Migrants being held in Texas prisons overwhelming state’s judicial system

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In this Thursday, March 14, 2019, photo, a Border Patrol agent apprehends a person suspected of having entered the U.S. illegally near McAllen, Texas. While many adults crossing the border on their own in South Texas try to flee agents, most migrant parents and children wait to surrender so they can be processed and released into the United States. (AP Photo/Eric Gay)

AUSTIN (Nexstar) — Texas attorneys and law enforcement officials told House lawmakers Monday that the state’s judicial system is understaffed and overwhelmed.

“System staffing is the number one challenge in TDCJ,” said executive director of Texas Department of Criminal Justice Bryan Collier. 

Starting in June, Gov. Greg Abbott directed the Texas Department of Criminal Justice to move prisoners from the Briscoe Unit in Dilley to make room for migrants with low-level offenses.

As of Monday, there are 903 migrants being held in the Briscoe and Segovia Units. Most of these migrants are Mexican and Honduran and have been charged with criminal trespassing. Thirty-three are U.S. citizens who have been charged with human smuggling. 

Geoffrey Burkart, executive director of Texas Indigent Defense Commission, said in recent weeks they’ve been seeing about 30 to 40 arrests along the Southern border each day.

“We’ve heard from the governor’s office, those projections, it could go up to as much as 200 cases per day,” Burkart said.

If those projections are accurate, that could add up to as many as 73,000 arrests in a year.  

According to Texas law, defendants must be granted an attorney within three days of initiating a request. Additionally, those charged with criminal trespass are required to be released from custody if prosecutors do not file the charges within 15 or 30 days. However at the present moment, there are more migrants in jail than there are resources within county district attorney offices, leading to defendants being stuck in custody for longer.

“If we reach that 73,000 arrests per year number, we would need something in the ballpark of 250 to 300 attorneys to take those cases. Again, to put that in perspective, if you look at Kinney County where most of those arrests are taking place today, they have approximately 10 attorneys on their list,” Burkart said.

During the second special session in August, the legislature allocated nearly $3.7 million to hire additional county prosecutors, but distributing the money is taking more time than expected. 

“The sooner that the supplemental funding is made available to local entities like our border prosecution unit, or prosecutors or county government, the faster we’re able to move cases,” Rep. Andrew Murr, R-Junction, said.

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