Hays County Advances Plans For A Pre-Trial Services Department, Public Defenders Office
Hays County is moving forward with plans to create a public defenders office and pre-trial services department as part of an ongoing effort to improve representation for low-income and low-level offenders.
County commissioners voted 5-0 on Tuesday to send a letter of intent to the Texas Indigent Defense Commission, indicating that they would be applying for grant funding.
"I know it's taken a lot longer than really any of us had anticipated," said Commissioner Debbie Ingalsbe, who co-chairs the Criminal Justice Coordinating Commission. "But, you know, I think we're at a really good place."
The public defenders office would provide attorney services to low-income people in the county. A pre-trial services department could oversee programs like cite and divert, a practice advocates have been pushing for, to keep low-level offenders out of jail.
The county has been working with Neighborhood Defender Service, a public defense contractor with offices New York City and Detroit, to model what a local program would look like. In a partnership with Hays County, the NDS would start up a third location in San Marcos.
"[NDS] is not only providing the legal representation to individuals, which is extremely important," Ingalsbe said, "but it's also providing the resources and making those resources available to those individuals to ensure that they have an opportunity, the greatest opportunity, to succeed."
The local community organization Mano Amiga said the push for a public defenders office, as well as a slew of other programs to keep low-level offenders out of jail, has been an ongoing effort.
It "celebrated" the Court's decision, but also urged the county to use the public defenders office to handle at least 50% of all indigent misdemeanors and felonies. NDS is currently proposing to handle about 30% of the felonies and 18% of the misdemeanors filed every year.
Commissioner Lon Shell, who also co-chairs the Criminal Justice Coordinating Commission, said plans are still being tweaked.
"This is one step," he said. "It gets us in the process and then we can start fine-tuning and continuing to try to develop [a] consensus, which I believe is extremely important."
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