DA Gonzales plans to cut indictment backlog by one-third, despite staffing problems

DA will pay prosecutors for extra work on “high-risk” cases using money from vacant positions

SAN ANTONIO – Bexar County Criminal District Attorney Joe Gonzales believes moving money around his budget will help his department to cut its backlog of 6,083 yet-to-be-indicted felony cases by one-third or more, despite problems keeping enough prosecutors on staff.

And though an internal email obtained by KSAT shows a division chief chastising attorneys for not doing enough work, Gonzales says his staff is working hard.

Bexar County Commissioners agreed Tuesday to allow Gonzales to spend $295,000 in unused funding for six vacant positions to pay prosecutors who volunteer for extra work preparing cases for a grand jury. The so-called “High Risk Intake Team” would focus on violent crimes, repeat offenders, and cases specifically highlighted by police or prosecutors.

“I think if this is approved, we can comfortably expect to be able to resolve 2,000 to 2,500 cases of the 6,000,” Gonzales told commissioners before they approved his request without dissent on a voice vote.

Gonzales said the plan is temporary and will be revisited in six months.

It’s a plan with roots in both the DA’s struggle to keep his office staffed and public sparring with San Antonio Police Chief William McManus over a spate of shootings of five SAPD officers in which the suspects had criminal histories.

A sixth officer shot himself in an incident around the same time, which also resulted in officers shooting and killing a suspected car burglar they were chasing.

Bexar County Judge Peter Sakai and San Antonio Mayor Ron Nirenberg announced they would bring law enforcement and prosecutors together to discuss solutions. Gonzales said this is one of them.

The district attorney also said the current backlog is lower than the 8,639 cases he inherited when he took office in January 2019. He attributed backlog issues to an enormous increase in how much evidence is submitted for cases, problems transferring that evidence between incompatible and outdated systems, and prosecutor shortages.

“This plan is about helping us to fund that gap from the vacant positions because we’re never going to be able to fully get in front of this when we have the amount of vacancies that we have,” First Assistant DA Christian Henricksen told commissioners.

Though Gonzales said he is currently only down “13 to 15 lawyers,” his office has had an average of 20 vacant assistant district attorney positions every month since August 2022, according to his presentation.

He thanked commissioners for the raises in the recently passed county budget, which he said has helped the amount of prosecutor turnover within his office level off.

But while Gonzales put much of the blame for his staffing issues Tuesday on “burnout,” a KSAT Investigates report in March found numerous former employees teeing off about the “hostile and toxic” work environment.

An Oct. 5 email obtained by KSAT and confirmed through a public records request showed the head of the very department the plan is supposed to help, the Intake and Grand Jury Division, reprimanding her team for not doing enough work.

Division Chief Emily Angulo told the 26 people on the email chain that the September statistics showed “many of you did not come close to doing the amount of work that you should be doing on a monthly basis in intake.”

Angulo referenced the plan to allocate funding for attorneys to work overtime to work with the backlog and said, “It does not help the argument...when some of you are not keeping up with the minimum.”

“Just to reiterate, in case some of you missed the last intake meeting, being on vacation is not an excuse for your stats to plummet,” she wrote. “You need to take that into consideration for how much you are working the rest of the month. Whether that means taking work home, coming in early, staying late or coming in on the weekends, the work has to get done.”

KSAT asked Gonzales on Tuesday whether the culture of the DA’s office may also be contributing to turnover.

The DA said Angulo would be sending a statement about the email.

“So I’m going to give her an opportunity to respond to any questions that you have about that. But I will tell you that our staff works hard. There are some people that are workaholics. And this chief is an example of a workaholic. But we have to have a life balance -- a life-work balance -- and we have to recognize that.”

Angulo released the following statement later Tuesday afternoon through a DA spokesman:

“I authored the email to Intake prosecutors regarding their September disposition rates. It was sent to our Intake prosecutors to ensure that we continually do our best work. The email was not meant to disparage. On the contrary, it was meant to motivate and to increase the Intake Division’s output.

“Not surprisingly, prosecutors accepted the challenge and, in fact, increased their productivity.

“As a result, a follow-up email was sent thanking them for their renewed efforts and expressing my appreciation for their work. I am privileged to work alongside such a great team every day. Working with such a dedicated staff has kept me in the DA’s Office for 24 years.

“We are a team of professionals here at the DA’s office. We do not shy away from holding ourselves internally accountable for a low or celebrating our highs together. We recognize that we must always put our best efforts forward in assisting victims of crime and serving the interests of justice.”

About the Author

Garrett Brnger is a reporter with KSAT 12.

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