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Becerra’s task force is the right vehicle for serious results

Letter to the Editor
Sunday, April 7, 2019

Editor,

Criminal justice reform both reduces expenses and improves quality of legal representation.

As a defense attorney working in Hays county for years, it remains apparent that while key decision makers have long known of solutions to our costly, inefficient system, they have not been implemented.

By example, a 2010 report from MGT of America — paid for with $200,000 of taxpayer dollars — called for the establishment of a pretrial services office to free up jail beds by facilitating timely release for low-risk offenders awaiting trial.

That same report called for increased use of “cite and summons” for eligible offenses — yet, even today, our county averages only 5 a month.

Nearly a decade later, the body tasked with exploring options for reform — the Hays County Criminal Justice Coordinating Committee — had not adequately followed through. The result? Despite decreasing crime rates, over the last 4 years we’ve seen a 16 percent increase in population with a stunning 82 percent increase in incarceration.

Nevermind that had more of these recommendations been implemented we may never have had to spend $90 million on a new jail — the largest of three options to solve our overcrowding issues. We could have spent $50 million on just jail expansion, or spent even less on remodeling and implementing recommendations to save money and improve service.

I fully understand it’s easier to talk than to act — and sometimes a recommendation that looks good on paper can be rendered ineffective if key decision makers fail to agree on how the recommendations should be enacted.

Accordingly, why on earth would we revive a defunct committee that did not carry the momentum forward — especially when a new and energized task force has already met and is doing the work the committee failed to do?  

The timing of this newfound interest, leads to one conclusion: Had the County Judge’s office not identified this issue, formed a task force and moved forward with insightful, meaningful proposals, the past, inactive, defunct coordinating committee that achieved no results would have stayed silent and inactive allowing our current backlogged, inefficient, unjust criminal justice system to continue to abuse Hays County taxpayers.

It is an absurd injustice for attorneys like me to have to drive 5 hours round-trip to visit a Hays County client — but this is the reality with an overcrowded jail and a pricey outsourced-inmate program.

These barriers needlessly erected by conditions in Hays’ criminal justice system make it difficult to provide proper representation to defendants. Clients who can afford first-rate defense may expect adequate representation, but the deck is truly stacked against defendants who cannot afford it.

Hays County spends only half as much as the state average on indigent defense, yet the Judge’s new Task Force has already identified a way to create a Public Defender’s office in Hays County to confront that urgent need — and Judge Becerra has found an agency committed to covering half the office’s expenses in its first four years of existence.

Hays presently spend tens of thousands of dollars a month to pay other jails to hold our inmates. Criminal justice reform could fix the inefficiencies and injustices in Hays’ system, and the Judge’s new Task Force is the best vehicle through which to obtain serious results.

Chevo Pastrano

San Marcos