Hays County edges closer to establishing public defender's office

The Hays County Commissioners Court agreed to submit a letter of intent to apply for a Texas Indigent Defense Commission grant to fund a new pretrial services department. (Courtesy Adobe Stock)
The Hays County Commissioners Court agreed to submit a letter of intent to apply for a Texas Indigent Defense Commission grant to fund a new pretrial services department. (Courtesy Adobe Stock)

The Hays County Commissioners Court agreed to submit a letter of intent to apply for a Texas Indigent Defense Commission grant to fund a new pretrial services department. (Courtesy Adobe Stock)

The Hays County Commissioners Court voted unanimously during a March 30 meeting to submit a letter of intent to the Texas Indigent Defense Commission about the creation of a pretrial services department, which would include a public defender's office, or PDO, and a managed assigned counsel, or MAC, system.

The MAC would appoint lawyers to defendants who cannot afford an attorney, which is a task currently handled by a judge. The PDO would provide dedicated county attorneys for these indigent defendants, while the current system uses a rotation of private lawyers.

There are still several hurdles before the department becomes a reality. A grant from the TIDC could cover 80% of the program’s $2.25 million in costs during the first year with decreasing contributions in years two through four. However, the priority application deadline is May 7, and an application to TIDC could face opposition.

Precinct 3 Commissioner Lon Shell noted discussions were still being had about the creation of a department and neighborhood defender service, or NDS, which could manage the PDO and MAC, was working with stakeholders to address concerns.

"I know there is some hesitation from folks out there, and we've heard that," Shell said during the meeting. "We're continuing to discuss those with people and try to develop that consensus, which I know we all want to have when we make decisions like this."


NDS projected savings from reduced incarcerations could reach $240,469 per year.

Shell and Precinct 1 Commissioner Debbie Ingalsbe, co-chair the Criminal Justice Coordinating Commission, submitted the pretrial services department to the Commissioners Court. They both said during the meeting that the county should be able to meet TIDC deadlines.

"Funding opportunities and things like that will become more clear as we reach that May point, and we'll know exactly what type of opportunities there are for us," Shell said. "So far, I've been very pleased with the participation and the interest."

In a March 30 news release, local advocacy group Mano Amiga hailed the court's March 30 action but raised concerns about the PDO's caseload. The release stated the nonprofit's hope was for the PDO to handle up to 50% of indigent cases.

Mano Amiga's release said it has pursued a Hays County PDO for three years, and spokesperson Jordan Buckley said Judge Ruben Becerra had been the only supporter of the proposal in past years.

"I know it's taken a lot longer than really any of us had anticipated, but I think we're at a really good place, especially with the neighborhood defender service group," Inglasbe told the court.
By Warren Brown
Warren joined Community Impact at the beginning of 2020 as the editor of its New Braunfels paper and now reports the news in San Marcos, Buda and Kyle. Warren previously wrote for the Dallas Observer and Fort Worth Weekly and he brings a passion for truth and equality to his reporting.