Nine months after the the Hays County Commissioners Court voted to allocate $5 million of American Rescue Plan Act funds to establish a public defender’s office and after nearly an hour of discussion May 24, the court selected Neighborhood Defender Service Inc. as the firm to create the office that will pave the way for criminal justice.

NDS has teams in New York, Michigan and Texas comprised of investigators, paralegals, pro bono attorneys and more who work to help and address underlying issues with clients that landed them in the criminal legal system.

The push to create a public defender’s office has been an uphill battle for years, especially as court backlogs and jail overcrowding that is costing the county thousands of dollars per day continue to strain the existing criminal justice system.

“We’re about at the end of that [jail] expansion project ... and we will be able to house about 600 inmates in Hays County at the completion of that very expensive project,” Commissioner Lon Shell said. “All of that work and all of that money is not going to get us to where we have every inmate back in Hays County, which, I think, is what we all believe is best for criminal justice, for efficiency [and] for cost.”

Shell added that he estimates the county will spend anywhere from $5 million-$10 million to outsource inmates this year, which he believes emphasizes why the county should do everything it can do to get people through the criminal justice system.

County Judge Ruben Becerra noted he does not think the public defender's office will solve all of the county’s problems, but the burden is on the commissioners to do everything they can to address the issues as best as possible.

About half of the work NDS will be doing once the public defender's office is established includes addressing the mental health needs and issues of inmates, which Commissioner Walt Smith believes is a biased view of criminal justice.

“It’s been very focused on the individuals that may or may not have committed these crimes, and it hasn’t been rightfully focused on the victims,” Smith said. “It’s very upsetting to me.”

However, Shell said that establishing a public defender's office so the accused can see their day in court sooner and face justice will ultimately benefit all parties.

“Those folks pushing for this have been raked over the coals to bring something that is so universal and fundamental to our American way of life: freedom and justice for all. We pray about it, we pledge allegiance to it, and now, we can walk away saying, ‘We did our part,’” Becerra said.

The county and NDS will begin contract negotiations, which will be brought back for approval at a later date.