As evidenced by their unanimous re-establishment of a newly invigorated Hays County Criminal Justice Coordinating Committee, one thing Hays County commissioners agree on is that there is a pressing need to remedy the soaring costs and overcrowding of the local jail.
But that did not translate into a vote at a special meeting May 10 to support the submission of a grant application to receive state funds from the Texas Indigent Defense Commission for a specialized public defender’s office.
Across the board, the commissioners said while they are open to the creation of a public defender’s office, they did not feel they were given ample time to consider the grant application, nor did they feel there was a sufficient level of buy-in from the county court-at-law judges, the district court judges or the Hays County Bar Association.
Commissioners Lon Shell and Walt Smith noted that the full grant application was not provided to them prior to the May 7 meeting, where the prospect of submitting it was first discussed. The court did not vote on whether or not to submit the application at that meeting, as none of the commissioners made a motion to do so.
“We are being asked today to endorse or consider an application, which we don’t have,” Smith said. “You are asking us to vote on something that literally isn’t even in the packet.”
Judge Ruben Becerra said his office had been working on the TIDC grant application for months. However, commissioners said they did not find out about it until a week prior to the May 7 Commissioner Court meeting.
In contrast, other counties often spend considerable amounts of time working on these types of grants. For example, Travis County Commissioners Court publicly considered the same TIDC grant for more than a year and appointed a work group last October to craft the application, which the court voted to submit May 7.
The Hays County application, if it had been submitted, would have proposed the hiring of a mental health public defender, counsel at magistration and an immigration padilla—a public defender specializing in immigrant cases to ensure that non-citizens are properly informed of how their plea decisions could affect their immigration status, as required by law.
The grant would have funded 80% of the public defender’s office in the first year, and then half of the cost each year the following four years.
Commissioner Debbie Ingalsbe asked Hays County Court-at-Law Judge Tacie Zelhart during the May 10 meeting if she believed there was sufficient support among judges in the county for the application.
In response, Zelhart read a statement from District Judge Gary Steel.
“I have talked with all the district court judges and the county court-at-law judges, and although we support the ideals presented, we feel we do not have enough information on the public defender proposal to make a decision one way or the other,” Zelhart read.
Zelhart, who has worked as a mental health attorney for most of her career and is now advocating for the creation of a mental health court in Hays County, said her own feelings were reflected in Steel’s statement.
“We do need to improve our defense here in Hays County,” Zelhart said. “Those are issues that on Day 1 I started working on and I know the district courts are working on it and have addressed the issues there. We need a strategic plan. We need a foundation for that strategic plan.”
Zelhart said she thinks the county would benefit from putting a focus on pursuing pretrial services grants and establishing a mental health court, a strategy she believes would help reduce overcrowding in the jail faster than a public defender’s office would.
Ultimately, she said, more stakeholders should be included in the future when the county pursues opportunities such as the TIDC grant for a public defender’s office.
“You care about the issues and you want to do the right thing,” Zelhart said. “I love your passion. It matches mine. I know that you want to make the right decision with the right information. And you want to make an educated decision. You shouldn’t be forced to make a quick decision or a hasty decision.”
Ingalsbe said although it pained her, she could not second Becerra’s motion to support the submission of the application due to a lack of support, at this time, from the county’s judges.
“We can aggressively pursue this TIDC grant to create a public defender’s office [in 2020],” she said. “I think we need to do that. I think it needs to be done. I think we can start now, today, and continue the momentum that we have.”
After the motion failed to carry, Becerra said it is time to stop doing “business as usual.”
“Everyone is supportive but it’s followed with no action,” Becerra said. “Just because people say they want criminal justice reform doesn’t mean they’re willing to do anything meaningful about it. We need to raise the bar on how Hays County conducts business. Our county has been working on criminal justice reform for literally years. That’s a pace I can’t appreciate.”
Shell said while he does not believe a specialized public defender’s office is the right solution for the county to pursue right now, he believes it could be in the future. In the meantime, Shell said he would like to see the Commissioners Court work more closely together to find a grant opportunity for pretrial services that stakeholders would support.
“I just want people to understand that I truly believe that we have to do something better,” he said. “You can blame me for this not having been done before—I will give everybody that opportunity. It is my responsibility. Everyone has my commitment that I will work hard to find solutions.”