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County submits support for counsel at first appearance study

Tuesday, November 26, 2019

Hays County voted unanimously on Nov. 19 to submit a letter of support to the Texas A&M University, Public Policy Research Institute for a randomized controlled trial regarding counsel at first appearance. 

According to Pct. 3 Commissioner Lon Shell, a member of the Hays County Criminal Justice Coordinating Commission, the controlled trial — conducted by the Public Policy Research Institute — will study the potential benefits of having counsel at first appearance. A&M’s Public Policy Research Institute has partnered with Harvard University and is looking for counties to participate in the trial study, according to Shell. 

“The idea is to have council at magistration so when a defendant first appears before a judge, which is during the magistration process the first day that they are there, they would have defense counsel there that would be paid for by this study,” Shell said. “And then also paid for by this study would be all of the science behind exactly what happens to follow that defendant along through the process.”

The study will look at the impact on bail and pretrial release conditions and failure to appear rates, according to the agenda item. 

“There are several lawsuits in the state of Texas right now, several counties, that deal with this issue of whether this should be required by law or not, and some of those have been answered in different ways, there is some confusion,” Shell said. “But we do think this would be an opportunity for us to see if this would be of benefit — if this would improve our criminal justice system.”

Shell said that after the county expressed interest in the study, the institute presented the trial to the criminal justice coordinating commission. 

“We said this might be something we would be interested in so they had met with us, they had presented it before our commission and at this step they would need a letter from us saying that we are interested in wanting to work together and see if we can make this happen,” Shell said. “It’s going to take a little while.”

Pct. 1 Commissioner Debbie Ingalsbe, who also sits on the Hays County Criminal Justice Coordinating Commission, said she is supportive of the trial.

“I think that it’s going to be a good study for us to have to see how counsel at magistration is approached and what benefits there are, so I’m fully supportive,” Ingalsbe said. “Also although we touched on it, it is fully funded by the Texas Indigent Defense Commission and I want to again thank them, they’ve been a great partner to work with and have really stepped up and have funded several components of our criminal justice reform.” 

Hays County Judge Ruben Becerra added, “music to my ears.”

On Nov. 27, the court will consider the submission of a grant application to the Texas Indigent Defense Commission for the controlled trial. 

San Marcos Record

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