County may still try to establish Public Defender’s Office

Hays County may make one final attempt at establishing a Public Defender’s Office.

Though a “priority” decline has expired, the Commissioners Court on Tuesday indicated that the Criminal Justice Commission may initiate a request for funding from the Texas Indigent Defense Commission following their scheduled meeting May 28.

“There is still opportunity if the commission wishes to move forward,” Pct. 1 Commissioner Debbie Gonzales Ingalsbe said.

The commission hasn’t met since October, and Ingalsbe acknowledged the affect of the COVID-19 virus. “I don’t believe anybody anticipated we’d be in the situation we’re in now,” she said, mentioning the holidays and then the coronavirus. “We maybe could have done better.”

Still she said, the court has been taking actions in keeping with its desire to improve the criminal justice system including hiring an additional bond officer and creating a Magistration Office, working with the Texas Indigent Defense Council (TDIC) on getting an Indigent Defense Coordinator. “We supported the creation of a mental health court,” she said, and commissioned a study to look at the benefit of arrestees having representation the first time they see a judge. “The commission wanted time for those things to evolve, to see if there was some good progress. We have done quite a few things. I know there is more to do.”

Pct. 3 Commissioner Lon Shell added that since the coronavirus hit, many inmates have been released from Hays County Jail, and that some lessons learned in that process might also apply post-COVID-19.

He also took issue with the fact County Judge Ruben Becerra requested the TDIC study how a Public Defender’s Office might look like and cost, rather than the commission making the request. “There are over 20 members of the commission and everyone has an opinion and each opinion is valued,” he said. “The next meeting will be very important. We will see what direction the commission wants to take it after that.”

Shell also noted that already, the county spends some $2 million annually indigent defense and even if established, a Public Defender’s Office would not be able to handle all indigent cases.

Walt Smith, precinct. 4 commissioner, said he believes the system now in place functions pretty well. Young attorneys looking forward to making huge salaries in the future “every so often get to represent indigent defendants. I think that levels the playing field for a lot of defendants.”

Smith also expressed concern that the commission wasn’t consulted before Becerra commissioned the study. “We put a lot of thought into who should be on that commission and why … hearing from them would have been nice.”

The study looked at the particulars of the office handing 15 or 50 percent of indigent cases. Among other things, it said that while its creation would be expensive upfront, the county would save money after a few years.

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