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Virtual proceedings lead to harmful outcomes for inmates in Austin’s jails, advocates say

Wednesday, December 7, 2022 by Andrea Guzman

During talks about a program that provides counsel at first court appearance, Bradley Hargis with Capital Area Private Defender Service shared the experience of a former client. 

The person had been charged and processed with a felony, and faced a multi-thousand-dollar bond. But Hargis and his team discovered that the felony had been dismissed and should have been charged as a misdemeanor, resulting instead in a $100 bond. The client paid the bond and was released, then returned to LifeWorks where she was taking part in a housing reentry program. If she had not been able to pay and had spent more than a day away from LifeWorks, she would have lost her spot in the program.

Hargis shared this experience with the Public Safety Commission on Monday to illustrate the impact of CAFA, or counsel at first appearance.

“Had we not been there or at magistration, she would have definitely spent more than 24 hours in jail,” Hargis said. “That’s a story that brings this home to me.” 

The pilot program that launched CAFA was part of a Texas A&M study examining the benefit of providing counsel to people before they’re formally charged. The half-million dollar program lasted just nine days in April, with Sheriff Sally Hernandez citing staffing shortages as a reason for its closure. 

Speakers at the meeting said Hernandez has suggested continuing the program, but with counsel that could be provided through videoconferencing or other digital technology. Additionally, an amendment included in the renewal of an interlocal agreement says the city and county want to address the possibility of remote proceedings.

Adeola Ogunkeyede, chief defender at the Travis County Public Defender’s Office, cautioned against virtual methods. She said they weaken the potential for human connection and create conditions that can result in the worst possible outcomes.

“There are studies that show that when a person appears virtually in a bail hearing, they’re more likely to have an increased bail amount set on them when compared to somebody who is similarly situated – similar charges, similar background – but just appearing before the decision-maker in person.” 

Ogunkeyede, who has represented more than 5,000 people as a public defender, said there is a lot at stake during first appearances, and that they can impact what comes later for the accused in terms of employment, housing and health care. 

“It is not just a question of this very discrete moment in time because it has ripple effects that stay with people for a long time,” Ogunkeyede said. 

Rachel Gunner with Advocates for Social Justice Reform agreed with Ogunkeyede and noted Hernandez’s suggestion for providing CAFA through videoconferencing. 

“We appreciate the suggestion, but we absolutely 100 percent disagree,” Gunner said. “We strongly believe that in-person representation is crucial for a fair outcome.” 

Gunner went on to say that there is a need for a new central booking facility due to space limitations in the current facility and urged commissioners to help make in-person CAFA a reality. 

“This should be a minimum requirement and top priority for equal and fair justice for all residents of the city of Austin,” Gunner said.  

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