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Travis County approves final application for public defender’s office

Wednesday, July 31, 2019 by Jack Craver

On Tuesday, the Travis County Commissioners Court gave final approval to an application for state funding to set up a public defender’s office.

While there are a couple of details that the court hopes to nail down in the coming days, the only important decision remaining rests with the Texas Indigent Defense Commission. The state agency will review the county’s application and determine whether to provide roughly $19 million over five years to set up the county’s first dedicated public defender’s office.

The court voted 4-1 to approve the application after considering changes to the proposal made by staff in recent weeks.

The changes were largely prompted by Senate Bill 2, the state law signed by Gov. Greg Abbott in May that significantly reduced the amount of property tax revenue local governments are allowed to raise without voter approval. With fiscal constraints on the horizon, both county staff and TIDC officials expressed concern that the county would not be able to afford the staffing proposed for the new office in the original application.

The final application envisions an office that costs $14.8 million in fiscal year 2024, when the four-year grant funding from TIDC will expire. That’s down from the $21.6 million it would have cost under the original proposal.

The most significant cost reduction comes from removing “24/7 magistration.” Magistration refers to the initial hearing before a judge following arrest, when bail conditions are set, and 24/7 refers to the commitment to provide every defendant access to counsel during the process.

“Representation at magistration will continue to be analyzed and discussed during future budget processes,” said a memo from county staff.

The revised application also pared down staffing, both in the new public defender’s office and the Capital Area Public Defender Service, the county-run system that assigns private counsel to indigent defendants. The public defender’s office will comprise 67 full-time positions and CAPDS will have nine.

Even with the new public defender’s office, 70 percent of cases will be handled by private attorneys assigned by the county.

The county is sticking to its plan to gradually phase in hourly pay for private attorneys representing indigent clients out of concern that the current flat-fee structure encourages attorneys to strike quick plea bargains, since they don’t get paid any more by taking a case to trial.

Beginning next year, private attorneys representing clients charged with first-degree felonies will be paid $100 an hour (down from $125 proposed in the original application). By 2023, all felony cases will be paid on an hourly basis, $90 an hour for second and third degree and $85 an hour for state jail felonies, the lowest-level felony.

The new grant application also requests that the funding be provided over five years, rather than four.

Earlier this month, the court approved a structure for a committee responsible for overseeing the public defender’s office, agreeing to appoint seven people representing different professions or experiences. On Tuesday, County Judge Sarah Eckhardt proposed six people for the committee and said she would leave it up to local criminal and civil judges to decide on a name for the seat reserved for a retired judge.

While none of Eckhardt’s suggested committee members drew objections, Commissioner Jeff Travillion proposed including Pastor Joseph Parker, who spent decades as a practicing attorney, including several years in the Travis County District Attorney’s Office, before devoting himself to the ministry.

After agreeing to create an eighth position for Parker, the court heard objections from two community activists about diversity on the committee.

Of the eight named members, two are black and one is Latino, and Eckhardt said one of the two people she believes the judges are considering is black. However, Commissioner Margaret Gómez suggested they create a ninth position in the hopes of providing still greater representation of demographic groups that are overrepresented in the criminal justice system.

Eckhardt said the court would strive to find a ninth person in the next week who was either a “community advocate” or has previously been incarcerated.

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