Nearly a year after Travis County commissioners appointed a work group to develop a proposal for a general-purpose public defender’s office, the Texas Indigent Defense Commission approved the county’s application, which requests nearly $25 million in state funding over five years, at an Aug. 29 board meeting.
“Now that we have approval, the hard work to create and establish the office begins,” County Judge Sarah Eckhardt said in a statement. “As we move forward, I will continue to seek guidance to make sure Travis County creates a Public Defender Office that will make our community proud.”
Austin is the largest city in the country without a general public defender’s office. Public defenders represent indigent clients, or those who are charged with crimes but are unable to afford a private attorney.
In 2018, nearly nine in 10 felony cases in Travis County involved indigent clients, and nearly three in five misdemeanor cases did, according to TIDC data.
Travis County officials have been working to create a public defender’s office for years, and had previously succeeded in creating specialized offices to serve defendants who are juveniles or who have mental health issues.
Since Eckhardt spearheaded the creation of a 14-member working group last October to develop this grant application, there have been a number of setbacks, including intense pushback from private defense attorneys, missed deadlines and last-minute demands from the county’s judiciary.
In May, the Texas Legislature passed a property tax revenue cap, which county staff has said will curtail funding for capital investments, including this new office.
The grant will cover half of the new office’s annual costs. When it expires in fiscal year 2024-25, the county will be responsible for funding the new office in full at an estimated annual cost of $14.8 million.
Following a series of revisions and cost-cutting measures, the county’s grant application includes funding for a new public defender’s office as well as for the existing managed assigned counsel system, in which the county contracts private defense attorneys to represent indigent clients on a by-case basis.
The existing system, despite concerns about its pay structure and overloaded attorneys, will continue to handle 70% of indigent cases. The new public defender’s office will work toward taking on the remainder.