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County to get public defender office

By Brittany Anderson

HAYS COUNTY — Hays County is working to address the overcrowded jail system and thousands of taxpayer dollars  spent on inmates. But most importantly, ensuring criminal justice for all. 

On May 24, the Hays County Commissioners Court unanimously voted to award a request for proposal (RFP) to Neighborhood Defender Services in order to create Hays County’s first public defender office (PDO). 

This comes after three years of advocacy efforts by Mano Amiga, a local nonprofit that works to organize systemic and cultural change in the community. The efforts have been met with considerable support from Commissioners Debbie Ingalsbe (Pct. 1) and Lon Shell (Pct. 3) and Judge Ruben Becerra. 

In August 2021, the commissioners unanimously voted to earmark $5 million of American Rescue Plan Act (ARPA) funds to create a PDO. In November, commissioners authorized a RFP to find a vendor to run the office, receiving proposals from Neighborhood Defender Service (NDS) and Texas RioGrande Legal Aid. 

The intent of a PDO is to 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 that everyone has timely access to legal counsel. 

Eric Martinez, Policy Director with Mano Amiga, has stressed the importance of taking a holistic approach to create a PDO in order to address the local incarceration crisis. 

According to Martinez, a holistic PDO should include defense attorneys to provide traditional indigent defense, civil attorneys to address civil issues (like family law, housing, schooling, immigration and employment), and support staff such as social workers, investigators and paralegals. 

“To be truly holistic, we have to acknowledge the spillover effects that result from somebody’s involvement with the criminal legal system and its impact [on their lives],” Martinez said. “If somebody cannot afford an attorney under the criminal legal system, then they cannot afford an attorney to address civil issues much like the wealthy can.”

Shell explained that usually when RFPs are sent out, there is a selection committee to make a recommendation after interviewing the vendors. In this case, it consisted of Shell, Ingalsbe, General Counsel Mark Kennedy and Purchasing Manager Stephanie Hunt. Their interviews with the two vendors also included other members within the judicial community.  

Most of the commissioners felt drawn to select NDS. Ingalsbe said one thing that “really hit home” for her in their proposal is that they mentioned needing to know what inmates got into the system so they can keep them from coming back. Addressing the mental health needs of inmates was also discussed in their proposal. 

Additionally, NDS’ proposal mentioned that attorneys would have blended case loads of both felonies and misdemeanors, and that they are working towards becoming an accredited CLE (continuing legal education) provider with the State Bar of Texas. 

According to the Hays County Jail dashboard, as of May 23, the jail population was 685. About 76.6% were pretrial detainees — legally innocent people who are unable to afford their freedom — with a median length of stay of 108 days. 92.7% of detainees had a felony as the most severe charge. 

While Pct. 4 Commissioner Walt Smith was ultimately supportive of the PDO and selection of NDS, he said he wished there was more of a focus on services for victims. 

“It’s disheartening to me that we are looking to spend millions on this PDO, and rightfully so, I do believe it’s needed … but at the end of the day we’re putting an astronomical amount of taxpayer dollars into addressing the needs of prisoners, and others, who have been accused sometimes of violent crimes,” Shell said. “When we talk about doing those ancillary services for them … I understand the need to prevent them coming back and assist them, should they be convicted. I wish we had the same focus on those services of the victims for those same prisoners who are sitting there. ” 

Shell, however, said that a PDO is important to the entire criminal justice system, not just for the individual accused, and helps ensure public safety 

“If you have someone being accused of sexual assault of a child, and that person’s day in court is three years after the potential crime was committed, you are not going to have criminal justice,” Shell said. “If there’s a victim, and that victim is a minor, three years is a huge time to go, especially if you go before a jury. Law enforcement officers that may have witnessed are no longer there. The victim hasn’t moved on. We’re letting victims down.”

In closing, Becerra said that the PDO offers something “so universal and fundamental to our American way of life,” and will help “balance the scales of justice.” 

“The jail is ridiculously overcrowded … $15,000 a day, seven days a week,” Becerra said. “How dare we hold them in jail for so long without putting them before a judge? … burning $15,000 a day and have nothing to show for it is a real hard waste of money. We’re going to use a whole lot less to create a PDO to help your neighbor either become a state inmate or go back to work … we have to get people out and in front of a judge and move them along, whatever path that may be.”

Contract negotiations between Hays County and NDS will now occur over the next couple of months, with an agreement expected to be reached in August.

About Author

Brittany Anderson graduated from Texas State University in August 2020 with a bachelor's degree in journalism. She previously worked at KTSW 89.9, Texas State University's radio station, for nearly two years in the web content department as a writer and assistant manager. She has reported for the Hays Free Press/News-Dispatch since July 2021.

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