Hays County inches closer  to indigent defense fund

by Sahar Chmais
Activists and Hays County Commissioners celebrated the passage of a resolution to submit a grant application to fund indigent defense in Hays County.
“Approving this application will blaze a positive path forward,” Shannon FitzPatrick, former assistant district attorney and practicing attorney, said. “In the decades to come, people may not remember your names, but many will feel the impact of your actions. It’s not always easy to see justice when standing in the forest of privilege. But deliberate steps like this help us to clear a path.”
By May 7, Hays County will send an application for a grant from the Texas Indigent Defense Commission to improve indigent defense services. Funds will pay for the first year of the proposed Hays County Holistic Public Defender Office and Managed Assigned Counsel Program. The improvement grant will pay a percentage of the funds every year for four years, but the county must continue to apply.
This project will cost more than $2.2 million, but the county will match approximately $450,000 with a grant period between Oct. 1, 2021 through Sept. 30, 2022. This means the county will receive roughly $1.8 million to use for the project. Hays County intends to continue applying for funds over the next four years. Additionally, the county plans to seek other funding opportunities for more support of the program.
The funds were requested to implement a new indigent defense system with a focus on addressing mental and behavioral health needs of the community. The program will expand court-appointed representation for those who cannot afford to hire legal representation.
A few years ago, residents voiced concerns regarding the growing jail population, the state of the indigent defense system and lack of cite and release diversion programs.
The county’s jail has become overcrowded, and in 2020, the county had to transfer people to jails in Burnet, Caldwell, Fort Bend, Guadalupe and Walker counties. Transferring people to other county jails cost the county about $4.3 million in 2018.
The Public Defense Office (PDO) will represent about 30% of felonies, 18% of misdemeanors and specialized mental or behavioral health representation in 50% of these cases.
Commissioners touted their progress on bringing this application forth. It took more than one year of meetings to get to this point, said Commissioner Debbie Ingalsbe.
“I want to thank the many people that have worked hard on this grant application and bringing us to the point we are at today,” Ingalsbe addressed the court. “There’re members out in the audience that spoke with me early on regarding this issue and really opened my eyes to many things. I know this is really important to so many people.”

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Sahar Chmais holds a bachelor's degree in journalism from the University of Texas at Austin. She has been covering cities in Hays County for one year, touching on residents' struggles and successes, city issues, COVID-19 and more. Prior to reporting on the local spectrum, Sahar reported for a national news organization, covering gun violence. Sahar enjoys working as a local reporter because she gets to work with real people and their stories.

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