Travis County commissioners approve updates to state grant, oversight committee for public defender’s office

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Travis County commissioners approved changes to an application for a state grant to fund a new public defender’s office and voted on the members of a development committee that will oversee the office.

The grant application, which was initially submitted the the Texas Indigent Defense Commission in May, has been updated to cut costs in light of the recently passed property tax revenue cap.

The changes include eliminating the provision of 24/7 magistration from the proposal, reducing the number of full-time employee positions requested from 119 to 76 and extending the grant term from four years to five.

With these changes in place, the estimated annual cost of operating the office—once the grant would expire, in fiscal year 2024-25—is around $14.8 million, down from the $21.6 million county staff had initially estimated.

Commissioners approved the changes at a July 30 meeting, in time for the July 31 deadline for TIDC consideration.

The costs of the office, as proposed, increased due to requests made by a majority of the county’s criminal judiciary, whose approval was required to submit the TIDC grant application.

Notably, the judges requested additional funding for the Capital Area Private Defender Service, the existing indigent defense system in Travis County that assigns private counsel to indigent clients.

If the TIDC grant is approved and a new public defender’s office is established, CAPDS will continue to handle 70% of indigent cases in Travis County. The new public defender’s office will take on the remainder.

“[The judges] believe the whole system has to be fair, and they are responsible for the whole system,” Criminal Court Administrator Deborah Hale said May 7. “They are not in favor of a proposal that only takes care of a portion of clients.”

Others, including members of the work group that developed the grant proposal, disagree.

“It deserves to be said that the extensive, what I would call meddling, of the judiciary in this process has been unfortunate,” said Chris Harris, a member of the work group and data analyst with the local nonprofit Just Liberty.

Harris said the original proposal was in the range of $12 million a year, before the judges’ amendments were added.

Additionally, commissioners appointed a nine-person development committee, naming its members over the course of two meetings, on July 30 and Aug. 6.

Members of the work group that helped develop the grant application urged commissioners to include more community advocates and to prioritize diversity in forming the committee, which will oversee the office’s development.

“You guys are not including diversity,” said Annette Price, a member of the work group and statewide coordinator for the action network Texas Advocates for Justice.

Based on this feedback, commissioners extended the development committee from seven members to nine, including two additional positions for local advocates.

“The larger [the committee]becomes, the more difficult it is to meet and manage,” County Judge Sarah Eckhardt said. “This group needs to work very well together.”

The committee will include one retired county judge. Other members include an academic, a private defense attorney, a public defender, a representative of the Commissioners Court and an individual who has experience with the criminal justice system.

Amanda Woog, the chairperson of the work group and executive director of the Texas Fair Defense Project, echoed the need for an independent public defender’s office.

“I think it’s really important to maintain that distance between the public defender’s office and [judges]who are currently sitting on the bench at all,” Woog said.

The TIDC will award its grant funds at an Aug. 29 board meeting.

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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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