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County to pursue public defender office

Commissioners move toward three-pronged criminal justice reform approach
Tuesday, March 30, 2021

The Hays County Commissioners Court voted unanimously in favor of pursuing funding for a three pronged criminal justice reform approach; a Pretrial Services Department, a Public Defender Office and a Managed Assigned Counsel program.

The county has been working toward this moment for years, with many long Criminal Justice Coordinating Commission meetings, campaigning from local criminal justice reform group Mano Amiga and many public commenters urging action. 

“Through discussions through our Criminal Justice Coordinating Commission meetings, we have had a consensus that those types of services may be better provided for outside of Adult Probation,” said the commission’s co-chair Commissioner Lon Shell. Shell refers to the existing state-funded Community Supervision and Corrections Department that handles some similar services. 

“Having a standalone pretrial services division would offer us more flexibility, and the ability to do things we aren’t currently doing because of the structure within the state system,” Shell continued. 

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. 

Neighborhood Defender Services, who is writing the proposal for the program, will pursue a holistic approach with a special focus on mental health services, according to Co-chair Commissioner Debbie Ingalsbe. 

“Not only providing legal representation which is extremely important, but it's also providing resources to ensure they have the greatest opportunity to succeed,” said Ingalsbe, mentioning housing, mental health and substance abuse recovery resources.  “Representation is extremely important but I think oftentimes we forget these individuals suffer from other things, and we need to provide those services to ensure that they’re able to succeed.”

The commissioners voted to submit their letter of intent to the Texas Indigent Defense Commission (TIDC), expressing that they plan on submitting applications for grant funding for public defender, pretrial services and managed assigned counsel programs. 

The TIDC’s grant structure covers up to half of the program costs in the first four years, to help ease the cost burden of a new department. 

As the proposal stands right now, a small PDO with a staff of six attorneys would handle around 30% of felonies and 18% of misdemeanors filed annually in Hays County. 

The Managed Assigned Counsel Program would be larger and oversee 70% of felonies and 82% of misdemeanors that are assigned to appointed attorneys. 

Mano Amiga, who has campaigned for a PDO for years, as well as several public commenters including a former county prosecutor, Shannon Fitzpatrick, and a current defense attorney, Michael Lee openly urged at least a 50% caseload in the new Public Defender Office. 

The Criminal Justice Coordinating Commission will continue to engage stakeholders and address concerns with its developing proposal as it prepares to submit a grant application before the deadline of May 7.

San Marcos Record

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