by Lon Shell, Hays County Commissioner, Pct. 3
Public safety and the criminal justice system account for the majority of your tax dollars spent by Hays County. These responsibilities require the collaboration of multiple stakeholders, jurisdictions, county functions and elected offices, in order to be effective and efficient. There is always room for improvement and now more than ever our system needs cooperation and commitment from all of those involved.
Last week the Commissioners Court discussed a grant application to the Texas Indigent Defense Commission (TIDC) for the establishment of a specialized public defender’s office. The proposed grant was first brought to the Commissioners Court by our county judge on May 7. It required court approval for a May 10 deadline. This was the first time this issue had been discussed in court and many of us were uncertain of what tangible solutions the proposal would provide. We were given less than a week to decide.
Currently, Hays County tax payers provide over $1.5 million towards indigent defense. The majority of these funds compensate court appointed attorneys. I spent most of the days surrounding this discussion speaking with some of these attorneys as well as judges and citizens in an effort to better understand our challenges in Hays County. I also researched Travis County’s recent efforts to agree upon a grant request to the TIDC. They created a stakeholders committee and spent months, if not years, debating the best path forward. Just last week they reached agreement with a majority of their judges.
During our discussions, only one elected judge out of the fourteen that currently serve Hays County stated a willingness to support the grant application. Of the judges that I have personally spoken to, all agreed improvements to our system are needed. However, they expressed concern over the lack of communication on the grant proposal and believed there are more effective strategies that would better address our challenges.
From my conversations with attorneys that have in the past provided or currently provide indigent defense, I heard a broad range of opinions. Some thought a public defender’s office could work if structured properly. Others thought enhancements to our current court appointment system would work better, and most believed enhancements to pre-trial services should be the first step.
In my opinion, without a commitment and a consensus from our judges and attorneys, any change has little chance for success. Unfortunately, the issue of this grant application has been seen as partisan by some. I cannot disagree more with this perception. Improvements to our Criminal Justice system are supported by all, whether regarding indigent defense, mental health, efficient and effective courts, or expenses related to jail operation. This is not a time to make partisan claims. This is an opportunity to participate in a constructive process that will benefit all Hays County residents. Later this month the Hays County Criminal Justice Coordinating Commission will meet. This commission is made up of representatives of our courts, attorneys, law enforcement and others from our community. These representatives have been selected by their peers and colleagues. Their participation will provide the much needed opportunity to work collectively towards lasting improvements.
In the fastest growing region of our country, we must work hard to maintain our quality of life. Just as our exceptional growth makes transportation planning and the protection of our natural resources more important than ever, it also requires us to collectively work together to preserve our high level of public safety and provide equal and effective justice for all. I will continue to work hard for you and what is best for all Hays County residents.