The First in an Occasional Series of Reports Concerning Criminal Justice in Travis County
By Juvenile Defense Attorney Rick Cofer
Partner, Cofer & Connelly, PLLC
Adult Arrests Have Fallen Off a Cliff
Even with Texas Courts closed for routine business, crime has not skyrocketed in Austin or Travis County. On April 12, 2020, Texas Governor Abbott extended the Disaster Declaration regarding the coronavirus.1 Austin Mayor Steve Adler previously issued a Declaration of Local Disaster for Austin, Texas as well.2
The Travis County Sheriff’s Office reports that jail bookings for new adult offenses have declined by 44%, from an average of 107 a day in early March (pre-COVID-19 restrictions), down to 60 a day in late March (post-COVID-19 restrictions).3
Travis County Jail Population Plummets
Even with the Texas Department of Criminal Justice no longer accepting transfers from Texas County Jails4, the local jail population at the Travis County Correctional Complex has plummeted.
Given concerns about the lack of testing and spread of COVID-19 in detention and penitentiary facilities nationwide, Travis County has endeavored to reduce the daily jail population. In particular, as of April 16, 2020 the Travis County Correctional Complex had performed COVID-19 testing on eleven out of approximately 1600 total inmates.5 Three employees have been tested, with two testing positive.
Since mid-March, the daily population at the Travis County Correctional Complex has declined 25% from approximately 2,200 inmates in mid-March to 1,650 inmates as of April 22, 2020.6
Travis County Juvenile Referrals (arrests) Way Down
Throughout January, February, and March of 2020 a total of 430 juveniles were referred to the Travis County Gardner-Betts Juvenile Justice Detention Center, for an average of 143 referrals per month.7 However, this month, only 30 unique juveniles were referred to Gardner-Betts, a decline of 58% through the first two weeks of April.
TRAVIS COUNTY JUVENILE PROBATION DEPARTMENT
Number of Physical/Formal Referrals from Law Enforcement – Jan. 1-Apr. 14, 2020
2Referrals with a Law Enforcement Agency of N/A did not have a police agency assigned.
3April count is from April 1st through April 14th, 2020.
Source: CW Live database
Of note, Pre-COVID-19, the Austin Independent School District Police Department referred a total of 69 unique juveniles to the Travis County juvenile justice system in January and February 2020. However, only 17 unique juveniles have been referred to the system by AISD PD since March 1, 2020, for a total decline of more than 75% compared to the start of 2020.
Daily Operations of Travis County Juvenile Court
Since March 16, 2020, the Travis County Juvenile Court has adopted new procedures in response to the COVID-19 emergency. The only in-person hearings currently being held by the Court are detention hearings and plea settings for juveniles presently detained or entering detention.8 However, with advance notice, other hearings may be conducted remotely, if necessary. All bench and jury trials are presently postponed.
The 98th District Court of Travis County sitting as a Juvenile Court has also issued new procedures for remote proceedings during the COVID-19 public health emergency.9 The Juvenile Court remains operational and routinely conducts detention hearings, adjudication hearings, and disposition settings on a near-daily basis.
Any juvenile arrested in Travis County during the COVID-19 emergency, will be referred to the Travis County juvenile justice detention center for initial processing. Travis County Juvenile Probation intake staff may release certain juveniles without additional court proceedings. However, juveniles charged with serious crimes may be detained pending a mandatory initial detention hearing.
Austinjuvenilelaw.com is an informational hub for families and individuals facing court proceedings in Central Texas. A project of Cofer & Connelly, PLLC Partner Rick Cofer, the site seeks to provide helpful information to the public.
Rick Cofer is a juvenile defense attorney and partner at Cofer & Connelly, PLLC. He is the former juvenile sex crimes prosecutor for the Travis County District Attorney’s Office. Mr. Cofer has handled 100s of complex juvenile law cases throughout Central Texas. He has been approved by the Travis County Juvenile Board to handle the most serious level of cases. He is the only attorney in Austin to have both prosecuted and defended Travis County juvenile murder charges.
2Austin, Tex., COVID-19 Declaration (Mar. 6, 2020).
3Editorial: Jail measures to fight virus show promise. Austin American-Statesman Editorial Board. (April 8, 2020).
4Letter/Memorandum from Bryan Collier, Executive Director of the Texas Dept. of Crim. Justice, to County Sheriffs (Apr. 11, 2020).
5Travis County Jail Population Demographics. Traviscountytx.gov/open-records-/jail-pop-demographics. Accessd
7Travis County Gardner-Betts Juvenile Justice Detention Center Response to Public Information Request. April 17, 2020.
8Order Regarding Court Proceedings in Response to COVID-19 Emergency. 98th District Court Sitting as a Juvenile Court of Travis County, Texas. Filed March 16, 2020.
9Standing Order Regarding Procedures for Remote Juvenile Court Hearings During the COVID-19 Public Health Emergency. 98th District Court Sitting as a Juvenile Court of Travis County, Texas. Filed April 8, 2020.