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Travis County's Push To Establish A Public Defender Office Isn't Dead – For Now.

Gabriel C. Pérez
The Heman Marion Sweatt Travis County Courthouse in downtown Austin.

The effort to create a public defenders office in Travis County isn't dead after all.

At its board meeting this morning, the Texas Indigent Defense Commission OK'd a move to waive a requirement for a letter expressing interest in a $15-million grant to establish a public defender office in Travis County for adult felony and misdemeanor cases – something the county has tried and failed to do for decades.

The county had a March 11 deadline to submit that letter, but after a unanimous decision from the TIDC board, it can now simply submit an application for the four-year grant. It has until May to apply.

Amanda Woog, executive director of Texas Fair Defense Project, who also heads the county's work group on the office, says the decision gives the county breathing room.

"It's time for Travis County to have a public defender office, and I'm glad that the process will move forward from here," Woog said after the board's decision.

The extension caps months of fighting over the new office and how the county could better fund the current system of appointed legal representation for poor defendants in Travis County.

The office would employ 48 attorneys to ultimately handle 30 percent of indigent cases.

But defense attorneys say the work group put together by the county to shape the new public defender office should also focus on reforming the current system, the Capital Area Private Defender Service (Caps).

Paul Quinzi, who was on the working group, said part of the disagreement has been the focus on the public defender office and not on how to reform Caps.

"I think some people feel like that's putting the cart before the horse," he said.

The Austin Criminal Defense Lawyers' Association (ACDLA) backed out of public-facing negotiations after a community input session in which">attorneys were lambasted by formerly incarcerated Austinites and advocates. Quinzi, a member of the defense bar, backed out, too. He said he still supports the push for a public defender office, though.

Judges formally pulled their support, as well, last month, saying they wouldn't back a system without the approval of defense attorneys. But before the meeting Thursday, all 15 district and county court judges released a letter saying they would support a system that adequately funded both the public defender office and the current system.

"If the best evidence is that a public defender system could improve our present system, we are for it," the judges wrote.

But those on the work group leading the charge for the office say Caps doesn't have adequate oversight and assigns an unworkable amount of cases to attorneys.

To view all 2018 indigent defense caseloads in the graphic, scroll to the right or view in full screen.

The TIDC's study of a public defender office and indigent defense in Travis County – which kicked off this whole disagreement in the first place – highlighted the inefficiencies within that current system, including:

  • Defendants charged with drug possession in Travis County in 2016 were nearly twice as likely to serve time if they had an attorney appointed by Caps than if they hired their own lawyer, according to a Council of State Governments study.
  • Attorneys were often overloaded with cases – one had been assigned 650 cases in a single year.
  • Appointed attorneys weren't being paid enough – which didn't help attract qualified attorneys to join the system.

Last year, 231 Caps attorneys handled nearly 30,000 cases and were collectively paid nearly $9 million by the county, according to TIDC data. Roughly 40 percent of those cases resulted in a defendant serving jail time for a felony or misdemeanor.
Those attorneys were paid $297 per case – well below a going rate – and handled an average of 128 cases each. Still, there were outliers, one attorney was assigned 508 cases.

Both sides have called for better representation, better pay and more accountability. But, Woog says, the resistance on the part of defense attorneys is to be expected.

"When you're trying to do something big and different, the people who are part of the current system, I think, very naturally recoil from that," she said. "And I think that's part of what we're seeing."

While the public defender office isn't dead, it does have a long way to go before it gets a stamp of approval from the county and, ultimately, the TIDC. But there's still a bit of hope.

Last week, Woog met with Travis County Judge Sarah Eckhardt, members of ACDLA and District County Judge Brenda Kennedy, who initially rebuffed the office.

Woog says she expects the work group to submit its application to the Travis County Commissioners Court before May. After that, commissioners would take a vote to send it to the TIDC.

This story has been updated to include a statement from the Travis County criminal and county court judges.

Clarification: An earlier version of this story didn't cite the Council of State Government's report on indigent defense outcomes in Travis County.

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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