Friday, August 30, 2019 by Andrew Weber

Travis County’s public defender office is officially funded

Travis County is in the home stretch of its yearslong effort to establish a public defender office for low-income adult defendants. On Thursday the Texas Indigent Defense Commission OK’d a four-year grant to establish the office in the county – the largest jurisdiction in the country without such an office.

All told, the state and county money will funnel more than $40 million toward indigent defense over the 48-month grant period.

The office will ultimately handle 30 percent of indigent cases in the county, while the county’s current system of private attorneys will handle the remainder. The proposal will now be sent to the Travis County Commissioners Court for formal approval.

TIDC’s vote (nearly) caps off a roughly three-year process to establish a public defender office. That process was, at times, imperiled by infighting between the county group tasked with shaping the office and the private attorneys currently defending low-income clients.

Criminal justice advocates argued the current system overburdened private attorneys and led to defendants often sitting in jail for long stretches ahead of trial. Private attorneys argued the county was paying them well below market rate and that the system didn’t have the administrative support.

Amanda Woog, who spearheaded the county work group, told KUT the decision by the TIDC board was a long time coming.

“We set out to start a public defender office that would take a meaningful number of cases … and what we’re seeing is that within a few years, you’re going to have a large public defender office taking 30 percent of adult cases in Travis County,” she said. “Moving forward, I hope they’ll take even more. I think the sky is the limit.”

Travis County Judge Sarah Eckhardt said in a statement Thursday that now the “hard work” begins.

“As we move forward, I will continue to seek guidance to make sure Travis County creates a public defender office that will make our community proud,” she said. “It will not be easy and it will not happen overnight.”

This story was produced as part of the Austin Monitor’s reporting partnership with KUT. Photo by Gabriel C. Pérez.

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