In line with efforts to reform the criminal justice system in Hays County, County Commissioners July 30 approved submitting a $342,720 grant application for a pilot program for noncitizens.
The grant application will fund a consultation project that will bring assistance to defense attorneys in Hays County to fulfill obligations set by the Padilla v. Kentucky Supreme Court case.
Per the law, criminal defense attorneys are required to advise illegal residents on immigration-related matters such as pleas and deportation.
The grant will allow Hays County defense attorneys to consult with legal experts on meeting Padilla obligations through the nonprofit myPadilla. Attorney and myPadilla Founder Julie Wimmer said she provides this service to other counties across the state.
But meeting these “Padilla obligations” has proven to be a challenge across the nation and state as assistance is hard to find, according to officials from the Texas Indigent Defense Commission.
“Very simply, this is a requirement on defense attorneys (per the Supreme Court case),” Wimmer said. “It is very hard for them to meet this obligation without having a dedicated resource knowledgeable in the area of immigration law.”
Under the program, defense attorneys will submit a request for technical assistance to the myPadilla team which will provide insight and recommendations on the case.
Typically these programs are utilized in larger cities. If Hays County receives the grant, it will mark the first hub for such a program in a “rural” area that will serve neighboring communities and counties in the third administrative judicial region.
The third administrative judicial region spans from Williamson County down to Bexar County with Hays County in the middle.
If the grant is approved, the court will vote to approve the agreement on Aug. 29.
The application was highly praised by all members of the commissioners court, citing the need to continue efforts in criminal justice reform.
Hays County Pct. 3 Commissioner Lon Shell said the defense bar in Hays County would appreciate the assistance providing a benefit to noncitizens, defense attorneys and the taxpayer.
The application was possible through the work of the county’s grant writers, staff and the criminal justice coordinating division.
“It’s absolutely a group effort, I couldn’t agree more,” said County Judge Ruben Becerra regarding the application of the grant.
The grant application was in light of a denial by the commissioners court to apply for a public defender’s office, sparking outcry from local activists and residents alike.
On May 10, the Commissioners Court shut down a grant application for a public defender’s office, citing limited time to review the application and limited support from the county’s judiciary branch.
The decision was met with backlash from the community. But the decision to apply for the Padilla grant may have eased some of the tension between community members and the court.
Resident Jordan Buckley praised the court on its initiatives to apply for the grant but urged the county to consider a public defender’s office.
Proponents of a public defender’s office maintain that the initiative would assist the indigent defendants with legal representation.
On May 10, Hays County Pct. 5 Justice of the Peace Scott Cary said residents are serving more than three months in jail due to a lack of representation and slow legal system.
Additionally, the overpopulated Hays County Jail has led the county to spend upwards of $75,000 a week outsourcing inmates to other counties, costing millions of dollars a year.
Michael Lee, a court-appointed attorney in Hays County, addressed the court on July 30 on issues surrounding representation of defendants.
Lee said he has driven to the jail on multiple occasions to meet with a defendant only to find the individual is not present.
“When they’re moved, we don’t know and we can’t communicate with the client, and that’s causing me some concern,” Lee said. “There is no provision for defendants to exercise their rights to have an examining trial, which can be crucial in some cases. To me, that concerns constitutional rights which could expose the county to some liability at some point, theoretically…”