed to making these much-needed changes.

Council Committee Assignments

While I was hesitant to post a note about this, I have received many emails and messages today about being the only councilmember that the mayor didn’t appoint as chair or vice chair of a standing council committee.  I am writing to say this:

Nobody cares.

Here’s what I mean:  Despite the emails and messages I’ve gotten (which I appreciate), the fact is, 99% of my district couldn’t care less who the council committee chairs are.  They care about how the city’s going to handle this budget crisis, what we’re doing to lower crime, how we’ll fix code and repair our streets.  They worry about cuts to our libraries and parks and senior services.  The very last thing they are concerned about is council committee assignments, and their priorities are my priorities. To that end, I’m going to keep focusing on the issues that matter.

I’m proud to have been reappointed chair of the Ad Hoc Judiciary Committee.  Since being appointed last year, our committee has examined our court system from top to bottom for the first time in more than twenty years.  Rather than serving as a rubber stamp to judicial appointments (as the committee had in the past), we took this as an opportunity to closely examine the systemic problems that plague our courts, with each committee member touring our courts and visiting with the various departments that make up our court system.  The committee has met regularly with judges, court administrators, police officers, and prosecutors to better understand why our courts are losing money.  We’ve worked diligently to learn about our judiciary, its faults and inefficiencies, and our efforts have paid off:  Over the last ten months, we’ve initiated and completed a thorough efficiency study that will save our city millions of taxpayer dollars and fix a broken system. Those are the types of results that Dallas residents care about, and that’s what I’m going to stay focused on.