For over a year, crime statistics have shown violent crime increasing in Fort Worth, the county seat of the state’s third most populous county.
Tarrant County residents will elect a new district attorney on November 8 to replace Sharen Wilson, who is retiring after having served in the position since 2015.
Voters will be asked to choose between Republican Phil Sorrells and Democrat Tiffany Burks to take the reins at the DA’s office.
Sorrells has been a county criminal court judge for 25 years and was a prosecutor for five years.
Burks was a member of the DA staff for 24 years where she rose to the position of deputy chief over the criminal division.
Both candidates recognize that the backlog of cases, which grew to 40,000 during the pandemic, is a priority when taking over the role as lead prosecutor for the county.
In an interview with the local CBS affiliate, Burks said she would conduct an inventory of the cases and then determine which ones might be appropriate for a plea bargain to help reduce the backlog.
Sorrells noted a shortage of experienced attorneys in the DA’s office and the need to fill those in order to help reduce the backlog of cases in his interview. He also suggested bringing in visiting judges to help try pending cases.
Sorrells said that his top priority is to keep the community safe. He tied this to the backlog in the courts, saying both victims and perpetrators need to know that justice is done in Tarrant County and there are consequences for their actions.
Burks noted that dealing with the mental health and drug addiction issues of many criminals would be a high priority in a DA’s office she leads.
She believes that by prioritizing mental health assessment, fewer people would reach the jail, so she would put more resources into such a program.
When asked about enforcing laws against abortion in Texas, both candidates highlighted their oath to follow the law.
“My job is to enforce the law,” Sorrells stated.
Burks was more hesitant, saying she would balance following the law with “seeing justice done.” “I don’t see how you can find justice in prosecuting those who have assisted those who have gone through … very traumatic circumstances,” she said, referring to prosecuting doctors who provide abortions to women.
Texas laws against abortion allow for the punishment of abortion providers, not the woman herself. All allow for an exception to protect the life of the mother.
Neither candidate expects to ask the Tarrant County Commissioners Court for an increase in the budget, which is already over $45 million. The criminal district attorney is the highest-paid official in the county with a salary of $243,000.
Burks said if she makes requests for increases in the future, it will be for “things we need.”
Sorrells again pointed to the need to fill open positions in the office with experienced attorneys so that the staff can be sufficient for the county.
Both candidates believe their experience in the county’s criminal justice system qualifies them for the job.
According to Sorrells, his criminal court has been one of the most efficient courts in the county with one of the smallest budgets.
Burks contrasted her experience as a prosecutor supervising other attorneys, making policy decisions, and conducting training as some of the qualifications that set her apart.
When it comes to accused criminals being released on low or no bond, Burks said she doesn’t see it as a huge concern in Tarrant County.
She said that judges determine bond amounts, but the law allows prosecutors to ask for an increased bond if they see the accused as a threat to the community.
Sorrells acknowledged that sometimes the bond set is an issue. He pledged to have a representative from the DA’s office present at all bail hearings so that they can present any evidence to the magistrate setting the bond about dangers the accused might pose.
Sorrells has been endorsed by several local law enforcement associations including the Fort Worth Police Officers Association, Tarrant County Law Enforcement Association, and Arlington Municipal Patrolman’s Association.
He is also endorsed by the retiring Wilson, Tarrant County Sheriff Bill Waybourn, and multiple other state and local office holders.
Burks is endorsed by several local criminal defense attorneys, Tarrant County Commissioner Roy Brooks (D-Pct. 1), the Mexican American Bar Association of Dallas, and Texas Rising Action, a political group focused on “building a movement for equality and social justice in Texas.”
Sorrells has significantly outraised Burks according to the most recent campaign finance reports. Between July 1 and September 30, he raised $287,000 in contributions. Burks received about $70,000 in that same time frame.
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Kim Roberts is a regional reporter for the Texan in the DFW metroplex area where she has lived for over twenty years. She has a Juris Doctor from Baylor University Law School and a Bachelor's in government from Angelo State University. In her free time, Kim home schools her daughter and coaches high school extemporaneous speaking and apologetics. She has been happily married to her husband for 23 years, has three wonderful children, and two dogs.