The Hays County Criminal Justice Commission voted April 28 to recommend an application be submitted to the Texas Indigent Defense Commission, or TIDC, for a grant to partially fund a public defender office and a managed assigned counsel system.

There was one vote against the application by defense attorney Todd Dudley, and two commission members abstained.

The programs would be operated by Neighborhood Defender Service, which operates public defender offices in New York and Detroit. Supporters of the application, such as Precinct 3 Commissioner Lon Shell, have said the NDS operations would improve legal outcomes and reduce the time county residents spend in the Hays County Jail.

Shell noted it was not because of an issue with the quality of local lawyers, but instead had to do with the resources the offices would have, such as legal investigators.

"I don't want this to be about someone thinking that it's going to be a better attorney," Shell said during the meeting. "I don't think that is the reason for doing a public defender office, that you think you're going to have better attorneys working within a public defender office than you do out in the private sector."

The public defender office would provide indigent defendants, or people who cannot afford a lawyer, with an attorney. In the current system, judges select a lawyer from a rotating list of private defense attorneys.

NDS would also offer continuing education to its staff and attorneys participating in the managed assigned counsel system, which would take over the selection of indigent defense attorneys in as many as 70% of felony cases and 82% of misdemeanor cases.

One of the abstaining commission members represented multiple Hays County judges, which had not reached a consensus yet in their support or opposition of the application.

Dudley expressed concern of the workload public defender office attorneys, which NDS said in a proposal would cumulatively handle as many as 414 felony and 717 misdemeanor cases per year. The office would employ eight attorneys, and one of them would be dedicated to managed assigned counsel operations.

"I handled 21 [cases] last year and I've been doing this for 25 years," Dudley told the commission. "My concern would be the caseload for these lawyers with this proposition. It's just not feasible."

District Attorney Wes Mau said the caseload projected by NDS sounded realistic. Other commission members assumed NDS' proposal was within TIDC caseload standards.

"When you talk to any prosecutor about carrying a caseload of 70 cases a year, when you don't have the burden of proof and you don't have to review any cases the prosecutor's office decides not to file, quite frankly we don't have a lot of sympathy for that," Mau said.

The TIDC grant, which is due May 7, would cover half of the program's cost over its first four years. One proposed method is for TIDC to pay 80% of the program's cost in its first year with contributions decreasing by 20% each year after, but the distribution could be different.

Combined, the public defenders office and managed assigned counsel system are projected to cost $2,256,582 in their first year of operation.

On May 4, the Commissioners Court, which signed a letter of intent to submit the application in March, will consider whether to approve the application for the TIDC grant.