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County to create new legal division, but advocates call for more autonomy

Thursday, April 20, 2023 by Seth Smalley

The Travis County Commissioners Court approved a proposal on Tuesday to create a new community legal division along with a county executive position to oversee certain elements of it.

Under the plan, the chief public defender would report to a county executive for issues regarding staffing, budget and data collection. The move, which drew criticism from advocacy groups, was part of an ongoing discussion of the reorganization of the county’s Justice and Public Safety Division.

Advocacy organizations – including Grassroots Leadership and Texas Fair Defense Project – called on the county to install an independent Public Defender’s Office so it can be “efficient and effective.” The groups took issue with the fact that the public defender would ultimately report to a county executive on administrative and staffing matters, arguing that there were discrepancies between the interests of those the Public Defender’s Office serves and the interests of the county.

“The residents of Travis County that rely on this office to represent them to the highest level will not receive the treatment they deserve when there is a ‘middleman’ county executive over them,” said Chantel Pridgon, an advocate with Grassroots Leadership, who testified at the Commissioners Court session. “The best interests of this interim director are to do what’s best for the court and its voters, not the marginalized communities whom this office serves.”

During the session, commissioners indicated they were surprised that there was any community opposition, according to one advocacy group, since there had been previous opportunities to share feedback on the proposal.

“We believe that in order for community sessions to be truly open and accessible to members of the community who would be impacted by the decision-making surrounding the Public Defender’s Office, then those meetings would need to be during times people working jobs can attend,” said Maria Reza, an employee of Grassroots Leadership.

“It’s important to note that it’s just the defense function that Travis County thinks requires an additional person between them and the Commissioners Court. Nobody is suggesting that the prosecutors need to be under a county executive,” said Nathan Fennell, a staff attorney with Texas Fair Defense Project. “Because the role of the public defense function is to protect our friends and neighbors from government overreach, the Public Defender’s Office is the most in need of independence.”

One proposal made during the presentation was that three public defense providers be unified under a single entity: the Travis County Public Defender’s Office. Advocates said that this would foster “better collaboration” and “increased efficiency” in legal representation.

“This is not the end of the fight,” Reza said. “We’ll continue fighting for the most independent Public Defender’s Office possible. The next step is the drafting of the new executive’s job description, and we’ll make sure our communities are well aware of opportunities to share why Travis County deserves an independent Public Defender’s Office.”

Photo by Larry D. Moore, CC BY-SA 4.0, via Wikimedia Commons.

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