Travis County one step closer to creating public defender’s office

Travis County

TRAVIS COUNTY, Texas (KXAN) — A public defender’s office could soon come to Austin — but not without some controversy. 

Travis County commissioners approved a plan to bring in millions of state funds to support it, but questions remain about how it’ll work after some last-minute changes. 

“The fight will just go another day,” said Amanda Woog, the chair of the Indigent Legal Services Group. 

“We live this, this isn’t politics, this is our existence,” said Rebecca Sanchez, the organizer for Grassroots Leadership.  

“Even though we are a progressive county, there are still significant deep Southern tendencies here,” said Travis County Commissioner Jeffrey Travillion. 

Despite half a year of work, a proposal for a public defender’s office in Travis County created by an indigent defense working group was dramatically changed. 

“A lot of intentionality went into this work that everybody completely dismissed because the higher powers have spoken,” Sanchez said. 

Sanchez helped develop the proposal and put the plan together. But on Thursday, ahead of Tuesday’s vote, Travis County criminal court judges sent out a memo detailing their own changes.

One change includes the creation of a public defender’s office only if the current system of private attorneys would continue to be funded. They said that counsel will still handle 70 percent of the cases. 

“They want to make sure that the people are served well, and they want to make sure that the system is efficient,” Commissioner Jeffrey Travillion said. “I want to know people who have been impacted by the system, I want to know people who serve within the system and I also want to hear from the judges that are involved in the system as well.”  

Commissioners also made their own amendment, holding off on deciding exactly who would independently oversee the office. If they do receive a grant from the state, a defender’s office will come to Travis County, but not without more hard decisions ahead. 

“I came in today hopeful that we would emerge with a strong, independent public defender office for Travis County,” Woog said. “That’s not exactly what we are seeing, but there is still that possibility so we are just going to have to keep working towards it.”

There are still several steps the Texas Indigent Defense Commission would need to take before awarding Travis County the money. The application will have to go through several committees first. 

They’ll provide feedback to the court so they can re-work the budget and provide time for the commission to decide which stakeholders will be providing the independent oversight. 

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