KCBD Investigates A Prosecutor’s Plea: ‘We cannot effectively and efficiently continue to prosecute crime shorthanded’

Published: Sep. 19, 2023 at 6:14 PM CDT|Updated: Sep. 19, 2023 at 10:32 PM CDT
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LUBBOCK, Texas (KCBD) - The Lubbock County District Attorney’s Office is nearing crisis mode as the number of prosecutors continues to drop.

Lubbock County Elected District Attorney Sunshine Stanek met with county commissioners in a budget workshop to justify why her employees need a raise.

“Not only can we not get new prosecutors, but we are losing seasoned prosecutors,” Stanek said. “We cannot effectively and efficiently continue to prosecute crime shorthanded.”

Currently, the starting salary for prosecutors in Lubbock County is $65,000.

Stanek requested a $15,000 raise for prosecutors in her office, which puts the starting salary at $80,000.

“We have put a lot of time and energy into coming up with the number we are asking for. I say that because I have received some criticism from people inside and outside of my office for how much I am asking for in terms of it being too low. As a public servant, I find that a little surprising,” Stanek said.

The KCBD Investigates Team requested the starting salaries for district attorney’s offices across the state.

Hays County reported it paid newly licensed attorneys $70,400 at the start of the year and had 14 job openings.

County commissioners approved a higher starting salary of $79,300 and the elected district attorney said the office is now fully staffed.

Ector County’s elected district attorney said he is struggling to fill vacancies with a starting salary of $76,000.

Potter County offers new felony prosecutors $90,000, but even at that salary, the office reports it is short four prosecutors.

Stanek told commissioners promising applicants continue to turn down her job offers for entry-level criminal prosecutor positions.

“One declined based on salary,” Stanek said. “One went to do defense work instead because it’s higher pay,” she said.

A third applicant rejected the job offer to stay at a legal aid office where she reported making $100,000.

“That is offensive to me that we are not getting people to work in the Lubbock County DA’s Office,” Stanek said.

Precinct Two County Commissioner Jason Corley called into the budget workshop and expressed concern that a bump in pay may not be enough to get cases moving.

“We had a county court at law court that went seven months without having a jury trial,” Corley said.

“We need more prosecutors. Would there be a benefit to increasing the number of prosecutors per court?” Corley asked Stanek.

“Commissioner Corley, there would be a benefit, I would love to have more bodies working, but the problem is I have eight open positions so I would feel quite silly asking you for more positions when I can’t fill my current,” Stanek said.

Corley said one of his main concerns is the Lubbock County Detention Center operating at capacity, which has forced inmates to be housed out of the county at an additional cost to taxpayers.

While plans are underway to expand the jail, it will be years before the project is complete.

“We are up against a massive jail expansion out there that will require a bond, probably the largest bond Lubbock County has ever gone out for. That is why I am asking about increasing the number in your office. Will that move more cases? Will that get more people to trial more quickly?” Corley asked.

“The short answer is yes. In a perfect world, now, more prosecutors can move more cases at least on the front end,” Stanek said.

“If we still have the same number of courts, then we still may have a bottleneck. We may have more people working but we don’t have more judges hearing cases. So, they are all kind of intertwined,” Stanek said.

Days later, commissioners met to take an initial vote on the proposed tax rate, which included the requested raise in pay for prosecutors, but no additional funds for Corley’s suggested expansion of the DA’s office.

“I don’t think adding $15,000 to each DA position is going to be sufficient to make a dent in this or make any change,” Corley said.

“We need them to hire more DAs, we need more prosecutors, prosecutors are going to need a couple of investigators,” Corley said.

“I do know the DA’s office has not requested what you are talking about,” said Lubbock County Judge Curtis Parrish.

“The problem is complex and it’s going to take a complex solution. It’s not just adding another assistant district attorney is not going to lower the jail population,” Parrish said.

“I think if you are going to go to the voters and ask them for more than the voter approval rate, it needs to address the entire problem and not just the DA’s side. All of that has not been presented to me to put in the budget,” said Lubbock County Auditor Kathy Williams.

“Sunshine did just sit right here and say she can’t ask for more employees when she can’t fill what she has,” Kovar said.

“You got your four votes, go for it,” Corley said.

Corley’s stance did not change when it came time for the formal vote when he voted against the tax rate.

“We’ve got 209 inmates that are staying outside of Lubbock County right now. That is costing us an increase in this budget of $4.8 million for a total of $5.4 million this year,” Corley said.

Corley said that number will continue to increase unless the bottleneck at the district attorney’s office is addressed.

“That is why I was in favor of adding a million dollars to that budget to increase the number of prosecutors. I would rather spend a million dollars this year and save us $20 million over the next three years. Sometimes you’ve got to spend a little to save a lot,” Corley said.

Commissioners voted three to two to pass the proposed tax rate increase of 34 cents per 100-dollar taxable value.

It is the highest rate the county may adopt without holding an election to seek voter approval.

Commissioner Corley voted against the rate, arguing it was too late.

Precinct Four Commissioner Jordan Rackler also voted against the rate, but he argued it was too high.