County close to filing public defense application
A Pretrial Services Office and Public Defender is close to becoming a reality in Hays County with a recent recommendation that the commissioners apply for funding.
The Hays County Criminal Justice Coordinating Commission voted in its meeting Wednesday to recommend that the commissioners court submit an application for grant funding from the Texas Indigent Defense Commission for the proposed department and programs.
The proposal comes from Neighborhood Defender Services (NDS), a pioneer in holistic defense in the United States, and outlines a plan for a holistic Public Defense Office and Managed Assigned Counsel Program in Hays County.
“I think this is a really good time for us to begin this process,” Commissioner Debbie Ingalsbe said. “I think this is a wonderful opportunity for us to work with NDS. I think they have shown us and proven that they have a really great program and I think it will work well with Hays County.”
The draft proposal would expand pretrial services into a holistic division that provides rehabilitative opportunities and supportive measures to those released from custody.
The pretrial services department should enhance current systems aimed at fairness and due process, cost effectiveness, while also providing opportunities for review of cases prior to initial appearance and early case resolution opportunities, if deemed appropriate.
Within the future Pretrial Services Department, the Public Defender Office would house dedicated attorneys for indigent defendants including investigators and support staff, while the Managed Assigned Counsel program would appoint private attorneys, all educated on holistic defense and available supportive resources.
Commissioner Lon Shell spoke about all the support and input they have gathered leading up to this moment from attorneys, judges, district attorneys, Adult Probation and others.
All members of the commission were in favor of recommending the proposal except two abstentions and one no vote from local defense attorney Todd Dudley.
District Attorney Wes Mau abstained saying he didn't want a vote to be perceived that he was trying to influence in some way that would benefit the prosecution however he expressed general support.
“I’m in favor of the resource side of the NDS proposal to provide resources for all indigent defendants where they would have access to investigators and psychologist and social workers and housing and work and the sorts of things that I think would be useful to everybody regardless of whether they are being represented in court,” Mau said.
District Court Coordinator Steve Thomas also abstained because he did not have the full support of all the district judges, whom he represents.
Dudley voted against the recommendation because of concerns that the proposed caseload for each attorney was too high.
“If I’m doing the math right, we’re looking at each attorney handling 73 felonies and 120 misdemeanors ... that’s just not possible,” Dudley said, speaking about his abnormally low caseload from 2020, when courts were heavily impacted and delayed due to the COVID-19 pandemic.
In fact, according to TIDC caseload data, 11 of the defense attorneys that served Hays County indigent defendants in 2019 took more than 120 misdemeanors, which is the recommendation for attorneys in the public defender office. One attorney handled 391 misdemeanors and another 381.
Twenty-four defense attorneys that took cases in Hays County took more than 73 felony cases in 2019, including Dudley who handled 89.
Shell shared that the recommendation for caseloads came directly from the TIDC, and they do not allow public defender offices to be understaffed or handle more than the maximum.
Standards for attorneys in a public defender office says attorneys should take no more than 150 felonies, 400 non traffic misdemeanors, 200 juvenile court cases, 200 mental health cases or 25 appeals per person on average in a year.
Shell wanted to be clear that a public defender office does not necessarily have better attorneys, but rather its the human centered and holistic approach and resources that are beneficial to a defendant’s future.
There is a deadline of May 7 for the grant application, so the commissioners will have to vote on the submission in their upcoming May 4 regular meeting.