Travis County commissioners appoint work group to revise proposal for public defender's office

Nicolas Sawyer, a student at The University of Texas School of Law, speaks during a press conference in support of the public defender's office held by local nonprofit Grassroots Leadership on the steps of the Travis County Administration Building in Austin on May 7.

Nicolas Sawyer, a student at The University of Texas School of Law, speaks during a press conference in support of the public defender's office held by local nonprofit Grassroots Leadership on the steps of the Travis County Administration Building in Austin on May 7.

Travis County commissioners voted 4-1 to approve the formation of an internal work group—composed of staff from the planning and budget, justice planning, court administration and other offices—to revise the county’s application for a state grant that, if awarded, will provide more than $27 million over four years to help cover the costs of creating a new public defender’s office.

Precinct 3 Commissioner Gerald Daugherty opposed the motion. 

A public defender’s office represents defendants who cannot afford to pay for private counsel. In 2018, nearly 9 in 10 felony defendants and nearly 3 in 5 misdemeanor defendants in Travis County could not afford to hire a private attorney, according to data from the Texas Indigent Defense Commission, a state agency that provides financial support and other resources to counties looking to improve their indigent defense systems.

Last fall, commissioners approved the formation of a separate work group that was charged with determining what a new public defender’s office would look like in Travis County. Its members included local attorneys, advocates, academics and county staff.

In May, the county submitted an application for grant funding to the TIDC. The TIDC has requested that any revisions to grant applications be submitted by July 31 so they can be analyzed and shared with the commission's board for consideration of an award. Successful applicants will be announced Aug. 29.

Commissioners need to approve any revisions before they are submitted to the TIDC. The court’s last meeting before the July 31 deadline is July 30. 

A closer look 

County staff told commissioners at a July 2 meeting that the grant application, as submitted, does not include all of the costs for establishing a new office. 

For example, the application proposes that the office would provide 24/7 magistration. 

When someone is arrested, he or she will go before a magistrate, who decides whether the person can be released on a personal recognizance bond with a promise to appear in court at a later date. 

County staff provided a preliminary estimate of $2.1 million for providing this service, the cost for which was not included in the initial grant. 

Additionally, since the grant was submitted, the Texas Legislature passed a new property tax revenue cap, which will take effect in fiscal year 2020-21 and limit the amount of revenue local governments, including Travis County’s, are able to raise via property taxes. 

Although the law includes a carve-out for indigent defense spending, it does not apply to expenses related to public defender’s offices.

The county’s planning and budget office “does not currently believe the provision will provide any significant relief to Travis County,” staff wrote in a brief. 

The work group will consider ways to adapt the proposal in light of the cap. 

Budget Director Travis Gatlin said these include asking if the TIDC is open to changing the terms of the grant such that its contributions would be spread out over five years rather than four, giving the county more time to build up the revenue to cover the full costs of the office. 

Original work group's future role

Members of the original work group—who put together the proposal the new, internal work group is tasked with revising—urged commissioners to include them in the process.

“Some major changes to the proposal could be on the table in the next month,” said Amanda Woog, the chairperson of the original work group and executive director of the Texas Fair Defense Project.

Already, the original work group’s proposal has been altered. 

On May 2, days before the Commissioners Court was scheduled to vote on the proposal, a majority of the county’s criminal court judges submitted amendments to the work group's draft.

The amendments included increased funding for the Capital Area Private Defender Service, which appoints private lawyers to represent indigent clients, and changes to who would provide oversight to the new public defender’s office. 

The question of the membership of the oversight committee remains unresolved. However, commissioners did approve additional funding requests for the CAPDS as part of the county’s grant proposal to the TIDC. 

“We presented to you a proposal that was $10 [million] to $12 million in range,” said Chris Harris, a member of the original work group and a data analyst for Just Liberty, a local criminal justice reform nonprofit. “Now we’re suddenly in the $20 million range. That is not the work of the [original] work group. Those are things that were thrown in at the last minute by various stakeholders. And we knew that the property tax revenue caps were coming. … And that was part of the conversation that we had, and why we presented the proposal that we did.”

In response, commissioners directed the internal work group tasked with revising the proposal to consult public defense experts and to provide updates to the public as well as to members of the previous work group before the July 30 deadline.
By Emma Freer
Emma Freer began covering Central Austin for Community Impact Newspaper in 2017. Her beat includes the Travis County Commissioners Court and local business news. She graduated from Columbia Journalism School in 2017.


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