Victoria County DA talks to constituents

Victoria County District Attorney Constance Filley Johnson talks with Dale Fowler, president of the Victoria Economic Development Corp., at a monthly chamber of commerce meeting.

A little more than a year after her election, Victoria County District Attorney Constance Filley Johnson spoke publicly to constituents to explain her office’s work so far.

For about half an hour, Filley Johnson addressed a crowd of about a hundred residents, local officials and business leaders at a monthly luncheon hosted by the Victoria Chamber of Commerce at the University of Houston-Victoria.

“The reason we invited her is that she has really not spoken anywhere since she was elected to the district attorney’s office,” said Christine Blain, interim chamber president. “I thought it would be great to hear the changes she has made and how they are affecting our community.”

During that time, she spoke about a variety of accomplishments from her office, including the reduction of a case backlog, improved collaboration among local law enforcement offices and return of $54,288 to the county’s general fund.

“This year, we are lean and mean,” said Filley Johnson about her budget.

Elected in 2018, Filley Johnson beat incumbent district attorney and fellow Republican Stephen Tyler. She is the first woman elected into that office in Victoria County.

“When I asked you for the job on the campaign trail, I told you there were some things I wanted to accomplish right off the bat,” Filley Johnson said.

And Filley Johnson said her office has made significant progress in accomplishing those early goals.

With nine assistant district attorneys, seven of whom have local ties, she said she has overhauled that department and reformed it into an effective team.

“I had some philosophical differences in the way that I wanted to run that office, so we do have a brand-new team of prosecutors,” she said.

Despite that change, her supporting staff of 19 people has remained largely the same.

“Some of those men and women have been working for that office since my dad was at the helm 20 years ago,” she said. “They are great folks, and they are still working as hard today as ever.”

That team, Filley Johnson said, has worked tirelessly to reduce a 600-case backlog left by Tyler to about 200 cases.

While Filley Johnson said her office is still making progress in developing specialty court programs, she said work has been done.

Special court programs or diversion courts offer defendants probation sentences in exchange for agreements to seek addiction counseling or another programs aimed at preventing the underlying reasons that caused them to break the law.

If a defendant fails to abide by the agreement, that person can receive a more severe sentence that otherwise would have been suspended.

While Filley Johnson said she is still interested in exploring such programs for veterans and people suffering from mental illnesses, she said her priority for now is to explore diversion programs for those suffering from substance addiction.

That was in part, she said, because of data that showed illegal drug offenses in Victoria are committed by the same people over and over.

In fact, about 500 people accounted for about 2,300 arrests for illegal drug offenses by Victoria police within the past three years, she said.

A gasp rose from the crowd after Filley Johnson revealed those numbers.

Offering some of those people the chance to avoid incarceration by seeking addiction treatment, she said, would not be a free pass but rather an effective way of combating a cycle of arrests she compared to a “hamster wheel.”

“It’s not a pass. It’s tough work,” she said.

The district attorney said her office is also working with the University of Houston-Victoria Police Department to offer probation sentences for students who are nonviolent first-time offenders.

“The overriding goal is to hold people accountable and not hinder them professionally,” she said.

While those changes are still in the works, many in the crowd said they were pleased to hear from their district attorney.

“I think an annual report from the DA’s office would be a benefit to the entire community and would help us understand what they do,” said Amy Mundy, Victoria resident who voted for Filley Johnson.

Jon Wilcox reports on courts for the Victoria Advocate. He may be reached jwilcox@vicad.com or 361-580-6515.

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Jon covers crime, public safety and the courts at the Victoria Advocate. Born in Huntsville, Ala., he grew up in Atlanta, Ga. and obtained a bachelor's degree in journalism at Texas State University.

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