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Travis County’s program to provide lawyers at its downtown jail is (still) on hold

Wednesday, August 24, 2022 by Andrew Weber, KUT

The first court hearing is often the most crucial for people accused of a crime in Travis County.

When defendants are booked downtown, they’re charged and given options on how to get out of jail. In some cases, the first hearing determines whether someone spends a few hours locked up or days – even weeks.

Travis County has struggled for years to get a program off the ground to guarantee those hearings for defendants who otherwise might not have legal representation. When it finally did, the program lasted just nine days.

Travis County commissioners were told Tuesday that supply chain problems, labor shortages and privacy issues have kept the program in limbo as the county faces a ballooning jail population and a backlog of court cases as a result of the pandemic. Attorneys and criminal justice advocates expressed frustration over delays related to the half-a-million-dollar, grant-funded program.

Travis County chief public defender Adeola Ogunkeyede said she understands the obstacle of staffing shortages at the jail, but that her office – and private attorneys who would also represent defendants – are willing to find workarounds.

“I can spin out a ton of potential solutions, but the keys to the jail are controlled by the sheriff,” she said. “I’m happy to show up tomorrow – later on tonight – if I’m told we can bring our staff and start providing this representation. But if the sheriff is unwilling, or by her estimation unable, to facilitate the attorney-client meetings … then we are at an impasse.”

The county has been trying to get the program up and running since 2019. It was initially supposed to be funded by a Texas A&M grant, but the delays have put that “on pause,” as one staffer put it Tuesday. The county may now have to fund the effort on its own.

Travis County Sheriff Sally Hernandez, who did not attend the meeting, has said her department faces “severe” staffing shortages. In an email, the sheriff’s office told KUT it has a 24.5 percent vacancy rate among correctional staff and “simply cannot accomplish our mandated duties and the … program simultaneously at this time.”

The office said it wants the project to be a reality, “but not at the expense of the health and safety of our staff and inmate population.”

Hernandez recently proposed connecting defendants with lawyers virtually. The sheriff’s office said it acquired tablets to use, but supply chain shortages have stalled the rollout. The county needs software and charging stations for the tablets.

Ogunkeyede and Brad Hargis, the head of the Capital Area Private Defender Service, said they had concerns because the company providing the software for the tablets, ViaPath, has been accused in federal court of handing attorney-client communications over to prosecutors.

Hernandez’s office told KUT it reached out to ViaPath to see if there was a fix to allow the program to go forward, but right now it’s “not a viable solution because of privacy issues.”

Precinct 1 Commissioner Jeff Travillion said the county should guarantee the safety of attorney-client conversations on the ViaPath platform.

“If we can’t have that guarantee, for me, that’s a nonstarter,” he said.

Ogunkeyede added that representation is “undermined” when done on a digital platform, citing one study that found defendants with digital representation saw their bond to get out of jail set $20,000 higher than those with in-person attorneys.

“The move to make defense counsel … provide their representation completely virtually – disconnecting us from our clients, disconnecting us from the ability to gather the very information we need to be able to argue and present information in favor of our clients – is a bridge too far,” she said.

David Johnson of Grassroots Leadership, a criminal justice advocacy nonprofit, said the county should fund the program itself, arguing the county has tens of millions in surplus money in both its budget for next year and federal relief money from the Biden administration.

“We are watching and we are holding you accountable,” he said. “We do not need milquetoast politicians, and honestly, I am tired of having to come here and show my face to remind you of your duties, your obligations and your pledge to the people of Travis County, while you sit up there and have milquetoast discussions. Have some integrity and stiffen your spines, people. We demand it.”

This story was produced as part of the Austin Monitor’s reporting partnership with KUT.

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