Group shaping future of county public defenders seeks public input

Travis County

AUSTIN (KXAN) — The system that provides lawyers for defendants who can’t afford to hire one in Travis County is headed toward a possible overhaul, and the working group tasked with figuring out how to do it wants to hear from the public.

The group is hosting a “listening session” Wednesday night from 6:30-8 p.m. at 700 Lavaca Street. Members will hear from advocacy groups and other community members about what the public defender system should look like.

“Now is the time to really ask ourselves as a city, as a community, what are our values?” said Alicia Torres, a reform advocate working with ICE Out of Austin, an offshoot from the group Grassroots Leadership.

She’s helping lead the community charge to change the way indigent defendants are represented. 

Currently, Travis County doesn’t have a traditional public defender office. A few years ago, county leaders moved to a “managed assigned counsel” system called the Capital Area Private Defender Service, or CAPDS, in which private attorneys receive county funds to represent defendants.

Panels of local attorneys decide who can argue different kinds of cases and assign lawyers to clients.

Austin defense attorneys say it’s a good system, but a study released last year found defendants in Travis County drug cases were much worse off with a lawyer from CAPDS than if they were able to hire a private attorney.

About 80 percent of defendants were convicted if represented by a CAPDS attorney, compared to 48 percent of those who could hire someone.

Travis County decided to rethink CAPDS and asked the Texas Indigent Defense Commission to look at whether an independent public defender office, or PDO, would be a feasible alternative.

In October, TIDC told commissioners not only would it be doable, it would “desirable.” Commissioners then put together the working group to determine how and whether to move forward with creating a PDO.

Attorneys who spoke to KXAN, some who are assigned cases through CAPDS and some who aren’t, said the current system needs more money.

“I think this is actually the best of both worlds,” Sam Bassett, a local defense attorney, said.

He volunteers on a review committee that determines who’s eligible to be assigned CAPDS cases, but doesn’t receive cases himself. The current system allows defendants access to more experienced lawyers, he said, all of whom have their own investigators and staff that the county doesn’t have to pay for.

Those costs would fall to taxpayers if the county establishes a PDO. A preliminary plan written by TIDC recommends 66 total staff, including 48 attorneys.

“I just haven’t seen the will in Travis County to spend that kind of money,” Bassett said.

What’s more, he worries a new office would pull resources from CAPDS. The PDO would take 30 percent of indigent defense cases by its second year, according to the TIDC recommendations, and Bassett expects that would mean less money for the 70 percent CAPDS would be responsible for.

The solution, he said, is more money for the system already in place. Reform advocates disagree.

“The systems may be in place, but are they carrying out? No,” said Annette Price, an activist with Texas Advocates for Justice, another offshoot from Grassroots Leadership.

She’s seen the problems with public defenders up close: When she was 20, Price was arrested on a murder charge in Illinois. She was assigned a public defender by a judge, but she didn’t see him very often, and he didn’t do enough to prove her claim of self-defense, she said.

“I was arrested in October and by February I was convicted,” she said. “So that goes to show alone that there was not a lot of investigation in my case.”

She was released after serving 25 years in prison, and now she works with people in the Travis County court system, finding similar lapses in public defenders’ commitment to clients. “I hear the stories of [defendants] not knowing who their public defender is.”

A PDO would provide better, more client-centric representation, Price and Torres argue, with direct oversight and more accountability. It could also be more culturally responsive, like being able to add more immigration lawyers. 

The timeline to establish a PDO — if that’s what commissioners decide to do — depends on how fast the county wants to move, said TIDC’s executive director, Geoff Burkhart. The first step would be to notify the commission of the county’s intent to submit an application for grant money, which could happen as soon as March.

Those grants would fund partial costs for the first four years, and the county’s cost would go up by about an average of $106,000 per year to start, according to the TIDC outline. After that, the state would continue to fund 12-15 percent of the indigent defense costs, but the county’s total cost would rise about $3.5 million per year from what it’s currently spending.

A full proposal would be due to the commission a couple months after the first step, and the TIDC board would vote on it in June. Travis County could start ramping up a PDO by the fall, Burkhart said.

“If that’s the case, then it’s being rushed,” said Steve Brand, a defense attorney who was appointed to the county’s working group. He’d like to see the county take its time and figure out the right way to implement changes to the system. 

Travis County can be “pioneers in creating a model public defender’s office,” he said, if taxpayers are willing to pay to do it right and if the working group is able to take its time.

“We want the same thing in the end,” Brand said. “It’s just, how fast do you want to rush into this thing?”

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