Hays County must launch public defenders office
Every Thanksgiving, Americans gather with their loved ones. Unfortunately, this isn’t the case for the 512 people who are being held in Hays County Jail pretrial, some of whom have been there for years. I know because I was one of them.
I spent 30 months in jail for a crime I didn’t commit, missing three Thanksgivings with my family. Before I was arrested, I would always go to Mississippi to my mom’s house for Thanksgiving. We’d cook, laugh, and play family games. In 2019, 2020, and 2021, I sat in a cell, eating what I could off of a tray. I wish I could have at least spent those Thanksgivings with my friends in Hays County, but I was constantly transferred from jail to jail, in what seemed like an effort to try to break me. It’s a terrible feeling when you’ve been in jail so long that all you want to do is to go back to “your county”: the one where the family you’ve created is. But Hays County finds ways to make sure you know you have no control of your life.
I remember sitting in segregation for almost 60 days while I was in the Atascosa County Jail, thinking “should I just sign and get out of here?” In October 2021, I was offered two years, which would have equated to time served, meaning I’d be going home. I refused. I couldn’t give this unjust system a win.
Sitting in jail for so long takes a toll on your mind. Feeling like I was losing my bond with my two children cut deeper than a blade to the heart. I felt so helpless. Imagine not being able to use a phone for so many days and when you finally get a chance to make a call, your attorney won’t answer the phone. In two and a half years, my court-appointed attorney never once answered my calls. The three times he visited me, he tried to coerce me into signing a plea deal. Once, I asked if he had looked into my case and he told me he hadn’t had the chance yet. This was in February of 2021, almost a year and a half after he’d been appointed to my case.
Unsurprisingly, my attorney was not at all prepared for my trial. In the middle of it, he leaned over to me and whispered “I like her,” about the prosecutor, who was a friend of his. It hurt to have my life in the hands of people who didn’t care an ounce about me. It felt like he just wanted me to sign to help the prosecutor out, and get paid and close my case. I was ultimately convicted of a misdemeanor, rather than the felony I had been charged with, but I can’t help but wonder how things would have been different if I’d had effective counsel.
Unfortunately, my situation is not unique. I have friends in the Hays County Jail that have never seen or spoken to their attorneys. Those on the outside think that if you’ve been locked up for so long, you must be guilty. They’re wrong. People are being held for months and years in order to pressure them to take unfair plea deals, and very few are able to wait that out. I’ve seen innocent young men plead guilty and then come back crying after reviewing their copy of the facts of the case because they can see clearly the lack of evidence against them, and how easily a competent attorney could have successfully defended them. Instead, they signed for something they didn’t do — because their court-appointed attorney told them it was the best option.
When 60.2% of the jail population is Black or Latino men, even though we only make up 21.8% percent of Hays County’s resident population, it’s hard to avoid the conclusion that sending us to prison is the goal. As long as you don’t have thousands of dollars sitting in your bank account, what happened to me could happen to you too.
It doesn’t have to be this way. Court-appointed attorneys, who operate independently, are paid by the number of cases they take on; they’re not evaluated on the outcomes of those cases. Public defenders offices, which are made up of salaried employees dedicated to indigent defense, have been shown to reduce jail time, case time, costs, and the likelihood of convictions.
In August of 2021, Hays County earmarked $5 million in American Rescue Plan Act (ARPA) funds to open a Public Defenders Office (PDO). In May of 2022 Hays County selected the Neighborhood Defender Service (NDS) to run the office, but six months later, we’re still waiting on the county to actually sign the contract and officially open the PDO.
To someone inside, six months can feel like a lifetime. The county must launch this office now, and our elected officials, including our new District Attorney and judges, must uphold the right to pretrial release in our community. Every person who is awaiting their day in court is entitled to effective counsel and the presumption of innocence. Those who are currently trapped inside of the Hays County Jail because they can’t afford bond should be celebrating Thanksgiving with their families instead, just like me and you.