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New state law will jam up magistrate duties, JPs tell county

Magistrates in Burnet County

Precinct 1 Justice of the Peace Roxanne Nelson (left) addressed the Burnet County Commissioners Court on March 8 along with backing from her fellow magistrates, Precinct 2 Justice of the Peace Lisa Whitehead, Marble Falls Municipal Judge Cheryl Pounds, Burnet County Magistrate Tamara Tinney, Precinct 4 Justice of the Peace Debbie Bindseil, and Precinct 3 Justice of the Peace Jane Marie Hurst. Photo by James Oakley

A new state bail reform law, the Damon Allen Act, will overwhelm the magistrate system and be a logistical nightmare for the jail, according to the four Burnet County justices of the peace and Sheriff Calvin Boyd. Senate Bill 6 was voted into law in the second special session of the 87th Texas Legislature in 2021.

Precinct 1 Justice of the Peace Roxanne Nelson laid out the issue for the Burnet County Commissioners Court at its regular meeting Tuesday, March 8, in the second-floor courtroom of the county courthouse, 220 S. Pierce St. in Burnet. She then invited commissioners and County Judge James Oakley to attend a workshop with all county magistrates at 1:30 p.m. Friday, March 11, in the same courtroom.

The best solution might have to come out of the next legislative session, she said. That begins Jan. 10, 2023. 

Until then, starting April 1, justices of the peace across the state will be required to file a public safety report for each person processed into the jail system on top of an already required criminal history report. Each will be filed into different software systems that are not compatible. One has been used for years, while a new one is still in development. 

Anyone working in court administration will have to undergo 16 hours of training by Dec. 1, 2022, on the new software as well as another eight hours of training on new requirements for the old system. They also will have to train for two hours a year every other year after that. 

On top of adding a second report, magistrates and their offices will have to send reports to other counties when they process someone from that county into the local jail system.

“That’s going to be fine when it’s a small county,” Nelson said, “but not when it’s a big city. We won’t know what court and will have to call around, and we have to do it immediately.”

All reports have to be fully processed within 48 hours of an arrest. 

The extra work is multiplied by the 580 jail beds in Burnet County, many of which are leased out to other counties. 

“This is going to increase the workload that we are doing for free for these other counties,” Nelson continued. 

County Attorney Eddie Arredondo agreed with Nelson’s assessment. 

“They (the JPs) are going to need help,” he told the Commissioners Court. “There is no way to keep up with this new system and what’s demanded of them. They are going to have to turn to the court and ask for more staff members.” 

Precinct 2 Justice of the Peace Lisa Whitehead suggested hiring an assistant magistrate as well as a clerk at the county jail. The salary cost would be about $59,000 a year for a clerk and $73,000 a year for an assistant magistrate. 

The bail reform law states that counties will not have to pay for the new software system or the training but does not provide for an increase in staffing needs. 

Oakley said the bill was an unfunded mandate from the state. 

“The Legislature also passed a bill that says no new unfunded mandates can be passed,” he said. “I see this as a mandate.”

The bill’s intentions were well warranted, both Arredondo and Nelson explained. Oakley and the commissioners agreed. It stems from a Thanksgiving Day 2017 incident in which Texas Department of Public Safety Trooper Damon Allen was shot and killed by Dabrett Black, who was pulled over for speeding. As Allen was running a driver’s license check, Black exited his vehicle with a firearm and shot him. 

Black was a violent criminal out on a $15,000 felony bond despite a record with several previous assaults on public servants. Gov. Greg Abbott said the man would not have been out on bond if the bonding magistrate had known of his violent history. 

“The law was written for a good reason,” Arredondo said. “Let’s protect our law enforcement officers. It wasn’t thought through though. This is going to be a tremendous overload for magistrates.” 

Oakley and Nelson agreed to meet later to discuss inviting state Rep. Terry Wilson (R-Marble Falls) to the Friday meeting. 

“The other 253 counties are in the same boat,” Oakley said. “We’ll see how the train wrecks. We’ll work our way through this and see what we have to do.” 

No action was required on what was listed as agenda item 15.

CORRECTION: The original version of this story reversed the salaries for an assistant magistrate and a clerk. The assistant magistrate would be paid about $73,000 a year, while the clerk would receive about $59,000 a year.