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County finalizes Indigent Legal Services work group

Wednesday, November 28, 2018 by Ryan Thornton

On Oct. 16, the Texas Indigent Defense Commission presented a report to the Commissioners Court in which it recommended the creation of a public defender office in Travis County along with numerous specific suggestions concerning the ideal composition of the office and the process of its creation.

The Commissioners Court enthusiastically received the recommendations from TIDC and announced its intention to follow the first suggestion by forming an Indigent Legal Services work group of members from the local legal community.

Tuesday morning, following several weeks of deliberation involving legal professionals and community activists, the Commissioners Court unanimously approved a final list of individuals to form the work group.

The work group comprises 15 roles – each with a primary member and a backup – and will serve to provide expert input and adjust recommendations made to the county by TIDC as needed. The group may also be involved in shaping a grant application for TIDC funding in early spring 2019.

Representation of the indigent in Travis County has proven largely inadequate due to a variety of factors, including a problematic fee system that encourages defense attorneys to seek plea bargains for their clients. A single nonprofit corporation, Capital Area Private Defender Service, currently handles all defense cases for the indigent.

Additionally, based on a study commissioned by the county, indigent defendants with court-appointed attorneys are much more likely to be found guilty and have a much smaller chance of receiving a sentence of probation than defendants able to hire their own attorneys in Travis County.

These combined factors have led to a sense of urgency surrounding the duties and composition of the work group. Above all, the issue of adequate representation and expertise in the work group itself has been the main topic of discussion during the six weeks since the Oct. 16 vote.

Four of the 15 roles on the work group have been filled by individuals who have been directly impacted by the Travis County criminal justice system, and another three roles are dedicated to community organizers directly involved with indigent clients. There has also been an effort to ensure that minority groups disproportionately affected by the criminal justice system are sufficiently represented by the group members.

Claudia Muñoz, a backup member of the work group, assured the Commissioners Court during the Nov. 13 voting session that there were several individuals on the group, including herself, from minority racial and ethnic groups. Muñoz also urged the court to delay a decision on any of the group categories until it could vote on the group as a whole. “If this is going to succeed, we need to have all of the voices that will have impact at the table from the beginning,” she said.

Despite calls for a single vote for the group as a whole, the court moved to approve 12 of the 15 roles on Nov. 13, leaving the roles of judiciary, academia and contrarian unfilled until the vote Tuesday morning. Commissioner Brigid Shea said on Nov. 13 that the three roles could still be active even before a vote. “Let’s get started with what we can and have the others clearly intended to be participating,” she said.

Suggestions were predominantly made by professional legal groups CAPDS and the Austin Criminal Defense Lawyers Association as well as a group referred to by the court as the Woog Caucus, in reference to Amanda Woog, Executive Director at the Texas Fair Defense Project .

Each of these three groups made a different suggestion for the academia role, contributing to the decision not to vote on it Nov. 13. The court ultimately moved forward with the Woog Caucus recommendation of Andrea Marsh, lecturer at UT School of Law, for the academia role, with Chris Roberts, clinical professor also at UT Law, as backup.

The group is expected to work in close communication with the Commissioners Court moving forward, as a TIDC grant application is created and presented to the court for approval in the coming months.

Photo courtesy of the Travis County Sheriff’s Office. This story has been changed to clarify the role of Amanda Woog.

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