HAYS COUNTY, Texas (KXAN) — After a years-long effort to bring a public defenders office to Hays County, commissioners have identified $5 million in funding and will bring two possible service providers to the remaining court members before the end of the month.

As Hays County has seen rapid growth, it’s also experienced problems with its criminal justice systems, including jail overcrowding, lack of mental health diversion resources and little to no help for people awaiting trial. Hays County Commissioner Lon Shell said this effort to bring people awaiting trial legal resources will help chip away at all of those issues.

“What we’re trying to do is to put another piece of this puzzle together so that we can solve some of these problems,” said Shell, who was largely behind the proposal to fund the public defender’s office.

In August, Hays County commissioners unanimously voted to earmark $5 million in American Rescue Plan funding for the creation of the public defenders office. Just a few months before that, commissioners shut down an application submission for a grant that would have kickstarted that process.

Now, after that funding has finally been agreed upon, commissioners will consider two teams of applicants during their April 26 meeting.

“I feel that we are so much closer. I know it’s taken much longer than we’ve all anticipated,” Commissioner Debbie Ingalsbe said. “We did interview the two respondents that submitted proposals and we’ve got two great teams that will come here and we’ll see who will be representing and managing that department.”

After proposals are discussed and an applicant is selected, a judge would also need to sign off on having the public defenders office operate under their court. Once that happens, a contract can be drafted and the process to get the office up and running can start. Mano Amiga, a group that has worked on this for years, says that could happen in the next few weeks.

By the data

According to the Hays County Jail dashboard, which was last updated on October 20, 2021, more than 80% of the jail population is being held pretrial. Mano Amiga, which focuses on issues of criminalization and immigration, says that a rising number of people in Hays County’s jail need this office.

“These are legally innocent people who have only been charged but not convicted of the crime for which they are accused,” said Eric Martinez, policy director for Mano Amiga. “They’re simply there because they’re too poor to afford their freedom, too poor to afford bail.”

Hays County Jail Dashboard
Hays County Jail dashboard (Courtesy Hays County)

Historical data shows the number of people being held pretrial in Hays County has been steadily increasing. In October 2020, 291 people were being held pretrial in the Hays County jail. A year later, 507. All other custody types — for example, a parole violation, ICE pretrial, federal hold — remained steady.

Roughly 45% of the people in the Hays County jail are Latino men — more than double the population of Latino men in Hays County, according to the dashboard which was created in collaboration with the Vera Institute of Justice.

Meanwhile, nearly 15% of the jail population are Black men, a racial and gender group that makes up 2% of residents in Hays County.

White men represent roughly 26% of the jail population and roughly the same percentage of residents in the county, that dashboard shows. There are less than 100 women in the jail, as of the October 2021 data.

Jail overcrowding and what it costs you

As Hays County has been one of the fastest growing counties in Texas, jail overcrowding is something the county says they’re struggling with. It’s why voters opted to put money towards an expansion of the jail back in 2016.

Still, Shell says that expansion won’t be enough. He said roughly 600 beds will be available once that expansion is complete. There are roughly 650 inmates in Hays County’s custody right now, he said, which leaves other counties holding those inmates.

“That obviously is not in the best interest of criminal justice. It’s not good for those that we’re trying to ensure that they’re constitutional rights are protected, it’s not good for victims, it’s not good for families, it’s not good for our community,” Shell said, noting inmates were as far away as Red River County, roughly six hours away.

The public defenders office will help clear out people from the jails that shouldn’t be there, or that need mental health and substance abuse resources instead of incarceration, Shell said.

“Research has shown that when compared to the model of private assigned counsel, public defender offices have been found to reduce days of pretrial incarceration, get cases dismissed or acquitted more often and secure shorter sentences for their clients who are convicted or plead guilty. This results in untold savings for county taxpayers,” Martinez added.

Martinez said roughly 80% of the people in the Hays County jail can expect to spend a minimum of 30 days there. It costs taxpayers between $80 and $100 a day per person to house people in that jail. The goal for the public defenders office is clear out people that shouldn’t be sitting behind bars.

“I’m extremely impressed with the respondents we’ve gotten to our request for proposal, I think either of the respondents could do a very good job. I think now it’s going to be up for the commissioners court to make some decisions and recommendations based upon input that we hear from others,” Shell said. “We’ll try to get the best resources that we can.”