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Travis County already has a public defender’s office – for juveniles

Thursday, March 28, 2019 by Jack Craver

Amid the contentious public debate over the creation of a public defender’s office in Travis County is an oft-neglected fact: Travis County already has a public defender’s office. It just doesn’t serve adults.

The Travis County Juvenile Public Defender, founded in 1971, was the first such program in the country, according to Kameron Johnson, who has led the office for 18 years.

“One thing I love having to remind people: Travis County has a public defender,” Johnson said in a presentation Tuesday to the Travis County Commissioners Court.

In his presentation, Johnson touted the “holistic defense” that he and other attorneys in the office provide to juveniles who are arrested in the county, whether for low-level misdemeanors or serious felonies.

Unlike the adult system, juveniles typically have a hearing in front of a judge to determine whether they will be released within 24 hours, Johnson said. It is the duty of the public defender to represent them at the first hearing whether or not they qualify for indigent defense, which youths from families up to 150 percent of the federal poverty level are eligible for.

Actually, a whopping 97 percent of juveniles qualify for indigent defense, Johnson said, reflecting the fact that the vast majority of young people who are arrested come from low-income families.

In contrast to most criminal defense attorneys, Johnson’s office provides services to juveniles in the system even after they are sentenced, connecting them with educational, mental health and substance abuse services in hopes of preventing another arrest.

As with the rest of the state and the country, Travis County has seen a decline in youth arrests in recent years, Johnson said. In 2018, 1,509 minors in the county were arrested. Because some were arrested multiple times, the total number of arrests was 2,382. That’s a decline from 2017, when 1,719 youths were arrested 2,805 times.

“The actual juvenile population in Texas has been increasing, but the number of arrests has been decreasing,” Johnson said.

The decriminalization of possession of small amounts of marijuana in Travis County has had no impact on the juvenile system. Minors are still arrested for small possession offenses, Johnson said, to the surprise and disappointment of Commissioner Brigid Shea, who said she would like to see figures on the number of minors charged with marijuana possession.

However, the state’s decriminalization of truancy nearly four years ago has had a major impact on arrest rates, Johnson said. Nevertheless, a large percentage of juvenile offenses take place at or around schools. Juveniles who are arrested for drug possession on school grounds also face enhanced penalties.

The majority of arrests takes place between 3 and 6 p.m., in the hours after school lets out and when parents are most likely to be at work, Johnson said. Arrests also drop during summer vacation.

“We look forward to summers and spring breaks,” he said.

Toward the end of the presentation, Commissioner Jeff Travillion asked, “If we have built an effective juvenile public defender office, why are we not using this as a blueprint for the public defender’s office?”

That prompted appreciative laughter from County Judge Sarah Eckhardt, a big supporter of establishing a public defender’s office: “I love that question. We have an effective model to look at, yes.”

Commissioner Gerald Daugherty, however, suggested they were comparing apples to oranges: “The numbers (in the adult system) are so much greater.”

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