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Wednesday, February 5, 2020 by Andrew Weber
Travis County hires law professor as its first-ever public defender
Travis County has hired University of Virginia law professor Adeola Ogunkeyede as the first person to lead its public defender office. Until last year, the county was the largest jurisdiction in the United States without an office to handle cases for poor adults accused of crimes.
Travis County commissioners voted unanimously Tuesday to hire Ogunkeyede, ending a years-long process to establish a public defense program for the county.
She currently heads the Civil Rights and Racial Justice Program at the University of Virginia’s Legal Aid Justice Center. Before that, she served as a supervising attorney and a litigation supervisor at the Bronx Defenders, a public defense office that’s been lauded by the American Bar Association for its standards of low-income defense and its capacity to handle large caseloads.
She graduated from Tulane University Law School and clerked at the 5th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in New Orleans.
Travis County’s process to create a public defender office was spurred, in part, by a 2018 study from the Council of State Governments that found low-income defendants were more likely to face jail time than those with hired counsel, and that attorneys within the system were underpaid and overworked.
Last year, commissioners convened a working group tasked with forming the nascent office. The working group, which included private criminal defense attorneys, criminal justice advocates and previously incarcerated people, became fractious at times.
Criminal defense attorneys within the traditional system pushed for pay raises and more staff, while advocates wanted more resources dedicated to the brand-new office and increased oversight of the traditional system.
Ultimately, the group finalized a plan to submit to county commissioners last summer that would have the new office handling 30 percent of criminal cases involving low-income defendants and would be funded by both county and state money.
Just after the vote, Travis County Commissioner Brigid Shea said she looked forward to Ogunkeyede leading the office.
“This is a very exciting new phase for the county, and I’m very excited about her coming here to head up our brand-new public defender office,” Shea said.
Ogunkeyede will formally begin her role as the county’s chief public defender in April.
This story was produced as part of the Austin Monitor’s reporting partnership with KUT. Top photo by Gabriel C. Pérez/KUT.
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