Travis County has hired a University of Virginia law professor as the first person to lead its public defender office. Until last year, the county was the largest jurisdiction in the United States without an office to handle cases for poor adults accused of crimes.
Travis County Commissioners voted unanimously Tuesday to hire Adeola Ogunkeyede as the chief public defender, ending a years-long process to establish a public defense program for the county.
Ogunkeyede currently heads the Civil Rights and Racial Justice Program at the University of Virginia's Legal Aid Justice Center. Before that, she was a supervising attorney and a litigation supervisor at the Bronx Defenders, a public defense office that's been lauded by the American Bar Association for both its standards of low-income defense and its capacity to handle large caseloads.
She graduated from Tulane University Law School and clerked at the Fifth Circuit U.S. Court of Appeals in New Orleans.
Travis County's process to create a public defender office was spurred, in part, by an April 2018 study from the Council of State Governments that found low-income defendants were more likely to face jail time than those with hired counsel, and that attorneys within the system were underpaid and overworked.
Last year, commissioners convened a working group made up of private criminal defense attorneys, criminal justice advocates and previously incarcerated people tasked with forming the nascent office.
That group, at times, became fractious.
Criminal defense attorneys within the traditional system pushed for pay raises and more staff; while advocates wanted more resources dedicated to the new office and increased oversight of the traditional system.
Ultimately, the group finalized a plan to submit to county commissioners last summer – one that would have the new public defender office handling 30% of criminal cases involving low-income defendants paid for with both county and state money.
Just after the vote, Travis County Commissioner Brigid Shea said she looked forward to Ogunkeyede leading the public defender office.
"This is a very exciting new phase for the county, and I'm very excited about her coming here to head up our brand-new public defender office," Shea said.
Ogunkeyede will formally begin her role as chief public defender in April.
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