Travis County Approves Its Plan For A Public Defender Office
Travis County Commissioners voted 4-1 Tuesday to approve a revised plan to set up a grant-funded office to provide legal services to low-income defendants.
The new $15 million plan cuts roughly $7 million from the county's initial application for a grant from the Texas Indigent Defense Commission (TIDC).
The application does away with a provision to pay attorneys to represent clients around the clock in Travis County, saving the county money as it prepares for a new state law that effectively caps how much tax revenue a city or county can raise. The county estimates that law, Senate Bill 2, could have as much as a $30 million impact on its expenditures by 2024. Commissioners said they would revisit the possibility of 24-7 magistration at a later date.
Commissioners also expanded the number of members on the oversight board from seven to nine.
They initially nominated six people to the positions:
- UT Austin professor Andrea Marsh
- Criminal defense attorney Gerry Morris
- Harris County's chief public defender, Alex Bunin
- Darwin Hamilton, co-chair of Grassroots Leadership's board of directors
- Ofelia Zapata, a former activist with Austin Interfaith
- Roger Jefferies, the Travis County Justice and Public Safety executive
They deferred to judges to nominate a former criminal judge or current civil judge for a seventh position.
Commissioner Jeff Travillion then suggested expanding the board to eight and nominated Joseph Parker, a licensed attorney and pastor of David Chapel Church in East Austin.
Seth Manetta-Dillon, a private defense attorney and former public defender, questioned Travillion's choice to nominate Parker because it wasn't immediately clear if he had criminal defense experience. Parker formerly served as a civil litigator for the Travis County Attorney.
"Whether he has criminal defense experience or not, he has been a person who has been a solid person in the civil rights community for a long period of time," Travillion said. "He has been a person who helped put the police oversight board in place. I am perfectly comfortable with his skillset and what he brings to the table."
The commissioners agreed.
Still, criminal justice advocates, including Annette Price of Texas Advocates for Justice, criticized the board for, as she saw it, a lack of diversity.
"The public defender's office, the population that they're going to help is predominately black and brown people," Price said, "and how can you say that we're fully represented, if I look at the table and it's still white people making decisions on my life?"
Travis County Judge Sarah Eckhardt and Price argued back and forth over the makeup of the panel, before commissioners ultimately decided to expand the board on the condition the nominee be directly impacted by the criminal justice system or be a community advocate.
Commissioners also formally requested judges nominate a person of color to fill their position. Travis County doesn't need to finalize the board's membership ahead of a July 31 deadline to get the application to the TIDC; commissioners will finalize the makeup next week.
Ultimately, the county wants the office to handle 30% of low-income defendants' cases by 2024, while private attorneys paid by the county would handle the other 70%.
The TIDC board is slated to approve the application on Aug. 29.
Correction: A previous version of this story incorrectly state an initial provision would pay for magistrates –not attorneys – to be available 24-7.