Neighborhood Defender Service gave an overview to the Hays County Commissioners Court on June 18 of the progress the public defender’s office has made after its first year.

The background

The court unanimously approved a contract with the NDS for a public defender’s office in November 2022. The $11.28 million contract will be in place until Sept. 30, 2027, after which it can be renewed for another five years.

The commissioners also allocated $5 million in American Rescue Plan Act funds in August 2021 to fund the office.

The impact

About two-thirds of individuals the NDS has represented are back in the community, NDS Managing Director Meenu Walters said.

“Most of the people in Hays County that are coming into contact with the criminal justice system are becoming members of our community, and for this county—to be providing the kinds of support they are through organizations like us—I think is key in supporting our community at large,” Walters said.

Of the cases the public defender’s office had been assigned to, half had been closed to date, and the other half of its caseload was still pending. The public defender’s office has also been able to resolve a number of felonies and misdemeanors—only 6% of misdemeanor cases have resulted in carceral outcomes—meaning jail or prison time—according to the presentation.

“I think this is why having a good support system at the misdemeanor level matters,” Walters said.

Walters also noted 25% of their mental health cases have carceral outcomes.

“I think that this is telling about Hays County, and the joint support and effort there is not to use the prison system as a mental health facility by all of the stakeholders here,” she added.

How it works

NDS’ wraparound services begin once the attorney meets their client, Walters said. Wraparound services are the ways the NDS supports clients outside of legal representation, and includes social work and client advocacy.

At this stage, the attorney will identify what their client’s needs are, learn about the charges themselves and what their client’s needs are around those charges. If there are mental health complexities, then NDS’ multidisciplinary team will begin their wraparound services.

Notable quote

Commissioner Debbie Ingalsbe noted she and Commissioner Lon Shell appreciated the NDS’ holistic approach to providing wraparound services for individuals.

“It’s not just the good representation that they get from an attorney; it's getting down to the core issues of individuals and helping them through those issues, and providing those services that they truly need. It is so touching to know that we are helping and saving people’s lives, and so thank y'all. We really appreciate the work y'all are doing,” Ingalsbe said.

Going forward

NDS would like to build out civil legal resources for their clients and work to identify more individuals for the county’s mental health court to build a more “robust” program, Walters said.

The NDS would also like to host a community-based “Know Your Rights” event and educational campaign.