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Hays County OKs plan to establish a public defender's office

Gabriel C. Pérez

Hays County is getting a public defender's office.

A unanimous vote Tuesday from the Hays County Commissioners Court caps a yearslong effort to provide legal defense for low-income people accused of crimes.

Commissioners finalized a contract with Neighborhood Defender Service to oversee the creation of the new office, which will handle roughly 1,400 misdemeanor cases a year under the five-year contract. Hays County will fund half of the $11 million contract with federal relief money, while the other half will come from future county budgets.

The office's creation comes amid a spike in Hays County's jail population — specifically, among defendants who have been accused of crimes but haven't yet seen trial. As of Nov. 20, nearly 78% of people in the Hays County Jail were pre-trial defendants, according to the county's jail population dashboard.

Ahead of the vote, Cyrus Gray, a criminal justice advocate who was held for nearly five years in jail without trial on a murder charge, said the current system, which uses court-appointed attorneys, doesn't guarantee "adequate, fair defense." He said he saw defendants accused of misdemeanors going six months to a year without hearing from an attorney.

"This is a huge step toward resolving the persistent issue in Hays County Jail," he said. "Creating a dedicated office would demonstrate that criminal defense is just as valuable and important as any other type of practice. If the legal culture in Hays County improves, we can better prepare for the expected growth that is coming to it."

Gray was one of two people implicated in the 2015 murder of Texas State University student Justin Gage. Gray has maintained his innocence since his arrest in 2018. When the case went to trial earlier this year, jurors couldn't reach a verdict, resulting in a mistrial. He was released from jail ahead of a retrial.

Hays County Judge Ruben Becerra gave Gray an emotional apology after his testimony.

"I'm sorry we've failed you as a county," Becerra said.

The county will work with the Texas Indigent Defense Commission in the next year to finalize the share of cases that will be handled by public defenders and by private attorneys appointed by Hays County courts.

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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 Follow him on Twitter @England_Weber.
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