Criminal justice issues mulled by coordinating committee

Hays County has taken significant strides in reforming its criminal justice system but more needs to be done. That was the general consensus of the county’s Criminal Justice Coordinating Committee, which met for the first time in six months last week, albeit virtually.

District Attorney Wes Mau said he believed there are “clear advantages” to the establishment of a Public Defender’s Office after hearing a presentation by the Texas Indigent Defense Council (TIDC). However, such a move would “almost certainly bring with it a higher cost to taxpayers — so the question for me is how much benefit for the expense?”

“The real question here is do we invest our tax dollars in incarceration or fair representation,” said Jordan Buckley, a founder of the Mano Amiga group that has been active on issues of jail reform and immigration. 

Hays County, which will open an expanded jail and co-located emergency services facility later this year, has struggled for years with improvements to criminal justice, saw an expanded push when County Judge Ruben Becerra, a Democrat, took over for former County Judge Bert Cobb, a Republican, in January 2019.

Becerra’s attempt to establish a new group to engage the issue failed to draw sufficient support from the commissioners court. Instead, the existing but largely dormant Coordinating Committee was tasked to continue its efforts. The group last met in October 2019. Though a meeting was scheduled in March that was canceled due to the coronavirus.

Becerra, along with Pct. 1 Commissioner Debbie Gonzales Ingalsbe, and Pct. 3 Commissioner Lon Shell, asked the TIDC to do a study of what a Public Defender’s Office (PDO) would mean for the county as well as for defendants and taxpayers. The study looked at costs and benefits associated with a PDO handling 15 percent and 50 percent of the county’s indigent defendants over the course of five years. 

The study also examined costs and benefits of the PDO being established as a county department versus being a nonprofit in the vein of Texas Riogrande Legal Aid. 

The Coordinating Committe also heard a presentation from the Vera Institute, which is hoping to do a free study on the county jail and its population. Like most other county jails, many of those incarcerated here have not been convicted of any crime but are awaiting their day in court.

That population was cut in March when the COVID-19 crisis prompted officials to release many inmates not suspected of committing violent crimes.

Still, Hays County remains one of the state’s fastest-growing, and inmates are still being outsourced to other facilities, some hours away, in order to comply with the Texas Commission on Jail Standards. Sheriff Gary Cutler, who also attended the virtual meeting, has said outsourcing will continue even after the new jail beds are available later this year. Outsourcing costs taxpayers tens of thousands of dollars every week, according to weekly reports to the commissioners court.

Among actions the county has already taken include establishing a Regional Padilla Compliance Pilot program, funded by a $342,720 grant from the TIDC and a county-run Magistration Division.

The Padilla grant is used to provide assistance for defense attorneys representing defendants who are not citizens of the U.S.A. Initially involving only Hays County, the umbrella program will eventually be active in 26 Texas counties in the 3rd Administrative Judicial Region.

Magistration is the first time a defendant appears before a judge who will deny or set bail. The Vera Institute, Mano Amigo and other organizations have cited studies showing that defendants who have an attorney present during that process receive lower bails.

Though he acknowledged Hays County is “way ahead of everyone else” in criminal justice reform, District Judge Gary Steel warned against “trying to go too fast.”

He challenged the studies about representation at magistration, saying those studies are ongoing. 

Mau seemed to agree. “I thought Judge Steel raised a good point in that we have made a number of indigent-defense-related improvements recently, and we have yet to see the degree to which those changes will bring some of the same benefits as a PDO would be expected to offer,” he told the Hays Free Press. “Changing too much too fast makes it hard to evaluate the effect of any particular change to the system later.”

Steel also praised the current system and the caliber of defense attorneys working essentially for free. While a PDO would assign an attorney that would be active in the case from magistration onward, currently a judge assigns a public defender only after he or she has set or denied bail.

Mau also asked how, if the PDO is only to handle a percentage of cases with the rest assigned to private defense lawyers, defendants would be selected.

Shell said he considers the meeting a success. Although no action was taken, “it was informative,” he said. “We should have another meeting in the next couple of weeks to continue the discussion.”

Mau said he looks forward to that. “As a prosecutor, setting aside the money issue, I have no objections to a PDO. As a taxpayer, I would want to be confident that the extra expense provides a commensurately valuable benefit (or at least an equivalent offset to expenses elsewhere, such as jail costs). I honestly don’t have that answer right now.

Buckley pointed out that remarks about spending on a PDO need to be tempered by the fact Hays County spends considerably less per indigent defendant than many other counties its size.

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