29th State District Court

While President Trump works on draining the swamp in Washington, there has been some recent swamp draining here in Palo Pinto County.

Not of political gators and back-biting snakes, but of societal leeches and slugs.

OK, that is a little harsh, because I am going to be talking about people, human beings, who are loved by someone – their mom, for instance, since this is Mother’s Day weekend.

What I am referring to – what I find very pleasing – are criminal case dispositions coming out of the 29th State District through Judge Mike Moore and new District Attorney Kriste Burnett and Assistant Prosecutor Robert DuBoise. It is something I have taken note of in recent weeks, since I am the one who types up the weekly county court records published in the Wednesday editions.

If you read that listing every week, perhaps you have noticed, too.

What we have seen is a higher number of people charged with felony crimes who have been sent to prison. I haven’t seen anything like it in the 15 years I have been here and watching these reports.

For instance, from the last two weeks of published reports, there were had 28 individuals – several with multiple felony cases – convicted and sentenced in the district court either through plea agreements or by jury trial. Of those 28 individuals, 24 were sentenced to serve time – no probation. There were more in the weeks before that. The ladies in the district clerk’s office have been writing “pen” papers more than they ever have before.

What has been in these reports the last few months is really unprecedented, and I hope it continues.

Now, there are some reasons for the recent surge prison sentences doled out in the first few months of DA Burnett’s term, a trend that might not necessarily continue. A number of these cases involved motions to revoke probation, and while in such cases you can modify and extend probation and the terms, in these cases the DA’s office and the court have said to these people, enough.

Burnett and DuBoise have been working diligently to overcome backlogs of indicted cases and people stacked up in the county jail needing to have their cases heard and moved through the district court. A lot of these are people who have already had multiple bites of the apple of community grace, given second and third chances, maybe more, but refuse to learn and change, and continue to prey on and harm the good people of Mineral Wells and Palo Pinto County.

We have seen in the past too many cases of people arrested and put on probation, only to go out and repeat their mistakes and illegal conduct. That is mostly on them, but it is a little on us. You know the saying: “Fool me once shame on you; fool me twice shame on me.” Fool me five times and I’m either rock dumb or something else is at play.

It has long been my belief that Mineral Wells and this county has had a drug problem larger than other communities, a reputation as a meth and drug sanctuary community, if you will, because too much leniency and grace. A message gets out among those people to, “Come on over here, they won’t do anything.”

Meanwhile our image and our property values plummet. The neighborhood eyesores rise. Crime increases. They bring down the whole town, and a bad message is sent.

I think – I at least hope – a new message is being sent, one that says if you have problems and you are arrested, we will give you grace and help through programs, social services and the churches and pastors who step in to try and salvage and turn lives around.

But it is not going to be repeated grace and continually condoning bad and illegal activity at the expense of our city and county and the good, hard-working people trying to live and do right. At some point a stronger message has to be sent, and I think we are that point.

This was a topic of the elections last year in the DA’s race concerning repeat offenders, the same names constantly turning up in the police arrests and court criminal records. I believe this is why Burnett won, and she seems to be adhering to the public’s desires to see a different and stronger tone set in this county.

In a conversation I had with someone on this subject, a concern was expressed about the county’s adult probation department, that there should be consideration given and a balance struck between sending people to prison and using community corrections to change behavior, provide restitution to victims and generate revenue needed to operate the office.

My answer was that I was pretty sure the county adult probation office had plenty of cases to work.

Chief Adult Probation Officer Jim French said his five full-time probation officers had 805 active probation cases at the end of April, of which 421 probationers live in Palo Pinto County. There were another 73 bond cases being supervised.

He said the state sets at 100 the number of regular active cases a probation officer should have at a given time.

That means Palo Pinto County adult probation officers are handling more than the state’s recommended number per officer. “But we are not overwhelmed,” French said.

He said he hopes to soon be able to one probation officer. Two years ago he had to lay off two officers – the first time in his 30-year probation career he had to cut back on staff, he said.

French said in the past the office had as many as 1,200 total active probation and bond supervision cases, but he said those numbers steadily dropped in recent years, for a variety of factors, he said.

“One is that it is very expensive to be on probation, so more are saying, “Well I can just sit in jail a little longer.’” Meaning they are willing to ride out a jail stay and avoid probation, walking out without committing to supervision and paying fees.

French said while the local caseloads have lessened in recent years, he believes they will trend back up, especially as the DA’s office works a backlog of felony cases awaiting grand jury presentation and potential indictment.

“You hope so, in that we are able to have a probation office,” French said.

I told him I didn’t think in this county there was need to worry about not having enough probationers, but I understand his point.

Yes there is a balance, yes we need to give people the opportunities to make their wrongs right through community supervision and programs to help them. Those things are in place for those who truly want to change their life. Mineral Wells is nothing if not generous and compassionate.

For those who refuse to change, the option is prison – well before they have devoured the entire apple. It seems to me a new message is being sent and I, for one, hope it continues. I hope the word gets out that Mineral Wells and Palo Pinto County is not the place you want to come if all you are looking to do is stay high on meth or other drugs, burglarize and steal.

We have seen change in law enforcement change through Mineral Wells Police Dean Sullivan and his community programs and efforts to better hire, train and retain officers. It is also happening through new Sheriff Brett McGuire is far more engaged with and visible to citizens and his employees and bringing a new level of professionalism.

A message is being sent from the top floors of the county courthouse as more of the bad community elements are removed. This goes hand-in-hand with other gradual improvements aimed at making this a desirable place to live, raise a family, send your kids to school and invest in property and commerce. We can truly change our view, and how others view us.

David May is general manager and editor of the Mineral Wells Index.

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Currently the general manager and editor for the Mineral Wells Index, I have worked as a writer/editor/photojournalist since the late 1980s.