Travis County is one step closer to finalizing its formation of a public defender office for low-income defendants charged with certain felonies and misdemeanors. The Travis County Commissioners Court today OK’d the structure of the office’s seven-member oversight board, which will include attorneys, criminal justice advocates and former judges.
The county hasn't yet made appointments to the board, which will oversee the creation of the public defender's office, recruit and recommend the chief public defender and incorporate the new system with the current system, which relies on private defenders.
The board will include seven members representing the categories below.
- Private attorney
- Public defender
- Justice-involved individual
- Advocate/community activist
- Retired criminal or civil judge
- Commissioners Court representative
The inclusion of commissioners court members and judges was an initial sticking point in the lead up to commissioners' approval of the decision to apply for a state grant to create the office. Attorneys and criminal justice advocates argued for a larger board and wanted members directly involved in cases to be nonvoting. Chris Harris, a data and policy analyst for the criminal justice nonprofit Just Liberty, echoed that concern ahead of the court's 4-1 vote to approve the board's structure.
Putting an active judge or a commissioner who could vote on matters related to the public defender's office on the oversight board "is kind of like an umpire having a managerial role on one of the teams," Harris said. "It is kind of like the commissioner of baseball managing one of the teams."
Commissioner Brigid Shea suggested the board should also consider grant-finding as one of its responsibilities because the county will have a state-imposed tax revenue cap that could impact funding starting next year.
"I think if you’re going to have an oversight committee that’s dealing with the realities of a new program – and the chief reality is the ability to pay for it, " Shea said, "I think that has to be part of their duties."
Travis County Judge Sarah Eckhardt ultimately agreed with Shea and submitted language that would allow the board to identify, but not necessarily implement, funding opportunities as the office moves forward.
Commissioners approved the move to establish the office in May and submitted the application to the Texas Indigent Defense Commission for as much as $20 million for the office. Before the vote, there were months of infighting between private defense attorneys who currently handle indigent defense in the county and members of the workgroup tasked with sketching out the office's duties, caseload and pay structure.
Ahead of the commissioners' vote, members of the workgroup and criminal justice advocates argued the plan relied too heavily on input from judges and it stripped away public input from the offices' oversight board. Judge Eckhardt floated a plan that left open the option to firm up the oversight board at a later date.
The office ultimately will be in charge of defending roughly a third of all low-income defendants. The county will finalize the board’s membership this month and hopes to have the state grant-funded office up and running next year.