Travis County work group presents proposal for new public defender's office

Travis County commissioners are preparing to submit a grant application for state funding to establish a public defender's office.

Travis County commissioners are preparing to submit a grant application for state funding to establish a public defender's office.

A work group assigned to improve indigent defense in Travis County has presented an updated proposal for a new public defender’s office ahead of a May 10 deadline to apply for state funding that would cover around half of the office’s startup cost.

As proposed, the new office would handle 30% of the county’s indigent criminal cases. Indigent clients are those who are ruled unable to afford a private attorney. They are entitled to counsel by both the U.S. and Texas constitutions.

The remainder of the county’s indigent criminal cases would continue to be assigned to private criminal defense attorneys through the Capital Area Private Defender Service. These attorneys are contracted by the county to defend indigent clients for a flat fee.

The funding would come from the Texas Indigent Defense Commission, a state agency that provides support to counties wanting to improve their indigent defense systems.

“[This proposal] is something I would be very proud to bring to our board,” TIDC Executive Director Geoffrey Burkhart told county commissioners April 23.

The proposal

Since October, the work group has been refining its proposal for a public defender’s office in Travis County. Its members presented their latest version—which includes a holistic defense model, incorporating the county’s specialty public defender’s offices and reforms to CAPDS—at an April 23 meeting of the Commissioners Court.

The group’s goal is for the office to practice a holistic defense model, in which staff address both the case at hand as well as issues such as substance use, mental illness and housing instability. To this end, the proposal includes staffing projections for public defenders as well as immigration and research attorneys and social workers.

Additionally, the work group proposes in the office’s third year, it would incorporate the county’s existing specialty indigent services offices. These include the juvenile and mental health public defender’s offices and the offices of child and parental representation, which work with families involved with Child Protective Services.

The work group has dealt with some pushback from the private defense bar in Austin, whose members have argued a new public defender’s office does little to address issues with the CAPDS system, which will continue to handle a majority of indigent cases even if the office is created.

However, the latest proposal includes funding for and improvements to CAPDS.

If implemented, the public defender’s office would be responsible for providing training, computer terminals and meeting space for private attorneys involved with CAPDS.

There is also a funding request for additional personnel to encourage a more holistic model of defense, including two supervising attorneys, an immigration attorney, social workers and case managers, as well as a proposed pilot program to introduce an hourly pay structure for attorneys assigned to represent clients charged with a first-degree felony.

To pay for these changes, the work group proposes the county request nearly $19 million from the TIDC for the public defender’s office, which will cover nearly half of the office’s costs over four years. Additionally, the work group is requesting nearly $2 million to help cover its proposed improvements to CAPDS.

The county will be responsible for covering the remaining costs—nearly $21 million—between 2020 and 2023.

Benefits of a public defender’s office

Advocates for a public defender’s office argue the current system managed by CAPDS incentivizes private attorneys to take on as many cases as possible, which can impede effective representation and lacks sufficient oversight.

Infrastructurally, a public defender’s office allows for supervision in a way that a decentralized network of private attorneys does not.

“We wouldn’t do most things on the scale that we do criminal justice without supervision,” Burkhart told Community Impact Newspaper in April. “We wouldn’t have sanitation workers without somebody supervising.”

It could also serve as a breeding ground for innovation.

“When you’re kind of continuously talking about cases and bouncing ideas and getting feedback, I think it pushes lawyers to think outside the box in ways that can be really effective for different kinds of advocacy and getting the best outcomes for our clients,” Kathryn Dyer, a clinical professor at The University of Texas at Austin School of Law and work group member, told Community Impact Newspaper.

Despite the startup costs, a public defender’s office could also reduce costs over time.

The county’s juvenile public defender’s office, which was created in 1971 and today handles 97% of juvenile cases, has seen this play out.

Roger Jefferies, justice and public safety county executive, told Community Impact Newspaper that, due to efficiencies such as large-scale case processing, the office has found its per-case cost is lower than if the county had retained a private attorney.

Next steps

The Commissioners Court meets twice more before the May 10 grant application deadline. In the meantime, the work group will continue to refine its proposal to earn the support of the Commissioners Court as well as the county’s criminal court judges.

The TIDC will disburse grant funding in June.