Tuesday, February 20, 2024

Rural sheriff and prosecutor offices in Texas are awarded $125 million to bolster staffing and equipment needs

Map of criminal legal deserts in Texas.
(SMU Dedman School of Law map)

To address law enforcement and prosecutorial staffing and pay shortages, Texas has awarded $125 million to rural offices that need more trained professionals, increased wages and new equipment to serve their communities, reports Carlos Nogueras Ramos of the Texas Tribune. Commenting on the funds, Texas Comptroller Glenn Hegar said, "These rural grant programs will help law enforcement offices across this state get the additional financial tools they need."

The grant was made available to communities with populations less than 300,000, and once offered, "94% of eligible sheriff's offices applied for money. Nearly 86% of eligible prosecutor's officers applied, the comptroller said. The comptroller awarded grants to 224 sheriff's offices and 138 prosecutors' offices," Ramos writes. "Rural law enforcement can apply for the grant again in 2025."

In rural Texas, prosecutors' offices have struggled to compete with metro areas to recruit and retain attorneys. "The money is a start to reverse a long-term decline of prosecutors in rural Texas counties, said Pamela Metzger, executive director at the Southern Methodist University Dedman School of Law," Ramos reports. "Less than one percent of lawyers practiced criminal defense law in rural parts of Texas."

The lack of attorneys means rural defendants wait longer to see a public defender, which can lead to more time sitting in jail. "Metzger said that an individual accused of a crime in a major city typically has a guaranteed public defender representing them in court within a day." She told Ramos, "If you live anywhere else, you'll have to wait 72 hours or maybe a weekend, just because of where you live."

Reeves County, pop. 14, 800, will
continue to face staffing shortfalls.
(Wikipedia map)
For law enforcement offices, the added funds will help but not solve their staffing woes. Michael Lazcano, a chief deputy at Reeves County, said, "Money is one part of the equation. He said that law enforcement agencies, especially rural ones, will continue to grapple with recruitment," Ramos reports.

A 2022 study by the Department of Justice "found that recruiting has been a persisting challenge for sheriff’s offices. The number of full-time, sworn officers — 174,000 — has not increased since 1997."

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