Photo by Denise Cathey
Commissioners give public defender grant thumbs down
An attempt to submit a grant application to establish a public defender’s office that failed to garner support from the Hays County Commissioners Court on Tuesday failed again on Friday, and for some of the same reasons.
The commissioners held a special meeting Friday afternoon to vote on whether to submit an application to the Texas Indigent Defense Commission (TIDC) for a grant that would provide a portion of the funding for a public defender’s office. The matter had been heard on Tuesday but Precinct 1 Commissioner Debbie Gonzales Ingalsbe suggested taking a few days to talk with county judges and lawyers about the issue to gauge support. Friday was the deadline to submit the grant application.
During public comments, supporters of a public defenders office mentioned their concerns with the jail population and what it does to those who are incarcerated and the community.
“We have way too many people in jail in this county,” Pastor Tim Bauerkemper said. “... Something is wrong. Something is desperately wrong and it creates moral injury when we become part of mass incarceration — people languishing in jail far longer than they need to.”
Attorney Chevo Pastrano spoke about the distances that attorneys have to drive to visit their clients when they’re outsourced in other counties because of overcrowding at the Hays County Jail.
“It’s absolutely ridiculous that somebody would have to drive three hours north to see somebody to represent them,” he said. “... Our system is broken. Somebody has shined a light on it, and others would like to maintain the status quo and do nothing about it.”
Pastrano also pointed out that the vote the commissioners were set to take was merely to ask for grant funds.
“The point that’s being lost in this whole deal is this is an application,” he said. “This is not the implementation of any program whatsoever.”
San Marcos resident Roland Saucedo spoke in support of the ideas raised by the grant application but asked, as he did on Tuesday, that the county postpone a vote on it.
“I don’t believe that we have a comprehensive plan in place,” he said. “This is a very, very important issue — one that is very desperately needed in our community … I don’t feel that all the stakeholders that are key to the success of this program have had ample or any input whatsoever on this plan.”
Alex Villalobos, Hays County Judge Ruben Becerra’s chief of staff, spoke to the commissioners about the grant application. He highlighted the amount the county spends per inmate per day -- approximately $160 — and the number of inmates that have some kind of mental health issue.
“For us, that’s anywhere between 93 to 186 inmates with felonies, 90-195 with misdemeanors,” he said.
With those figures that means Hays County spends about $10 million a year on inmates with mental illnesses convicted of felonies and $11 million a year on inmates with mental illnesses convicted of misdemeanors, Villalobos said
With a public defender’s office that includes a mental health attorney, Villalobos said, “This is an opportunity to at least mitigate the expense.”
Villalobos then read a letter from Amanda Irwin, head of the county’s criminal defense bar association, stating that the system is “failing individuals with mental health issues” and the county taxpayers. Irwin’s letter also said that she did not know if a mental health defender’s office would work, but that trying to change is “a better alternative than doing nothing.”
Lack of judicial support
Precinct 4 Commissioner Walt Smith asked Geoff Burkhart, executive director of the TIDC, about some of the requirements for the grant application — specifically, support from local judges. Burkhart said the TIDC likes to see support from “a critical mass” of local judges and an application without judicial support is “not something our board’s going to support.”
Smith said he had spoken with local judges about the application “and I have yet to find one who will sign this.” Smith also said to his knowledge, the Hays County Bar Association had not been contacted.
“That’s where my concern is,” he said.
Precinct 2 Commissioner Mark Jones asked Burkhart how many counties in Texas have public defenders offices. Burkhart said there are regional public defender’s offices that take on capital cases, and those offices cover 181 counties — but they only deal with death penalty cases. As for other public defender’s offices, Burkhart said Texas has 20 that cover about 37 counties. Burkhart said outside of Texas, nearly half of the states in the country have statewide public defender’s offices.
Precinct 1 Commissioner Debbie Gonzales Ingalsbe said she called every justice of the peace, district judge and county court-at-law judge to talk about it.
“I really wish I would have done that sooner,” she said. “... Every one that I spoke to was supportive of the program, felt that they wanted to be a team player.”
However, she said, many judges told her they had not been part of the discussions about the grant.
“I don’t want to make a motion if we don’t have anybody to sign at this time and we fail to move forward,” she said. “... If we do, then let’s move forward, but do we?”
Smith read a statement he had received from District Judge Gary Steel, who said he had spoken to other judges and decided, “We do not have enough information to move forward with this proposal.”
County Court-at-Law 3 Judge Tacie Zelhart read the same statement to the commissioners.
Precinct 3 Commissioner Lon Shell focused his comments on the mental health aspects of the proposed public defender's office.
“I don’t think we’re here to deny the creation of a public defender’s office or anything else,” he said. “... I believe that of the actual public defender aspects of this, the mental health piece is the one that makes more sense to me. I think the rest is more suited for pretrial services.”
Smith had also expressed interest in pursuing pretrial services as a way to streamline the judicial process.
Shell asked Zelhart what she would do to improve legal services for arrestees with mental health issues. She said she would establish a mental health court. Zelhart also agreed on the idea of pretrial services.
“I believe you all do care very deeply about the issue that we’re talking about,” she told the commissioners, adding, “a public defender’s office will not clear out your jail. A pretrial services office will help do that.”
Justice of the Peace Place 5 Scott Cary spoke in favor of the public defender’s office. He shared information about two cases from earlier this year in which an arrestee was magistrated and then held in jail for 90 days without being seen by an attorney.
“The system is broken. This may not be the right answer, but if JPs can sign, I will sign,” he said.
Becerra made a motion to submit the grant application but failed to get a second, though Ingalsbe was almost willing to lend her support.
“I really want to second the motion. I really do,” she said. “It really pains me because Judge Zelhart just read a statement that we don’t have, at this time, the judges’ support to sign the application. And if we don’t have that, we don’t have an application.”
Becerra said that without the judge’s support, “It gets kicked out and we’ve lost nothing, but I won’t let it die on my desk.”
Ingalsbe said she supports the idea of aggressively pursuing the grant next year and using the time until then to “get everybody involved who needs to be involved.”
Becerra gave a statement before adjourning the meeting.
“Everyone is supportive, but it’s followed with no action,” he said, referring to those who said they see the need but do not support the grant application. “We need to stop doing business as usual. We need to start reform … We need to raise the bar on how Hays County conducts business.”