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Travis County explores impact of legal representation during intake process

Tuesday, April 5, 2022 by Seth Smalley

Travis County and Texas A&M are teaming up to administer a pilot study that will examine the effects of providing arrestees with legal counsel at first appearance.

On Tuesday, the Travis County Commissioners Court received an update on the upcoming grant-funded pilot program, a partnership with the Public Policy Research Institute at Texas A&M and the Public Defender’s Office.

The yearlong study, which starts in April, includes 50 percent “treatment shifts” and 50 percent “control shifts.” Half of the days in the year, a public defender will provide arrestees with first-appearance legal counsel during magistration, and the other half, no legal counsel will be provided. Researchers will then take a look at recidivism rates, release rates, bond amounts, bond types and bond conditions for the subjects of the study.

“We hope to review the impact and see a dramatic effect of having representation and magistration,” said Bradley Hargis, the executive director of Capital Area Private Defender Service. “Then also perform a cost analysis for, hopefully, an ongoing model of representation.”

Texas A&M originally made an application to the Texas Indigent Defense Commission to fund the study, but the funder switched to the Arnold Foundation when TIDC didn’t have the money. The total cost of the project is $562,000, $500,000 of which will come from Arnold Ventures.

Though the funding goes to Texas A&M for its research, the Public Defender’s Office is also stepping up to be part of the conversation.

“Our office will be stepping in and essentially shifting our entire operational structure to be able to provide representation from the point of magistration consistent with the ABA (American Bar Association) standards,” said Adeola Ogunkeyede, chief public defender with the PD’s Office. “From the point that we meet our clients in the magistrate session, we will represent them all the way through to disposition.”

According to Dr. George Naufal, a research scientist at Texas A&M, the main outcomes he’ll be looking into are bond types, bond amounts and supervision conditions. The secondary outcomes of interest are bond forfeiture and failure to appear for bond.

Commissioner Brigid Shea asked about the study’s length and time frame.

“The intervention will be for one year and we will be able to get information about the primary outcomes within the first couple of months after that, and the cost effectiveness study,” Naufal told commissioners. “And the secondary outcomes will take about six months to a year.”

“I’m excited to see some of the results of this experiment,” Shea said. “It would make sense that people would get better results if they had representation at magistration administration, but then again, we’ll have the data to answer that question, scientifically.”

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