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County indigent defense grant still on the table

Wednesday, March 6, 2019 by Ryan Thornton

Austin is currently the largest city in the country with no traditional public defender office. Travis County wants to change that, but efforts so far have been unraveled by personal and political disagreements within the Indigent Legal Services work group, the advisory panel put together in late December to guide the process with regard to policy and budget decisions.

Pressure to reach a consensus has risen steadily in anticipation of March 11, the deadline for the county to submit its letter of intent to apply for the Texas Indigent Defense Commission grant program this year. Now, for all the anxiety the deadline has elicited, the county could have an opportunity to apply for the grant in May – with no need for a letter of intent.

The letter is being held up by a stipulation requiring approval by at least one of Travis County’s 15 criminal court judges, which the work group has failed to obtain at this point.

According to Amanda Woog, the work group’s chair and executive director of the Texas Fair Defense Project, a meeting of stakeholders on Thursday, Feb. 28, ended with a verbal commitment by TIDC Executive Director Geoff Burkhart to request waiving the requirement in this case to buy the county some time.

Burkhart’s suggestion is a lifeline for those still holding out for a solution this year. With funding a top point of disagreement among the work group’s members, that concern will only grow worse if the county can’t get an application submitted by May. As Roger Jefferies told the court last week, an unspecified amount of over $15 million in total TIDC grant awards could be distributed in formula grants across the state by next year if unused.

While the grant would help the county ease into the new system with funding issued over four years, some critics agree that a public defender office is needed, but doubt that the county could sufficiently fund the program after the TIDC money runs out.

According to the initial TIDC report from October 2018, the public defender office itself would cost approximately $7.3 million a year with the total annual cost of indigent defense estimated at $18.4 million. That’s $4.5 million more than the county currently spends.

Proponents of the project say that better indigent defense is not only necessary for ethical reasons, but would also save taxpayers money by taking up cases more efficiently and reducing the average amount of time individuals spend in jail before going to trial. And while the initial investment is significant, supporters point out that better defense will mean more people out of prison and contributing to the economy.

For now, the county is moving forward in anticipation of having an additional two months to come to a mutual understanding of the project’s costs and benefits and formulate a plan. County Judge Sarah Eckhardt said she is optimistic that TIDC will partner with the county to assist the broad effort of improving indigent defense. In the meantime, Woog said the work group is working diligently on a draft proposal in anticipation of the letter requirement being lifted.

“Things are not going perhaps as we expected, but that doesn’t necessarily mean they aren’t going,” Eckhardt said. “I am buoyed that the work group is continuing to meet and move forward on their charge, that the judges are meeting and requesting Mr. Burkhart to come in … that the Austin Criminal Defense Lawyers Association and Capital Area Private Defender Service are looking into a list of improvements … and (that) we’re also working with the budget office to see what level of investment our budget can absorb in a phased approach over multiple years.”

Woog also asked the court to consider appointing lawyers to fill the places left by two ACDLA representatives who withdrew from the group in February. While Woog has repeatedly asked ACDLA to return to the group, she said the “spots that are vacant are especially conspicuous right now as we are really working to engage with the judges and … we are getting feedback that the judges are more willing to meet with and talk to lawyers about this process than they are other folks on the work group.”

TIDC will have a board meeting Thursday where Burkhart will bring up the possibility of waiving the letter requirement.

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