AUSTIN (KXAN) — Just two months into the process of shaping a possible public defender’s office in Travis County, two members resigned from the group citing issues with how the process is moving forward.
County commissioners will consider Tuesday how to replace the members, both of whom represented the Austin Criminal Defense Lawyers Association (ACDLA) in the discussions.
One of the working group members, Krista Chacona, wrote in her resignation letter she was “deeply disappointed” in the process. She accused other group members of “vilify[ing]” private defense lawyers as a way to generate support for the proposed change to how Travis County assigns counsel to defendants who can’t afford to pay an attorney.
The working group’s chair, Amanda Woog, said the resignations won’t be a big setback. “Since that happened, I’ve had numerous private defense attorneys reach out to me and members of our work group expressing their interest in serving,” she said.
Woog is also the executive director of the Texas Fair Defense Project, which represents the interests of low-income defendants. She pushed back on the attorneys’ accusations, emphasizing the importance of hearing from community activists.
“They’re the people who can tell us most accurately what poor people in Travis County need from a public defender office,” Woog said.
Under the county’s current system, the Capital Area Private Defender Service (CAPDS) a panel of defense lawyers assign private counsel to indigent clients. That replaced the old system of a judge assigning private attorneys to cases.
The county pays those attorneys a flat rate, and advocates for change say the system puts defendants who can’t pay at a disadvantage. A study last year supports that claim, finding drug suspects with an appointed attorney were far more likely to lose their cases, and a disproportionate number of those defendants were black or Hispanic.
Last fall, Travis County commissioners created the 14-member working group to determine what a dedicated public defender’s office would look like, following a recommendation from the Texas Indigent Defense Commission.
Now the working group is down to 12 people, as the ACDLA pulled its support and its members from the process earlier this month.
“We currently lack confidence that our ideas will be heard,” the ACDLA board wrote in its letter to the group and commissioners.
One of those ideas is fixing CAPDS and increasing funding, an idea the private attorneys don’t feel is getting enough attention.
Woog said the group is looking at that, too, and recently created a subcommittee specifically to address ways to improve the current system, including increasing payments to attorneys. But, she added, the main focus of the group, as outlined at its inception, is to look into forming a dedicated public defender office.
The office would take up to 30 percent of cases from CAPDS, leaving in place a hybrid system between public and private attorneys. Critics say that would pull much-needed funding from the current system, leaving the 70 percent of defendants with CAPDS lawyers at a disadvantage.
Commissioners “need to first, commit to proper funding for indigent defense, and then determine the most appropriate system for delivery of that defense,” the defense lawyers association wrote.
Woog agreed more spending would help but said there are other problems with the CAPDS system that the group is working to address.
The working group is currently drafting an “intent to submit” letter to the Texas Indigent Defense Commission, Woog said, that precedes a full proposal for grant funding. The letter is due to the TIDC by next month, and the full proposal would come in May.
Steve Brand, the other resigning attorney, told KXAN in January he was concerned about the timeline, saying it was being rushed. He reiterated those concerns in his resignation letter, even as he conceded the current system has its faults.
“Travis County is in need of stronger defense for its constituents,” Brand wrote. “The method of providing that needs to be studied over about a year’s time, not merely a matter of a couple of months.”
But the group is forging ahead, with or without the support of the ACDLA. Woog said she will welcome them back to the table if they decide to rejoin the conversation.