Every crime victim and defendant deserves a legal system that delivers swift justice.
And in domestic violence cases, delays prove to be particularly troublesome. The longer the proceedings languish, the less chance for prosecution. Too often, the couple reconciles and the injured party doesn’t want to pursue the charges. Other times, the victim moves on in an effort to start a new life, all too eager to put that ugly chapter in the rear-view mirror.
Dallas County criminal court Judge Shequitta Kelly is determined to right the wrongs caused by excessive court delays. She wants to reduce the time victims and defendants wait for resolution by putting into place expedited-docket rules for family violence misdemeanors.
Kelly’s years of work in the legal system have provided her plenty of experience with the anxiety and bewilderment of the process: “Even as a prosecutor, one of the first things I would say to victims is, ‘This is going to be a long road.’ And that’s pretty sad.”
Court delays in domestic misdemeanors regularly reach a year or 18 months. So beginning last May, Kelly has tried to maintain a six-month maximum for getting these cases through her courtroom.
The judge hasn’t installed a hard-and-fast rule. Instead, she refuses to grant the traditionally accepted delays for a new court date — often proposed for months down the road yet without strong cause attached. Kelly also is reasonable about the need for short postponements due to real deals such as illness.
She also is fighting back against the reluctance of prosecutors to expeditiously hand over, as legally required, evidence to the defense. Dallas Morning News reporter Jennifer Emily, who first brought readers the news of Kelly’s experiment, notes that 90 percent of delays were the result of defense attorneys not having the required information.
Just last month, Dallas was reminded of the toll that this type crime takes on vulnerable residents as the city released the second annual domestic violence report, conducted by the University of Texas at Dallas. While family violence cases haven’t dramatically increased over the past year, between June 2015 and May 2016, more than 15,000 emergency and non-emergency calls related to domestic violence were made to Dallas police. And lack of shelter space remains for abused women, men and children.
It’s too soon to know what kind of results Kelly can expect out of her expedited-docket strategy and whether some portion of it may be applicable to the more complicated felony cases.
For the victim, greater efficiencies would mean less turmoil and the quicker the person’s life could resume some semblance of normalcy. And for defendants, some of whom will be found not guilty, pending cases make it more difficult to find a place to live and work.
While Kelly’s strategy isn’t a “one size fits all” solution, her common-sense efforts to stop foot-dragging by both sides of the legal aisle deserve a large measure of praise.
The 2015 docket
— Dallas County prosecutors filed more than 3,700 new family violence misdemeanor cases.
— An additional 4,300 cases were already pending in courts.
— About half of the pending cases were no longer active.
— 3,850 cases were resolved: nearly 900 led to convictions, 29 ended in acquittals, more than 2,100 were dismissed, and in 529 cases, the defendants’ probation will allow them not to have a conviction if they successfully complete the terms of probation.
SOURCE: Texas Office of Court Administration