By Brittany Anderson
HAYS COUNTY — According to the Hays County Jail dashboard, 80% of the county’s total jail population are pretrial detainees — legally innocent people who are unable to afford their freedom — that can expect to spend a minimum of 30 days in jail, costing county taxpayers between $80 to $100 per inmate.
Mano Amiga, a local nonprofit that works to organize systemic and cultural change, has spearheaded efforts to implement a Public Defender Office (PDO) in the county, which would streamline the judicial process for inmates by providing defense for those who are unable to pay the fees required to hire a defense lawyer and ensure everyone has timely access to legal counsel.
Hays County Commissioners Debbie Ingalsbe (Pct. 1) and Lon Shell (Pct. 3) held a press conference with Mano Amiga on April 12 to provide the public with an update on the implementation of a PDO.
In August 2021, after Hays commissioners unanimously approved to allocate $5 million of ARPA (American Rescue Plan Act) funds towards the creation of the PDO, requests for proposals were sent out to find an agency to run the program.
After reviewing proposals and interviewing candidates, commissioners plan to select either the Neighborhood Defender Service or Texas RioGrande Legal Aid during the upcoming April 26 court meeting.
Commissioner Ingalsbe added that there will be money put in for magistration and pretrial services that will enhance the PDOs services.
Mano Amiga Policy Director Eric Martinez said that the most common experience for the majority of Hays County Jail inmates include spending weeks away from their loved ones and losing the ability to work, worship and be productive members of society, all the while only having been charged, not convicted, of the crime they’re accused of.
And even with the county jail renovation which will allow for about 600 inmates to be held, many will still continue to be outsourced to other jails, costing taxpayers even more money and furthering the strain put on inmates and the community as a whole.
“Research has shown that PDOs have been found to reduce days of pretrial incarceration, get cases dismissed or acquitted more often and secure shorter sentences for clients,” Martinez said. “This results in savings for county taxpayers and is a miraculous turnaround for the quality of life for defendants.”
During the press conference, commissioner Shell noted that mental health was one of the focuses in their request for proposals, saying that it is an issue in both the county and the county jail system, and can create complicated cases that require different types of representation.
“We need some help that is professionally built to address this,” Shell said. “A PDO is a step for us to move forward and find ways to improve our system.”
The county is now one step closer to providing institutional quality defense for all community members, and Mano Amiga said that advocates are committed to ensuring that the county follows through with the implementation of the program.
“The county has a long history of making investments into incarceration, but now, with the leadership of Commissioners Shell and Ingalsbe, investments are being made into representation,” Martinez said, adding that this “cannot come soon enough.”