Editorial: Gregg County district attorney's tougher approach is the right path

Swearing In

Tom Watson is sworn in as the new Gregg County district attorney by Justice of the Peace Pct. 2 Tim Bryan during a ceremony Tuesday, January 1, 2019, at the Gregg County Courthouse. (Les Hassell/News-Journal Photo)

Just to look at raw numbers, one might think crime is an ever-increasing problem in Gregg County. The number of felony criminal cases filed in the courts has increased a whopping 46% from 2018.

That’s a significant number. It must be a crime wave, right?

Well, no. Not really.

While numbers can be flashy, the real story almost always lies behind the numbers, and that is certainly the situation with these.

The increase in felony cases is not because there are more crimes being committed but because Gregg County District Attorney Tom Watson is seeing that those arrested for crimes are actually being prosecuted.

Not every defendant is getting an automatic plea deal for one crime while other crimes are simply being dismissed.

As a result, the number of pending criminal cases has jumped from 101 in 2017 to 861 through November. Under the district attorney who took office in January, defendants are finding they cannot just slide under the radar, either, violating terms of probation and not being held accountable.

All this means more work for the office, of course, and the number of pending criminal cases does seem daunting. But Watson said the reason is that easy plea deals are no longer being offered.

Because of the changes, defendants — probably on the advice of their attorneys — are balking at taking the deals. Still, we would urge Watson to stick to his guns on this new policy. And we have a feeling we don’t have to worry about that.

Most significant in our opinion is the office’s new attitude regarding domestic violence.

So far this year, the District Attorney’s Office has accepted more than 800 domestic violence cases, while declining fewer than 10% of those cases. The year before Watson took over, the office took some 300 such cases while declining more than 40%.

That represents a sea change, particularly for women, who are the victims in most domestic violence cases. Shannon Trest, executive director of the Women’s Center of East Texas, has voiced nothing but praise for the new emphasis on jailing offenders.

This is the way the DA’s office should work. As the top law enforcement officer in the county, Watson should be striving to see that criminals pay their debt to society. That is far more important than just moving cases through the system, or seeing that the number of pending cases is low enough to keep workloads manageable. Justice must be served.

Study after study has shown that the key to reducing overall crime in a community is offenders being caught and held to account. When people know they will likely spend time locked away for breaking the law, they often think twice.

Watson could have chosen an easier course. His job would be less of a burden if he kept the same system of easy plea deals and refusing to prosecute hundreds of cases each year because they represent too much work, or because it might reduce his conviction rate.

We’ll take his current philosophy of running the office any day over what preceded it. It is better for residents of Gregg County, and we hope he continues on this path.

Today's Bible verse

“Therefore the Lord himself will give you a sign: The virgin will conceive and give birth to a son, and will call him Immanuel.”

— Isaiah 7:14

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