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Texas gives $125 million to rural sheriffs and prosecutors for pay increases

Several vehicles were parked outside of the Real County Sheriff’s Office on Jan. 12, 2022.
Kaylee Greenlee Beal for The Texas Tribune
Several vehicles were parked outside of the Real County Sheriff’s Office on Jan. 12, 2022.

ODESSA — Texas has awarded $125 million in grants to rural sheriffs and prosecutors across the state, the Texas Comptroller said in a statement last week — an effort to help those law enforcement agencies attract and keep talent in their communities.

The pool of money was established by state lawmakers last year in Senate Bill 22, which passed with bipartisan support. The legislation, authored by state Sen. Drew Springer, R-Muenster, totaled $330 million and established grants for increasing minimum salaries and additional equipment.

Rural law enforcement can apply for the grant again in 2025, which the comptroller will issue using the remaining money.

The comptroller’s office, which among other duties manages the state’s budget and collects taxes, began accepting applications last year and determined the amount each county would receive by population size. Only counties with a population smaller than 300,000 were eligible for the grant.

Of Texas’ 254 counties, 236 have populations slimmer than 300,000, according to a 2022 estimate from the Texas Demographic Center.

The comptroller’s office said 94% of eligible sheriff’s offices applied for money. Nearly 86% of eligible prosecutor’s officers applied, the comptroller said. The comptroller awarded grants to 224 sheriff offices and 138 prosecutors offices.

The grant’s recipients must first raise pay — with sheriffs earning $75,000, deputies $45,000, and jailers $40,000 — before using the money to buy equipment. The grants ranged from $250,000 to $500,000 for sheriff’s offices. Prosecutors could apply for anywhere between $100,000 and $275,000.

The money is a start to reverse a long-term decline of prosecutors in rural Texas counties, said Pamela Metzger, executive director of the Deason Criminal Justice Reform Center at the SMU Dedman School of Law.

“I think it’s terrific that the legislature is recognizing our rural criminal justice communities,” Metzger said.

Texas has experienced a sharp, years-long decline in criminal defense attorneys, areport authored by Metzger at the legal think tank found. The study gathered the number of practicing lawyers in the state whose addresses and offices were in the state using the bar association’s database.

Less than one percent of lawyers practiced criminal defense law in rural parts of Texas, hampering the ability of rural prosecutor’s offices to find and employ public defenders it could dispatch to courts.

Metzger said that an individual accused of a crime in a major city typically has a guaranteed public defender representing them in court within a day.

“If you live anywhere else, you’ll have to wait 72 hours or maybe a weekend, just because of where you live,” Metzger said.

And the influx of money is a boon for law enforcement offices with lean budgets operating in counties with a smaller tax base, said Michael Lazcano, a chief deputy at Reeves County and vice president of the Big Bend Area Law Enforcement Officers Association, an organization representing 20 law enforcement agencies in West Texas, the majority of which are rural.

“These funds might not be there next year, so it’s good for smaller agencies to have,” Lazcano said.

Still, Lozano said money is one part of the equation. He said that law enforcement agencies, especially rural ones, will continue to grapple with recruitment.

“For new recruits, it’s different,” Lazcano said. “It’s not very appealing anymore to the younger generation to come into law enforcement.”

A 2022 study by the U.S. Department of Justice found that recruiting has been a persisting challenge for sheriff’s offices. The number of full-time, sworn officers — 174,000 — has not increased since 1997.

Sheriff's offices have closed personnel gaps by employing more civilians, whose participation “more than doubled” in the last two decades. The number of civilians occupying administrative roles rose to 191,000 in 2020, according to the report.

From The Texas Tribune