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Travis County Is Getting A Public Defender Office.

Jorge Sanhueza-Lyon
Judges signed off on a plan Thursday from Travis County Judge Sarah Eckhardt to create a public defender office.

Travis County – the largest jurisdiction in the United States without a public defender office – is getting a public defender office.

Travis County criminal judges signed off on a plan today to create the office, which would ultimately handle 30 percent of the adult felony and misdemeanor cases for low-income defendants. The office is funded by a four-year, nearly $16 million grant from the Texas Indigent Defense Commission, plus a matching $4 million from the county.

The remaining 70 percent of cases will be handled by the current system of private attorneys, who initially balked at the proposal because it didn't address funding shortages in that system.

"By working together, we are reaching common ground and progressing the culture of Travis County," Travis County Judge Sarah Eckhardt said in a statement. "We thank everyone who shared their experience and input.”

To finalize the plan, Travis County formed a workgroup last year that included criminal defense attorneys, judges and criminal justice advocates, but negotiations between the group and the criminal defense bar fell apart.

The effort to secure the grant was imperiled by that fallout ahead of an initial March deadline. The TIDC effectively granted Travis County an extension for the application, which TIDC requires criminal judges to  ultimately approve. After that deadline, the county's workgroup and attorneys came back to the table to propose increasing funding for the private defender service, which assigned nearly 30,000 cases and paid out $8.8 million in county money to attorneys last year, according to data from TIDC.

Attorneys within that system have long argued they're underpaid and overworked.

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 600 cases.

Advocates have argued those caseloads translate into worse outcomes for indigent defendants. Roughly 40 percent of those cases resulted in a defendant serving jail time for a felony or misdemeanor. A study from the Council of State Governments found defendants represented by appointed attorneys in 2016 were two times more likely to go to jail.

Last month, the workgroup and attorneys seemingly reached a deal – one that would fund the office, address attorney pay and fund administrative staff for both offices. But, last week, that agreement was fractured after criminal judges crafted a plan of their own, (again) nearly scuttling the effort ahead of the May 10 deadline.

Eckhardt floated a last-minute plan, which county commissioners approved on a 4-1 vote Tuesday. Members of the initial workgroup and other attorneys and advocates argued the whole plan relied too heavily on the will of the judges and that their plan stripped away public input from the offices' oversight board. Eckhardt's plan left open the option to firm up the oversight board at a later date, while still making the Friday deadline.

With the judges' approval today, the county will now submit the grant application for TIDC review.

Clarification – An earlier version of this story said state law required judge-approval for the application. That's a TIDC requirement.

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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