By Sahar Chmais
Hays County commissioners will allocate up to $5 million of American Rescue Plan (ARP) funds to create a Public Defender’s Office (PDO).
After a long debate on whether ARP funds are viable to use on a PDO in Hays County, the allocation passed unanimously. The creation of a PDO has been in the works for about three years, and today, the commissioners nudged the project a little closer to the finish line.
Having a PDO will streamline and speed up the judicial process in Hays County by providing quality indigent defense. In some cases, those who end up in jail do not have access to legal counsel because they cannot afford it. A PDO will provide timely representation to those facing charges.
“Imagine not having in-person trials, or in other words, you can’t have a jury trial for a year,” Shell began his argument. “I’m looking at our jail numbers, comparing them to last year, and they are significantly higher the same time of this year compared to last year … We know COVID is not a good thing to have in a confined area, which is a jail. If you want to jump to the straight conclusion, if I can get people out of jail faster, that’s a safety improvement from a public stand point. So I don’t have people sitting there breathing on each other.”
The federal government granted Hays County approximately $44 million to use for COVID-19 relief. Shell said that COVID-19 was a contributing factor to trial setbacks. There are some people who might not need to be in jail; with the help of a PDO, it will give the jail some relief.
In addition to COVID-19 relief, ARP funds can also be used for water, sewer and broadband. Shell said between assistance for rent and utilities, which the county has already implemented, and the limited jurisdiction the county has over water and sewer, using the money for a PDO is sensical. It will help get people out of jail faster or get to trail faster, he added.
Creating a PDO will be a lengthy process, but this decision has set the office on track.