Hays County Commissioners Court applies for grant to fund a public defender's office

Supporters of the grant say the public defender's office and another program the grant would launch would improve the legal defense of those in Hays County who cannot afford their own lawyer. (Warren Brown/Community Impact Newspaper)
Supporters of the grant say the public defender's office and another program the grant would launch would improve the legal defense of those in Hays County who cannot afford their own lawyer. (Warren Brown/Community Impact Newspaper)

Supporters of the grant say the public defender's office and another program the grant would launch would improve the legal defense of those in Hays County who cannot afford their own lawyer. (Warren Brown/Community Impact Newspaper)

During its May 4 meeting, the Hays County Commissioners Court voted unanimously in favor of submitting a grant application to the Texas Indigent Defense Commission, which would cover half the cost of a public defender's office and managed assigned counsel program over the course of four years.

The TIDC is a branch of the Texas government focused on improving legal defense for people who cannot afford their own attorney, and it would provide 80% of funding for both programs in the first year and 20% less every year after.

In its first year, the programs would cost the county $451,275 to launch, and the TIDC would provide $1,805,307 of the total project's cost of $2,256,582 if the grant is approved. Both programs would be operated by Neighborhood Defender Service, or NDS, which also manages public defender offices in New York and Detroit.

Currently, indigent defendants are appointed a lawyer by one of the county's judges from a rotating list of private defense attorneys practicing in Hays County.

According to NDS' proposal, its managed assigned counsel program would oversee 70% of felonies and 82% of misdemeanor cases assigned to indigent defendants. The program would assign participating private attorneys to cases while providing training, supervision and mentoring. It would also include shared resources for participating attorneys, such as legal investigators.


The public defender's office, called NDS Hays County, would employ defense attorneys that would handle 414 felony and 717 misdemeanor cases per year, or 30 % and 18% of these types of cases in Hays County, respectively. Of those, 138 felony cases and 478 misdemeanor cases would be mental health cases.

Geoffrey Burkhart, the executive director of TIDC, was among the attendees of the May 4 meeting, as were several community members speaking in favor of the application.

Defense attorney Shannon Fitzpatrick, who is the county's former assistant district attorney, voiced her support for the programs during a public comment period at the May 4 meeting.

"Today's vote will be both the start and the combination of several years of work that will bring significant change to the citizens of this county," Fitzpatrick said. "Approving this application will blaze a positive path forward. In the decades to come, people may not remember your names but many will feel the impact of your actions."

NDS' proposal states the public defender office would provide some financial savings to the county by reducing pretrial detention rates. As of May 2, the Hays County Jail held 418 people, representing 82% of its population, who were awaiting trial, according to the Vera Institute of Justice Jail Dashboard.

Precinct 4 Commissioner Walt Smith expressed concern over residents who said the county had a moral duty to support the defendant-focused program. While pledging continued support of the program, he stated the county was also obligated to support victims and had to make sure the release of defendants showed concern for them as well.

The Hays County Criminal Justice Coordinating Commission, or HCCJCC, recommended approval of the application, with District Attorney Wes Mau abstaining from the vote. A judge representing multiple Hays County judges also abstained because they had not reached a consensus on the programs.

Local defense attorney Todd Dudley was the lone vote against the application and cited concerns over caseloads in the program. However, during the HCCJCC meeting Mau said NDS' proposed caseload sounded operable, and Precinct 3 Commissioner Lon Shell noted his belief that NDS would have framed its proposal within TIDC caseload guidelines.

Commissioner Debbie Ingalsbe, who is a co-chair of the HCCJCC with Shell, offered her gratitude May 4 to community members who pushed for the programs.

"You know there's members out in the audience that spoke with me early on regarding this issue and really opened my eyes to many things," Inglasbe said. "I appreciate all of your work and persistence."

Hays County will find out in September if the grant is approved.
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.


MOST RECENT

The city of Kyle's vaccine clinic is planned for May 16, and a second-dose clinic is scheduled for June 13. (Courtesy Adobe Stock)
City of Kyle to host mass vaccine event this weekend

The city of Kyle's vaccine clinic is planned for May 16, and a second dose is scheduled for June 13.

The Pfizer vaccine, which can now be administered to people age 12 and older, is the main shot offered by Hays County. (Courtesy Adobe Stock/Graphic by Justin Howell/Community Impact Newspaper)
Vaccine clinics planned in Hays County, ages 12 and older eligible for Pfizer vaccine

The Pfizer vaccine, which can now be administered to people 12 and over, is the main shot offered by Hays County at vaccine clinics, which do not require appointments.

Goodfolks plans to open in late July to early August. (Ali Linan/Community Impact Newspaper)
New restaurant coming to Georgetown; new Hutto community to have nearly 1K lots and more top Central Texas news

Read the top business and community news from the past week from Central Texas.

COVID-19 precautions such as a masking requirement remain in place at Austin-Bergstrom International Airport. (Courtesy Austin-Bergstrom International Airport)
'Signs of hope' on the horizon at Austin-Bergstrom International Airport after year-plus dip in air travel

Rising passenger counts, new airline operations and an increase in vaccinations could all support the airport's recovery in 2021.

masks
CDC ends all mask requirements for fully vaccinated people

The guidance states fully vaccinated people do not need to wear masks indoors or outdoors.

Dr. Adriana Castillo is the new owner of San Marcos' TexanCare Family Medicine, which serves patients 15 and older. (Courtesy Adobe Stock)
TexanCare Family Medicine in San Marcos has new ownership

Dr. Adriana Castillo is the new owner of San Marcos' TexanCare Family Medicine, which serves patients 15 and older.

Shugabee's Texas BBQ  first opened in Buda in March 2011 and is known for its homemade tortillas and giant brisket tacos. (Brian Rash/Community Impact Newspaper)
Buda positioning itself as food, dining hot spot in Central Texas

In roughly the last year, Buda has been quietly adding to the number of unique eateries, both brick and mortar and mobile, that are coming to the city just south of Austin.

House Bill 1024, signed into law May 12, allows restaurants and bars to permanently sell alcoholic beverages to-go. (Courtesy Pexels)
Cocktails to-go are here to stay in Texas: Gov. Greg Abbott signs change into law May 12

Supporters say the change will help restaurants continue to recover from the economic effects of the coronavirus pandemic.

Big Rob's Burgers is known for using fresh meat that has never been frozen, and its popular sides include fried mushrooms and fried pickles. (Rachal Russell/Community Impact Newspaper)
Big Rob's Burgers opens new Kyle location

Big Rob's Burgers is known for using fresh meat that has never been frozen, and its popular sides include fried mushrooms and fried pickles.