Pandemic, hiring freeze impact launch of new Travis County Public Defender Office

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TRAVIS COUNTY, Texas (KXAN) — In the midst of the COVID-19 outbreak as many face budget cuts and hiring freezes, Travis County’s brand new Public Defender Office continues to move forward unscathed.

It’s hiring its first batch of employees.

That started in February when Travis County hired Adeola Ogunkeyede as the Chief Public Defender for the county’s new office. She said her goal is to create a public defender office that incorporates a holistic model and takes into consideration a person’s character, and not just their rap sheet.

At present, Ogunkeyede is focused on preparing for any challenge the office may face trying to defend the county’s poorest accused in the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic.

She said one of her biggest challenges is not fully being able to get a grasp on the county’s court proceedings as they have all moved online.

“There is no more normal court practice because COVID-19 has required for us to move to virtual processes,” she said. “I assume COVID-19 is going to be with us for a while.”

The pandemic has also caused cities and counties across the country, including Travis County, to institute hiring freezes and scale back. Luckily, Ogunkeyede said they’re able to move forward with this fiscal year’s five hires: four managers and a financial analyst. Not including herself.

“The public defender office is exempt from the county’s hiring freeze, which is one of its austerity measures that was put in place to try and save off the most harsh outcomes from the fallout from the pandemic,” she explained.

They’re able to do this thanks in part to a state grant which covers half of the $40 million costs. The grant expires in spring 2024. After that, the county will have to pay for it.

The office has plans to hire 67 people. That includes 17 new staff this upcoming fiscal year. Ogunkeyede said a big chunk of the upcoming round of hires will consist of attorneys. The earliest the office could start to take cases is this fall, but more than likely that won’t happen until early 2021.

“This is an investment in people’s lives,” Ogunkeyede said.

Both Democrat Jose Garza and Republican Martin Harry agree. The two men are vying to replace Margaret Moore as the county’s top prosecutor. They want to build a relationship with Ogunkeyede.

“There’s no reason for the public defender office and the District Attorney’s Office to be adversaries and I would like to think that we can corporate to mutually achieve a sharing objective of doing justice,” Harry said.

“I look forward to having a fantastic working relationship with the public defender office, and more than that, having a shared vision with an office about what our criminal legal system can and should look like,” added Garza.

Come November, Ogunkeyede would like the same.

“That is my hope,” she said, “for a relationship that is commutative and respectful.”

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