‘Brain drain’: UT law grads leave Austin to pursue public defense


UPDATE (Friday, March 1, 10 a.m.):

AUSTIN (KXAN) — Travis County may have more time to submit a plan to establish a public defender’s office after a meeting Thursday between various stakeholders.

The working group behind the plans drafted an “intent to submit” letter to send to the Texas Indigent Defense Commission (TIDC) by the March 11 deadline. That letter is the first step toward getting grant funding to establish an office before a full proposal is due in early May.

A county or district judge needs to sign off on that letter, but none in Travis County would, leaving public defender advocates uncertain about the plan’s future. But TIDC’s executive director, Geoff Burkhart, told KXAN after Thursday’s meeting that the commission can waive the first deadline and still accept the full proposal in two months.

The decision to waive the deadline would need to be approved by the full TIDC board at either its meeting next week or at the following meeting in June, but the board has approved similar waivers in the past, Burkhart said.

That would give the working group two more months to work with judges and defense attorneys to come up with a plan that works for everyone, said Amanda Woog, the chair of the working group and executive director of the Texas Fair Defense Project.

In order to submit the full plan, the group needs more county judges to sign off on the proposal. If TIDC accepts the proposal in May, grant funding would become available in the fall.

“We’re going to keep working on it,” Woog told KXAN. The group will continue its weekly meetings, the next of which will happen Monday, and she said she’s “upbeat” about the prospect of getting a waiver from the TIDC.

Original story:

AUSTIN (KXAN) — About three dozen University of Texas at Austin School of Law students will meet Friday for the first official meeting of their new student organization, Indigent Defense Group.

The purpose of the group is to share resources and advice among a growing number of law students interested in providing legal services to defendants who can’t afford to hire an attorney. Without a public defender’s office in Travis County, graduates are leaving central Texas to pursue that passion.

It comes as a deadline draws near to take the first step toward establishing a public defender’s office here. Travis County is one of the largest jurisdictions in the country without a dedicated office for indigent defense, and a study last year found defendants who rely on the current appointment system get consistently worse outcomes at trial than those who can afford to hire a private attorney.

Logan Wexler, a third-year law student, said results like those are indicative of a system that works against low-income communities, a system he wants to help change. The Houston native head to Albuquerque when he graduates in May to work in the public defender’s office there.

“Everyone here that wants to do public defense knows that their path is outside of this city,” Wexler said.

The exodus has been described as a “brain drain” by advocates who want to see changes in Travis County’s indigent defense system, and the number of UT law students who want to do public defense work is growing, even within the last three or four years.

“A significantly greater number of students are coming into law school already sort of attuned to criminal justice issues in a critical way,” said UT law professor Jennifer Laurin.

While it’s hard to pin down why more students are deciding earlier on that they want to pursue public service instead of high-profile — and high-paying — private practices, Laurin believes more students are being exposed to the issues during undergraduate classes. The prominence of groups like Black Lives Matter over the last several also likely plays a role.

“I think what’s happening in our criminal justice system is one of the greatest civil rights crises in American society right now,” said David Whitney, a second-year law student and member of the Inidgent Defense Group.

Originally from Minnesota, Whitney has come to love Austin and, like Wexler, would like to stay here once he graduates. But the path he wants to take won’t allow it.

Travis County’s current indigent defense system is called the Capital Area Private Defender Service, or CAPDS, an arrangement known as managed assigned counsel. A panel of private attorneys appoint other private attorneys to represent clients who can’t pay, and the chosen firm is paid a flat rate by the county.

A few years ago, CAPDS replaced the old system of judges appointing private attorneys. Supporters of the new system acknowledge that it has its problems, but say the county should invest time and money into fixing CAPDS rather than starting a new public defender office to take some of CAPDS’s cases, as a commissioner-appointed working group has been advocating for the last couple months.

A dedicated public defender office, the advocates say, would be more client-focused and committed to serving poor communities instead of spliting its time between paying and non-paying defendants.

The working group planned to send an “intent to submit” letter to the Texas Indigent Defense Commission indicating the county’s objective of submitting a plan to get state grant funding to start the new office, but that plan is now in jeopardy.

The group needs a Travis County judge to sign off on the letter, but presiding criminal judge Brenda Kennedy wrote in mid-February none of the county’s judges was willing to do so.

Among the reasons for the rejection, she wrote, are a lack of detail in the intent letter and a worry that a public defender’s office would suffer the same shortfalls as CAPDS if not fully-funded by the county.

Amanda Woog, the working group’s chair and executive director of the Texas Fair Defense Project, planned to meet Thursday with Kennedy and others to try to find common ground so the county can submit the letter of intent by the March 11 deadline. If the group doesn’t meet that deadline, the process will stall at least until next year.

That’s of no help to students like Whitney. “I can say with a lot of confidence that I’m not going to end up in Texas,” he said, “because there just aren’t options for me here.”

The prospect that the working group may collapse is discouraging for Whitney and Wexler, who’ve been keeping an eye on the process and going to the public meetings.

They started the student organization to offer resources and information to their classmates about where the best public defender’s offices are and the opportunities that exist outside of Travis County.

The passion they share, to even out a criminal justice system they see as unfair and harmful to low-income communities, is steering students through law school; it’s also steering them away from the people in Austin they want to protect.

“This is our generation’s civil rights movement,” Wexler said. “It’s going to happen inside of the courtroom; it’s not going to happen on the buses.”

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