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Travis County's Public Defender Office Is Officially Funded

Gabriel C. Pérez

Travis County is in the home stretch in its yearslong effort to establish a public defender office for low-income adult defendants. The Texas Indigent Defense Commission on Thursday OK'd a four-year grant to establish the office in the county – the largest jurisdiction in the country without such an office.

All told, the state and county money will send more than $40 million toward indigent defense over the 48-month grant period.

The office will ultimately handle 30% of indigent cases in the county; the county's current system of private attorneys will handle the remainder. The proposal will now be sent to the Travis County Commissioners Court for formal approval. 

TIDC's vote (nearly) caps off a roughly three-year process to establish a public defender office. That process was, at times, imperiled by infighting between the county group tasked with shaping the office and the private attorneys currently defending low-income clients.

Criminal justice advocates argued the current system overburdened private attorneys, which led to defendants often sitting in jail for long stretches ahead of trial. Private attorneys argued the county was paying well below market rate and that the system didn't have the administrative support. 

Amanda Woog, who spearheaded the county workgroup, told KUT the decision by the TIDC board was a long time coming. 

"We set out to start a public defender office that would take a meaningful number of cases ... and what we're seeing is that within a few years, you're going to have a large public defender office taking 30% of adult cases in Travis County," she said. "Moving forward, I hope they'll take even more. I think the sky is the limit."

Travis County Judge Sarah Eckhardt said in a statement Thursday that now the "hard work" begins.  

"As we move forward, I will continue to seek guidance to make sure Travis County creates a Public Defender Office that will make our community proud," she said. "It will not be easy and it will not happen overnight."

Andrew Weber is a general assignment reporter for KUT, focusing on criminal justice, policing, courts and homelessness in Austin and Travis County. Got a tip? You can email him at Follow him on Twitter @England_Weber.
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