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County OKs new criminal defense program

Wednesday, August 27, 2014 by Tyler Whitson

The Travis County Commissioners Court has appointed a nonprofit corporation to manage a new program created to provide criminal defense for indigent Travis County residents, starting Jan. 1 of next year. The program will replace the current system of court-appointed and paid defense attorneys.

Commissioners voted unanimously Tuesday to appoint the Capital Area Private Defender Service to operate Travis County’s Managed Assigned Counsel Program. Commissioner Gerald Daugherty was not present.

Commissioner Ron Davis hailed the program’s progress during discussion, calling it a “major league step” that has been “long overdue.”

Chair of the nonprofit’s oversight committee, District Judge Julie Kocurek, described a managed assigned counsel program as providing “a kind of private defender, instead of a public defender” that can offer “significant cost savings” to the county.

The decision is the next step forward in a two-year-long collaborative effort between the Travis County Criminal Judges, the Austin Bar Association and the Austin Criminal Defense Lawyers’ Association.

The Texas Indigent Defense Commission awarded Travis County a $717,516 grant in June to provide for 80 percent of the funding for the pilot program’s first year. the County is responsible for the remaining 20 percent, or $175,862.

Each subsequent year, the county will be responsible for funding an additional 20 percent of the program’s budget, until it is responsible for full funding in the program’s fifth year. At the end of five years, the county will decide whether to continue funding the program.

The nonprofit’s board president Betty Blackwell told the Austin Monitor, “The whole point is to improve the quality of representation to the indigent community in Austin,” she said. “We need to have an office that can help young lawyers become better lawyers … and make sure that the public has a place to go to if they are not happy with the representation.”

If successful, Blackwell added, the program could have far-reaching effects. “We’re hoping it could be a model for the rest of the state,” she said.

 

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