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Travis County launched a program to provide lawyers at the county jail. It lasted nine days.

Travis County Correctional Complex Del Valle Visitor Center Building 01 15 21.jpg
Michael Minasi
/
KUT

A pilot program to provide legal representation to people in custody at the Travis County Jail had to be put on hold after just nine days because of staffing shortages.

The grant-funded program was part of a Texas A&M study to examine the benefit of providing legal counsel to people accused of crimes immediately after their arrest and before they're formally charged, a process called magistration.

Lawyers with the Capital Area Private Defender Service (CAPDS) represented clients in the program, along with attorneys from the Travis County Public Defender's Office. The idea was to have lawyers represent half of the people brought in, while the other half went unrepresented. Researchers at A&M would then compare the case outcomes.

The program, which started April 8, requires four additional employees from the Travis County Sheriff's Office. But staffing shortages have made that unworkable.

On Tuesday, advocates, attorneys and even prosecutors pushed the Travis County Commissioners Court to get the half-a-million-dollar initiative back on track.

Sheriff Sally Hernandez told commissioners she "absolutely" supported the program, but that her office is seeing a "very severe staffing shortage," especially in central booking, the downtown jail unit that processes people who've been arrested.

During a meeting over the staffing issues Monday, she said, two employees resigned.

"We have put so much pressure onto our staff that they can't take it anymore," she said. "That's why I said ... this is not sustainable. We want to be participants, we want to help, but we do not have the facility and we do not have the staffing."

Hernandez told commissioners these staffing gaps could mean the jail runs afoul of state standards.

The program's structure is being reevaluated. Hernandez said the sheriff's office could handle two eight-hour shifts a month with current staffing.

Travis County Executive for Justice Planning Roger Jefferies said that may not be workable for researchers, but that he's meeting with them on Wednesday.

Bradley Hargis, executive director of CAPDS, said the program yielded results — people accused of nonviolent crimes weren't hauled off to the county's Del Valle jail. In one case, a defendant was erroneously charged with a felony. If an attorney had not been there, Hargis said, the defendant would not have been let out on personal bond.

Hargis said defendants were glad to have someone in their corner and that it helped demystify the criminal justice process.

"Even for those clients that we weren't able to get out on bond ... I had several personally thank me for helping them understand the process," he said. "They felt heard. They felt empowered — even if they didn't get the outcome they wanted in that moment."

Travis County Public Defender Adeola Ogunkeyede said her office was able to staff hearings and urged the county not to delay the program any longer than necessary. She told commissioners research shows the benefits of representation at magistration. (The prospect of 24-hour representation for defendants at magistration was a key sticking point in the creation of the public defender office she now leads.)

County Attorney Delia Garza and District Attorney José Garza said they could make the staffing work on the prosecutorial end, as well.

DA Garza said he was encouraged by collaboration between the sheriff's office, private defenders and public defenders to restart the program on a more incremental scale — one that would accommodate the staffing issues at the sheriff's office.

County staff will work with A&M to restructure the grant. A county workgroup tasked with designing the program meets again May 11.

Garza urged them to keep their foot on the gas, or the county could lose the grant funding and the program would likely be shelved.

"It is a delay that has no end. I don't need to tell all of you that time is the enemy and the death of progress, and if there is no deadline for when this program will restart, it will die," he said. "And if this program dies, with due respect, this will be a black mark on our county government."

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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 aweber@kut.org. Follow him on Twitter @England_Weber.