Hays County commissioners Lon Shell and Debbie Ingalsbe announced April 12 the court will choose between two law firms that specialize in running public defender's offices on behalf of area counties to set up an office for the first time in the county.

In August, the commissioners court allocated $5 million in American Rescue Plan Act funding to create a public defender's office. At their upcoming April 26 meeting, commissioners will choose between the firms they narrowed down and begin the process of executing a contract.

“The Code of Criminal Appeals lays out the process for a county to create a public defender's office. You can choose to create a department [internally] at the county, or you can choose to contract with another entity,” Shell said. “And there are entities that do that in the state of Texas that have offices in different parts of Texas as well as different parts of the country, and they do that for a living. ... And so we chose sort of early on that that was the path we wanted to take was to hire someone that has experience.”

The announcement was made in conjunction with local justice reform organization Mano Amiga officials, who have been campaigning for and working with the commissioners to establish a public defender's office.

“I'd like to give a little bit of context why it's so important that we bring the public defender's office here to our community. According to the jail population dashboard, with [the] Vera Institute of Justice, taking Hays County's own numbers, 80% of the total jail population are pretrial detainees,” said Eric Martinez, policy director with Mano Amiga. “These are legally innocent people who've only been charged but not convicted of the crime for which they're accused. They're legally innocent individuals. They're simply there because they are too poor to afford their freedom, too poor to afford bail,” he said.

As previously reported by Community Impact Newspaper, capacity issues require the county to contract out inmates to jails in other counties, in part because of a lack of access to bail funds.

“Our voters supported a huge expansion of that [jail], a very costly expansion of that as we all expect. It is likely going to be full when it is in full operation, and that's about 600 beds,” Shell said. “I believe today we had somewhere north of 650 inmates within our custody. They're not just here in Hays County, because our jail currently can't hold that capacity. There are also [inmates] in other counties across the state of Texas, up as far as Red River and all the way down into South Texas as well. So that's one great concern,” he said.

After awarding a vendor, the next steps are for the county to undergo a contract negotiation, and a Hays County or district court judge would need to sign off on supporting the public defender's office, among other steps to make the office operational, Shell said.