When current criminal district attorney Sharen Wilson announced she would not be seeking another term, six candidates — split evenly along party lines — threw their hat into the ring to replace her in November.
After the primary, two candidates remain: Republican Phil Sorrells and Democrat Tiffany Burks. Sorrells served as judge of the county Criminal Court No. 10 for 25 years, and Burks worked in the district attorney’s office from 1999 to August 2021.
The power behind the district attorney in Tarrant County is substantial. In Tarrant, residents elect someone to serve as both a criminal district attorney and county attorney. A criminal district attorney is a state office while a county attorney is a county office. The criminal district attorney is also a civil attorney that represents the county in civil matters and offers legal advice to elected officials and departments.
More than 300 employees work within the district attorney’s office, which includes a criminal, civil and investigative division, as well as community outreach and victim services programs. In interviews with the Report, Burkes and Sorrells outlined their vision for the position moving forward.
Candidates emphasize focus on prosecuting crimes against people
Crimes against people increased 14% in the first quarter of 2022 compared to the first quarter of 2021, according to the Fort Worth Police Department’s 2022 first quarter crime report. A large portion of that increase came from simple assault and intimidation cases.
“When you look at crime, a lot of times you look at statistics,” Sorrells said. “If crime overall is down, well violent crime is up for sure.”
He pointed to the high number of pending cases in Tarrant County because of court closures, and the accompanying crowding of local jails. It has resulted in people being released from custody, he said.
“We’re losing people because right now, the crimes that are being committed, the punishment in those cases is being delayed,” he said. “People just don’t see that people are being held responsible. So we get a hold on people being held responsible, I think that’s going to cut down crime.”
Burks said crimes where there are actual, human victims will be her priority over things such as possession of marijuana under two ounces. She offered crimes against children, the elderly, and burglaries as examples her office would focus its energy on.
“My hope is we have resources and time to focus on more serious violent offenses,” she said.
For lower-level crimes with no human victim, Burks wants to implement more diversion programs in the county.
“I plan to have a diversion unit within the district attorney’s office, with the goal of finding resources for them,” she said.
The county currently offers several diversion programs, including one for mental health and another for domestic violence. There also is the first offender drug program, which is billed as a “limited-supervision program for first-time drug offenders.”
“I want to be known as the district attorney who understands how to be tough on crime when necessary, but understands there is a place for compassion in our criminal justice system as well,” Burks said. “We can be tough all the time, but all we’re doing is recycling folks through our criminal justice system.”
Sorrells, Burks differ on how to solve case backlog
Tarrant County courts have a backlog problem. Earlier this month, county commissioners took a step to rectify it, approving $1 million to pay for visiting judges through the next fiscal year.
Both candidates agreed it’s a good first step. But neither is willing to stop there.
“I applaud the commissioners court for making funding available for visiting judges,” Burks said. “But just bringing in judges alone isn’t going to fix the problem.”
The district attorney’s offense needs to be given the time to organize cases more effectively and help determine which can be dismissed through plea bargains; over 90% of criminal cases end in a plea bargain, she said, and identifying the few cases that need to go to trial would help ease the backlog faster.
“We can’t try ourselves out of this backlog,” Burks said. “We need to do an inventory of the cases currently pending in the district attorney’s office. It will require work and collaboration. The longer a case sits on the docket, the harder it is to prosecute.”
Sorrells said there’s also a need for more resources for other staff, such as bailiffs and court reporters. There are 21 courts currently operating in Tarrant County, and he said different floating units within the district attorney’s office can be used to staff more courts.
“The elderly Crime Unit, they’re not assigned to a particular court,” he said. “So they can go to another court and try their cases. The Crimes Against Children Unit, the Sexual Assault Unit, the Gang Unit, there are so many different units that can staff different courts so we can staff more courts than we currently have just to get things going.”
Civil division would stay steady with Sorrells, undergo changes under Burks
If Sorrells is elected in November, the Tarrant County District Attorney’s civil division will remain business as usual.
“You have about 30 lawyers in the civil division,” he said. “The folks are doing a great job, and wouldn’t see a big change. Some of the most experienced lawyers in the office are in the civil division.”
Burks isn’t satisfied with resting on the division’s laurels. She’s heard from residents who have concerns about how open records requests are handled by the county.
“There are some who believe our office doesn’t have a good open records management system,” she said. “When citizens in our community want information, we need to do our best to get it to them, and promptly.”
She also wants to increase communication between city leaders and the civil division, before a problem arises.
“I want to look at how we are providing info to our elected officials, because there have been a lot of issues with the sheriff’s department, the number of inmates who have died, the fact that they are understaffed and overcrowded. That’s costing taxpayers money,” Burks said. “I want to build a team in the civil division, experts, who can work with our elected officials to provide them with the best advice and information.”
She pointed toward the recent expenditure of $18 million by the county to transfer inmates to a private prison in Garza County as an example of taxpayer money being spent needlessly.
“We should be able to take care of that right here in our own county,” Burks said.
Meet the candidates:
Phil Sorrells, 57, has served as judge of Tarrant County Criminal Court No. 10 for 25 years. He was previously an assistant district attorney under Tim Curry, who served as district attorney from 1972 until 2009.
“The No. 1 job of the district attorney is to keep the community safe, and I would hope that we would see a decline in criminal activity over my tenure, that I was doing my part in keeping the community safe.”
Tiffany Burks, 51, started her law career as an assistant district attorney in Fort Bend County but moved to Tarrant County in 1999 to work in the district attorney’s office. She left the DA’s office in August 2021 and announced her candidacy in September.
“I’ve led and mentored and managed not only issues and policies in the office, but people in the office. What you need in the office is the right kind of leadership. You need leadership folks will follow — a servant leader. People will be productive, get the job done, when they know they’re working for someone who cares for and respects them.”
At the Fort Worth Report, news decisions are made independently of our board members and financial supporters. Read more about our editorial independence policy here.Emily Wolf is a government accountability reporter for the Fort Worth Report. Contact her at email@example.com or via Twitter.