Travis County continues efforts to create public defender’s office despite missing deadline

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Travis County will still be able to submit an application for funding that would allow it to create a public defender’s office despite not meeting a requirement to submit a letter of intent by March 11.

The Texas Indigent Defense Commission decided to waive the requirement for the county at a March 7 board meeting.

The county is now able to proceed with its grant application, which is due May 10. The commission will announce its funding decisions in June.

“[The letter of intent has] become a barrier not just in Travis County but in some other places to getting a program together,” said Wesley Shackelford, deputy director of the TIDC, explaining that the requirement was conceived to help counties know that their applications were on track before investing more time in the process.

In an effort to establish a public defender’s office and at the recommendation of the TIDC, the Travis County Commissioners Court formed a 14-member indigent legal services work group last fall.

The work group was tasked with drafting a letter of intent, due on March 11, as part of a four-year grant program offered by the TDIC to help counties establish such offices, which represent individuals who cannot afford legal counsel.

In part because of the resignation of two work group members, the group was not able to draft a letter of intent that was satisfactory to commissioners by March 5, the date of the last Commissioners Court meeting before the March 11 deadline to submit the letter.

As a workaround, TIDC Executive Director Geoffrey Burkhart proposed asking the commission to waive its requirement of a letter of intent, which its board ultimately decided to do.

“I am hopeful that we can have a broad-based conversation about what a public defender’s office should look like,” said Amanda Woog, executive director of the Texas Fair Defense Project and chair of the work group, after the waiver was granted. “I’m just excited to get to work.”

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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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