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Travis County tests out program to provide lawyers for low-income defendants at its downtown jail

Inside a courtroom at Travis County's Blackwell-Thurman Criminal Justice Center in downtown Austin.
Screenshot via YouTube
Inside a courtroom at Travis County's Blackwell-Thurman Criminal Justice Center in downtown Austin.

After years of back-and-forth, Travis County is taking a small step to provide lawyers for low-income people accused of crimes.

A program known as "counsel at first appearance" started in a limited capacity Tuesday, with the county providing lawyers at the downtown court this week to defendants who can't afford legal representation. The county said lawyers would be available at pre-trial hearings from 2–10 p.m. on Tuesday and Thursday.

The two shifts represent a fraction of the nearly 1,100 pre-trial hearings conducted downtown at the county's Blackwell-Thurman Criminal Justice Center in a given year.

National research has shown having an attorney when charges are read often reduces bail amounts. Defendants were also more willing to comply with a judge’s orders, reducing the time spent in jail. Statewide research has shown a sizable share of people awaiting trial in Texas jails are low-income and can’t afford bond to get out.

Travis County tried to start a similar program two years ago, but the program ended after just nine days due to staffing shortages and other issues. Since then, the county has struggled to get it off the ground. It's currently also juggling how to revamp its central booking facility and build a so-called diversion center for people accused of low-level, nonviolent crimes.

ACLU Texas sued earlier this month, arguing an analysis found defendants weren't made fully aware of their rights ahead of bail hearings.

In the announcement of the class-action lawsuit, ACLU attorney Trisha Trigilio said the practice infringes on defendants' rights and that the pilot shifts are "a sluggish response that follows two years of excuses and delays."

“Travis County is embarrassing itself with these backward practices when a proven solution is within reach," she said. The lawsuit claims the county has refused offers from both the public defender office and Texas A&M University to fully staff the program.

A Texas A&M analysis last year found providing lawyers for people accused of crimes led to lower bail in Hays County.

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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