The Austin Police Department is considering a new way of moving people through the early postarrest process traditionally managed by Travis County.

Two-minute impact

In a stated effort to improve efficiency and cut down on costs to the city, the APD is proposing a new "virtual magistration" managed by Austin police.

Magistration and booking can include a judge's evaluation of probable cause for an arrest, financial review for bail, medical screenings, a discussion of legal representation, and other actions. Magistration must take place within 48 hours of arrest.

Today, magistration is handled at the Travis County Jail Central Booking Facility operated by the county sheriff’s office. The new system would instead take place at APD headquarters with city police officers completing the postarrest processing, with virtual input from judges, before bringing arrestees to jail.

More than 60% of the arrests handled at Central Booking come from the APD. The facility's costs are split between Austin and Travis County under a long-standing interlocal agreement that's about to be updated.

What's happening

The development of APD-run magistration has been in the works for months as the police department considered ways to streamline the process and limit its growing financial impact.

Travis County had proposed more than doubling the city’s share of booking center costs last year, according to APD officials, which led the police department to pursue the virtual alternative. The new interlocal agreement with Travis County is now set to run the city $9.91 million this year, a nearly 30% increase from the current deal.

Austin police officials initially planned to launch a virtual magistration pilot program handling multiple arrests weekly to gauge how well that new option might work out. However, given its complexity, the police department will instead roll out the new program as a "mock trial test" first.

The trial run with volunteer "arrestees" and standby judges is now expected to begin in late January or early February. The police department will then determine what any next steps might look like.

“We’ll be able to document the entire process. We’ll be able to videotape the entire interaction, and then we’ll have our city legal team and our municipal court judges review that entire process to give feedback on whether or not they think that we’re doing it the appropriate way or not," APD Chief of Staff Jeff Greenwalt said during a Jan. 8 meeting of Austin's Public Safety Commission.

APD officials said the program will include the same steps postarrest as the current county system, without any differing effects on those arrested.

“There’s no reason that we should see higher bonds because we’re with the new process. They’re still going to have the same probable cause affidavits; they’re still going to have the same pretrial service information; they’re still going to have the same financial service questionnaire. And the direction and overall vision that the judges have is the exact same," Greenwalt said.

While the APD is seeking cost savings, Greenwalt didn't have any estimate of what the budget difference between city- and county-run magistration might be. He also committed to ongoing conversations with community members while the magistration update remains under consideration.

“There’s going to be a lot of transparency. I don't think that we’re going to move forward with any program that doesn’t give somebody a good outcome," he said.

What critics are saying

Several community members and Travis County representatives questioned the APD's plan and the overall need for an alternative magistration system at this time. More than a dozen district court judges had also written to Austin city officials last fall detailing their concerns about police-led magistration.

Some critics said keeping arrested individuals under police oversight, away from a central facility and without early legal representation, could lead to worse outcomes for them.

“We question if the city is prepared to handle the complexity of these processes. We do not believe monetary savings should ever be prioritized over the rights of the accused and human needs," said Rachel Gunner, a member of Advocates for Social Justice Reform, which supports marginalized people in the legal system.

Jennifer Kraber, director of Travis County's court administration, also said her office is worried about police officers handling initial interviews with those arrested instead of county pretrial services staff.

Adeola Ogunkeyede, Travis County's chief public defender, argued that the program as currently outlined could be unconstitutional and isn't designed to improve justice outcomes or cut costs.

“What APD is proposing is allowing the city to circumvent some very real legal and critical processes, such as arrest review and counseled first appearance, for savings that seem illusory at this point and have not been detailed in any measure that I think is reliable or trustworthy based on what we know," she said.

What's next

A Public Safety Commission recommendation to postpone or cancel the APD pilot program was not voted on during the body's January meeting, although the topic is expected to be taken up again.

Austin City Council will consider updating the Central Booking interlocal agreement Jan. 18, including the higher price tag and a requirement for regular reviews of "operations and issues," including pilot projects like virtual magistration.

The APD's virtual magistration trial run will take place in the next few weeks, with more review to follow before its possible implementation at a larger scale.

“When we first started, we didn’t realize the magnitude of this project. Not to say that it’s going to stop us, it just means that there’s more to investigate before we figure out what the next step is," Greenwalt said Jan. 8. "We did the feasibility study, we feel like we can duplicate all the things we’ve talked about today, and the next step is to do the mock trial.”

Also of note

The APD's pursuit of magistration changes comes after city and county leaders had considered ways to ensure legal support soon after arrest.

A former Travis County program offering counsel prior to magistration was put on hold soon after it started in 2022 due to staffing issues and later terminated by county leaders.

Offering counsel at first appearance, or CAFA, has been a goal for many involved in the local legal system in an attempt to improve outcomes for those without representation from the jump. County officials have moved to implement CAFA with more than $1 million in renovations for such support at Central Booking.

However, the group of concerned judges said the APD's plan would hamper that work.

"Instituting a system that not only takes arrestees away from Central Booking but also utilizes a virtual magistration system where they do not see the judge in person is a countermeasure to this aim and works against the goals of our local criminal-justice system," they wrote in November.

Ogunkeyede also said she believes police-run magistration may only increase representation issues.

“The concerns about the lack of access to counsel at this critical stage doesn’t go away just because APD is doing it. The concerns are there now that Travis County is doing it, it will remain with APD doing it," she said. "There are people looking at the processes in Travis County with grave concern, and APD has not proposed anything that alleviates that grave concern.”