What a public defender’s office looks like in Hays County, study explains

Time appears to be running out for Hays County to apply for a grant to help fund a Public Defender’s Office.

May 11 was the “priority deadline” for the grant application to be filed with the Texas Indigent Defense Council (TIDC). The grant, which the county declined to seek last year, would partially fund the office. Last week, the TIDC released a 37-page study requested by county officials, laying out what such an office would look like.

The grant would cover half the office’s costs in its first four years of operation. Commissioners rejected a proposal by County Judge Ruben Becerra to apply for the grant last year, citing lack of information.
But, it’s possible an application could still be filed by the end of the month.

The study shows several options highlight the different financial responsibilities of a public defender’s office, depending on the number of cases taken on.

There would be long term fiscal benefits from the grant. The grant would cover 80 percent the first year costs for establishing a public defender’s office, 60 percent of the second year, 40 percent of the third year and 20 percent of the fourth year. After that, the county would assume full financial responsibility.

The study estimates costs if the office takes on 50 percent of the indigent client cases as compared to 15 percent of those cases. More cases covered by the public defender’s office means more staff would be needed to handle those cases.

The study shows that with the grant, under both scenarios – 50% and 15% – the county would save money in year one over what it currently has budgeted for indigent court expenses.

The study says a public defender’s office will offer more accountability on the part of attorneys and reduce recidivism of clients.

“The county should experience benefits like attorneys being available to reliably attend dockets, caseworkers who can improve access to social services, improved attorney oversight, accountability and quality controls, better data collection, reduced jail populations, and higher misdemeanor appointment rates,” the study stated.

During a virtual town hall forum May 6, a panel looked at the benefits of having a public defender’s office. The Chief Public Defender of Bexar County Micheal Young said clients of the criminal justice system meeting with a lawyer and having positive experiences shouldn’t be underestimated.

“How someone is treated by their attorney representation is going to impact how the individual views government, elected officials and their role in society. By treating someone with respect as a person, taking an interest in their case, looking at them holistically, you will have better outcomes in the criminal justice system and for the individual,” Young said.

Currently, Hays County uses an assigned counsel system.

During the virtual town hall, former Hays County District Attorney Sherri Tibbe, who is running for the 453rd District Court judge position, said the current system has limited safeguards to hold lawyers accountable when handling cases.

“An indigent defense coordinator is being established, but still we need to make sure attorneys are visiting their clients and doing everything to be competent in their representation. The county also needs to improve access to clients. The visiting rooms in the Hays County jail are not adequate to meet with clients. Many lawyers run into the issue that their client is in another county, which can be difficult especially if they are housed 100 miles away,” Tibbe said.

Questions to County Judge Ruben Becerra and District Attorney Wes Mau were not answered.

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