WILLIAMSON COUNTY, Texas (KXAN) — Williamson County commissioners approved allocating $1.7 million of American Rescue Act funds to clearing up a backlog in court cases due to the COVID-19 pandemic.
The money will pay to hire on three new prosecutors in the district attorney’s office.
“They are positions that will be effective until the end of usability of the ARPA funds, and they would expire at that point,” said Williamson County Treasurer Scott Hesselmeyer.
Under the American Rescue Act, cities and counties must only use the federal money if it’s to cover payroll or other benefit expenses related to public safety, public health and/or health care and human services.
“These are public safety employees… The purpose is to respond to the backlog that was caused by two factors,” said Hesselmeyer. “One, the reduced ability during COVID of the courts to handle cases and the increased number of these felony cases that occurred during the pandemic.”
Hesselmeyer noted during his presentation to county commissioners Tuesday that several other jurisdictions such as Fulton County in Atlanta, St. Louis and Pierce in Tacoma, Washington have also used the money for similar circumstances.
“It’s been really difficult to get to trail,” said Williamson County District Attorney Shawn Dick. “In felony court, we have actually gone to trial now. Our first case was an automatic life on a sex offender who received a life sentence… we’re still in the process of trying to get other cases to trial.”
That life in prison case was the first trial Dick has been able to conduct in 15 months due to COVID-19 restrictions.
When Dick first took office, the average caseload for prosecutors was around 2,500 cases at any given time. He spent the last three years getting that number down to 1,700, but he said the load has only gone back up.
“It’s very demoralizing for the prosecutors and all the work they have put in,” he said. “What’s happened during the pandemic is most people are charged with very serious crimes, and they’re waiting for a trial.”
It’s also more time spent behind bars from a defense attorney’s perspective.
“Obviously if your client isn’t out on bond, that’s really a big deal,” said Ryan Deck, criminal defense attorney. “There’s going to be a lot of people waiting in line to get in court and have their day in court.”
The three new prosecutors will be hired under the knowledge their stay is only temporary.
“The position is only guaranteed through the end of my current term,” said Dick.