Advocates lay out plan for Travis County public defender office

Travis County

AUSTIN (KXAN) — The group tasked with determining how to establish a public defender office in Travis County will present a draft plan to commissioners Tuesday, outlining how much the office would cost and what it would look like.

The county has to submit a plan to the Texas Indigent Defense Commission (TIDC) by May 10 in order to apply for millions of dollars in state grant funding to establish the office. County commissioners and judges have to sign off on the plan before the deadline.

The proposal outlines a staff of more than 70 people, including 40 attorneys, investigators, social workers, and immigration lawyers. The pay scale for the office mirrors that of the county prosecutor’s office, an important step toward equality of representation in court, said Amanda Woog, executive director of the Texas Fair Defense Project and chair of the indigent defense working group.

“I think that this is long overdue,” Woog said, “and I think and hope that the commissioners and other elected officials will recognize that it’s time to prioritize indigent defense.”

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

Austin is the largest city without a dedicated public defender office. Instead, the county uses a system called the Capital Area Private Defender System (CAPDS), which pays private attorneys a flat rate to represent people who can’t afford to hire a lawyer.

Most people accused of crimes in the county are appointed an attorney, and minorities are even more likely than the population as a whole to need a court-appointed lawyer. A 2018 study found more than half of white defendants can’t afford to hire counsel, compared to nearly two-thirds of Latinos and three-fourths of African-Americans.

The same study found Travis County defendants with appointed counsel are more likely to be convicted of crimes and spend time in jail than those who hire attorneys. Last fall, with guidance from TIDC, county commissioners tasked Woog’s work group to come up with an alternative.

But the new office wouldn’t replace CAPDS. The proposed public defender office would take 15% of cases in the first year, starting in February 2020, and increase to 30% after that, according to the plan.

The total cost for salaries, benefits, and other expenses would run about $9 million a year. The first four years, TIDC grant money would offset about half the total cost.

Before the county is eligible for the grant, though, county and district judges have to sign off on the plan. Some have been wary of the process so far, saying they don’t want it to take resources away from CAPDS, which will still be responsible for the majority of cases.

County Judge Elisabeth Earle told KXAN she hopes this is the start of a bigger discussion about how the county funds and supports indigent defense.

“It allows us to start somewhere,” she said. Earle has talked with Woog and other work group members about the plan to ensure that whatever system comes out of talks works cohesively.

Starting a public defender office was “never a no” from the judiciary, she said, a position shared by County Judge Carlos Barrera. The concern, Barrera told KXAN, has always been with making sure CAPDS gets the funding it needs to improve, too.

After feedback from judges and other stakeholders the last several days, the work group plans to suggest reforms to CAPDS at Tuesday’s commissioners court meeting, Woog said. The changes include more administrative staffing, more oversight and a pilot program to incentivize private attorneys with hourly pay instead of a flat fee the system uses now.

“There is, I think, a larger conversation that needs to be had about the current pay structures,” Woog said.

If commissioners and judges don’t sign off on a final proposal before May 10, the county will have to wait at least another year to apply for grant funding to start the office.

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