TRAVIS COUNTY, Texas (KXAN) — A half a million-dollar grant that would have supported a counsel at first appearance pilot program in Travis County has been pulled by Texas A&M’s Public Research Policy Institute, a commissioners court meeting this week revealed.

The reason? Staffing shortages in Travis County’s jail.

In December 2021, Texas A&M awarded a grant to the county to test a program that would provide representation to people at their first appearance hearing. That’s the first time someone accused of committing a crime goes before a judge, who decides bond and possible conditions for release.

Bradley Hargis, the executive director of the Capital Area Private Defender Service, described that hearing as “fundamental to the quality of the representation that comes after.”

The program, which would have been run largely by CAPDS, was operational for less than two weeks, despite Texas A&M adjusting the scope of its expectations, because there wasn’t enough space at the jail for attorneys to meet with clients and TCSO didn’t have the staff to maintain those visits.

TCSO Captain Maria Velasquez explained to commissioners that vacancies in specifically the booking department have gone from bad to worse. In April, she said, they had 17 positions to fill. As of this week, they’ve got 23 open positions. It’s forced the department to cut the amount of time someone can bond out in half.

“That’s over 200 years of experience that went with them,” she said of the people who have recently left the job. “And booking is not a position that you can walk into.” 

Having representation at first appearance ensures bond and conditions of release are fair and reflect the crime allegedly committed. As Judge Andy Brown pointed out, the program would have largely impacted people who don’t have the money for a lawyer.

Hargis said even in the short amount of time the pilot program was operational, “there were numerous examples where bonds were lowered, where we discovered felonies that should have been a misdemeanor.”

“I personally worked on one of those,” he continued. “It resulted in a $1 bond and the person able to get out that evening instead of a many thousand-dollar bond being set on a felony.”

Without the pilot program, people in Travis County’s jail, which is already facing overcrowding issues, could be staying longer than is required by law. Which, as Travis County’s chief public defender noted, is often traumatizing time spent from family and without work.

“It’s about what rights and responsibilities the government has to the most vulnerable in its community,” Adeola Ogunkeyede said.

Judge Brown expressed concern over losing the program altogether and asked that the sheriff’s office and other stakeholders come back to the court in the next couple of weeks with possible solutions.

“Clearly, this is an incredibly urgent situation,” Commissioner Brigid Shea said. “This is a problem across virtually every area of employment. It’s harder in a difficult setting like a jail.”