County votes to pursue public defender office

By Megan Wehring 

HAYS COUNTY — A new Public Defender Office (PDO) might be in Hays County’s future.

With a 5-0 vote, Hays County Commissioners agreed to submit a letter of intent to the Texas Indigent Defense Commission (TDIC) regarding public defender opportunities, pretrial service opportunities and managed assigned counsel.

Along with legal representation, Commissioner Debbie Gonzales Ingalsbe said providing additional services, such as career readiness and housing, is also necessary.

“It’s not only providing legal representation to individuals which is extremely important,” Ingalsbe said. “But it’s also providing the resources and making those resources available to those individuals to ensure they have the greatest opportunity to succeed.”

Several speakers urged county leaders that there needs to be at least a 50% caseload in the new PDO. The caseload refers to the percentage of either misdemeanors or felonies that a PDO would handle; this is directly related to the attorneys and staff needed.

“I have to assume that the reason the PDO keeps coming up is because we all know at some level, it is the right thing to do,” said Christine Terrell, Hays County resident. “There is no question. We have far too many people sitting in our county jail for far too long.”

Shannon Fitzpatrick, former county prosecutor, was the second to speak up.

“Let’s see how the 50% goes and be prepared to move quickly upward from there,” Fitzpatrick said. “That is the most cost-effective approach and it will begin to provide the county with the greatest quality for its money.”

The case types and percentages for a potential PDO in Hays County have not been finalized.

Fitzpatrick added that even with its best intention, private attorneys can be difficult for the courts to manage. For that reason, she concluded that a PDO is critical for the county.

“It is supported by the [District Attorney’s] Office and it’s supported by the neighboring cities who have found it transformative in their communities,” Fitzpatrick said.

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About Author

Megan Wehring graduated from Texas State University in May 2020 with a bachelor's degree in journalism and mass communication. Wehring is nearing one year at the Hays Free Press/News-Dispatch, covering all things local. This includes city council meetings, town events, education and human interest stories. Previously, Wehring worked at KTSW FM-89.9 (Texas State University's official radio station) for two consecutive years. She was a news reporter, assistant news director and monthly segment producer during her time at KTSW. Wehring is passionate about the local reporter aspect. With a heart for storytelling, she believes that journalists are equipped to share the stories that are most important to the community.

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