Tim Ward tells board of supervisors continuances during COVID-19 have pushed 50% more cases than normal into 2021; calls for more funding to fill 10 vacant prosecutor positions and spread out workload
VISALIA – Prosecutors are hard to come by in Tulare County nowadays, and the work is beginning to pile up.
Tulare County District Attorney Tim Ward said in a presentation to the board of supervisors that his office will likely carry over 85% of this year’s open cases into 2021. The average rollover on cases is 35%. He said later that part of the problem this year has been automatic continuances stemming from pending trials with people who are out of custody.
“If you are out of custody there’s this thought that you gain nothing by moving the case forward quickly. And so everyone is out of custody then COVID hits,” Ward said.
Even before COVID-19 there was a push to keep people out of custody while pending trail. Once the pandemic began cases on the DA’s calendar started getting pushed further and further back. Cases that were scheduled for March and April were rescheduled for May, then rescheduled again for June, then rescheduled for July, and have since been rescheduled into the fall and winter.
Ward said that his office is still dealing with other high profile cases with people who are currently in custody. Everything else is being continued. He added that if his office wants to increase their 15% close rate in 2020 then automatic continuances will need to stop so more cases can go to court.
In his Nov. 2 presentation to the Tulare County Board of Supervisors, Ward said that the problem that will go beyond the 85% carry over rate, is his lack of prosecutors. This year the DA’s office has 10 vacant prosecutor positions.
“The greatest asset that we have are the employees of our office and as of right now in our prosecution staff nearly one-quarter of our allocated spots are vacant. And it’s not getting any better,” Ward said.
The 53 prosecutors he does have are working a collective 200 cases at any given time. Ward said that a normal number of cases for his prosecutors are between 30 and 50. A large number of cases would be 80 to 100. Ward told The Sun-Gazette that 200 cases is practically “unheard of” and each of his prosecutors’ cases have multiple staff involved to create files and “cheat sheets” for court appearances.
He also told the board that 75% of the county’s prosecutors have two years or less of experience. The reason is two-fold. Geographically, Ward says Tulare County can’t compete with the “lure of some of these places.” Prosecutors will graduate from law school and interview with the DA’s office but ultimately choose a more temperate county like Santa Barbara or San Luis Obisbo, Ward said.
“We have a dickens of a time competing and [getting prosecutors] to come here for a job in the Valley,” he said.
In 1999 when Ward graduated from law school he jumped on the first opportunity to get into the field. Now the DA’s office loses 75-80% of candidates in which they offer a job. Ward said at time the candidate will hear the offer and reply that they’re waiting to hear back from another county. Also hurting their chances of gathering a larger pool of candidates is the lack of regional law schools. The closest school in the area is the San Joaquin School of Law which is not American Bar Association accredited. Which hurts the college as graduates are not allowed to practice outside of the state.
Another dominating reason why young prosecutors choose to overlook a career in Tulare County is compensation. A level one deputy district attorney, according to the county’s human resources pages, pays $63,523 to $77,417 a year. A level four deputy district attorney makes between $98,282 and $119,779 a year. Level one prosecutors at the district attorney’s office in San Luis Obispo make $12,942 per month according to their “step and range” salary schedule, amounting to over $155,000 a year. A level five or six prosecutor makes $15,731 a month, amounting to just under $189,000 a year.
Problems finding prosecutors is not where the issue stops. Ward said there is just more work to do, and support staff are having trouble keeping up. Even worse, the DA’s office is running the risk of burning them out and perhaps losing them all together.
“At some point in time…we are going to have a major problem coming and that is expertise in retention,” Ward said. “We cannot continue to ask the supporting staff to continue to work the hours they are working and it’s a thankless job.”
More work to do
According to Ward’s presentation caseload between 2015 and 2017 decreased by 18.5%. That represents a drop from approximately 17,500 cases in 2015 to just over 15,000 in 2017. But between 2018 and 2019 they increased by 5.3%, going from approximately 14,000 cases back to 15,000. He said that on average they are looking at 60 new cases a day.
Felony submitted theft-related cases have also begun to increase. Between 2013 to 2016 cases of this kind dropped from roughly 1,200 to just over 500. Once the effect of Proposition 47 – which passed in the 2014 November election – began to materialize felony submitted theft-related cases began to increase from 2016 through 2019. Ward called it the “Prop 47 Effect” in his presentation to the board.
More specifically Prop 47 requires that defendants are sentenced to misdemeanors, instead of felonies, for “non-serious, nonviolent crimes,” unless they have prior convictions for murder, rape and certain sex offenses or certain gun crimes. Ward believes that turning felonies into misdemeanors has worked to push thieves back into the community just to have them reoffend. And the DA’s statistics tend to bear that out.
Of the 19,511 adult defendants from Oct. 1, 2018 through Oct. 5 2020, 30% of cases filed are regarding the same person. Which to Ward is not necessarily bad news. He said that it is frustrating to see the same names over and over again, but it does not mean there are necessarily more criminals out on the streets.
“Our county is safe and we have a good place to raise our family. But the reality is we have small number of individuals that are taking advantage of that,” Ward said.
The drop in gang violence has also been encouraging for the DA’s office. According to his presentation, gang violence is down 50% over the course of 2015 to 2019.
Homicide cases have been steadily ticking upwards though. In 2015 the DA’s office handled 53 homicide cases. That number dropped to 37 in 2016, rose by one case in 2017, dropped by two cases in 2019, and then hit 38 in 2019. So far in 2020, there have been 47 homicide cases filed. Ward said the increase in homicide cases have been roadway related. Supervisor Amy Shuklian asked whether they were the cause of driving under the influence. Ward said that every one of the vehicular deaths are either DUI or alcohol and drug related. On that note he added that they have seen a “jump” in drug impaired driving
“It’s not just alcohol anymore. It’s often alcohol or illegal narcotics or pharmaceutical abuse,” Ward said.
Cases coming into the county are not the only cases the DA’s office has to deal with anymore. As laws change staff now have to deal with cases they’ve already prosecuted. Ward said in his presentation to the board they are doing more post-conviction work than ever before. For example, when Prop 64 passed that all but legalized marijuana. Prisoners who were put away for marijuana related convictions were allowed to petition release. The DA’s office identified 400 cases that met the requirements for release.
Coming down the pike are petitions asking to change an offenders sex registration status. For decades those convicted of sex crimes with a minor were forced to register as a sex offender for life. Beginning Jan. 1, 2021 convicted adults will be handed a tier of 10 years, 20 years or life on the sex registration list. And which tier a person falls into will be determined by a judge. Juveniles convicted of a sex crime will be handed a tier of five or 10 years. On or after July 1, 2021, tier one and tier two registrants who meet mandatory minimum requirements may petition the superior court or juvenile court in their county of residence for termination of their California sex offender registration requirement.
“They gave us no funding or prosecutor to [handle petitions],” Ward said. “How can I pull someone who has been here for a year and say, ‘hey can you look at these 290 petitions and tell me who is eligible for release or not.’”
Prosecutors are also being pulled toward post convictions hearings over clemency and parole. Ward told the board that the rate of early release has more than doubled since 2013 going from 16.5% to 35%. This is also in addition to immigration consequences in pending cases. And Ward pointed out that immigration law is not a walk in the park.
“If the board has any interest in funding for an immigration specialist lawyer to be on staff or on call for us I’ll take you up on that because this is a complex area. We are trying to do the right thing to handle those cases and make considerations when appropriate…but it’s a new mandate for us,” Ward said.
Ward left the board with a call to find more funding for more prosecutors. As a victim’s focused district attorney, Ward attempts to keep prosecutors working cases that have affected a victim or their family. By keeping a prosecutor on a specific case it keeps the family from having to explain and re-explain their case to any number of different prosecutors that are taking that case to court that day. However, it puts a bind on the amount of cases the DAs office can handle.
With 10 positions vacant Ward says it is getting harder and harder to execute on the cases that are being filed.
“As an office my goal is to beef up our prosecution staff. If not for the current employees that we have, then focus on the families that will be impacted by crime tomorrow and the months to come,” Ward said.