AUSTIN, Texas — Austin is the largest city in the country that does not have a public defender’s office, but it could change soon, as Travis County Commissioners consider a new plan. 

  • Commissioners consider public defender’s office
  • Increase in criminal justice system inmates
  • Defenders would take 30 percent of cases by 2021

Leaders of the Indigent Legal Services Working group presented parts of a proposal to Travis County leaders, Tuesday, during Commissioner’s Court. 

“We’ve had a threefold increase over the last 35 years of individuals involved in the criminal justice system. Of the states, Texas is among the highest of the percentage of the population that is criminally involved,” County Judge Sarah Eckhardt said. “Certainly, this is the civil rights issue of our time.” 

Currently, Travis County pays a stipend to private attorneys who represent defendants who cannot afford to hire them on their own.

“We see people are unjustly being held in jail pre-trial, simply because they can’t afford bail or an attorney who is going to be fighting for them in the courtroom,” said Amanda Woog, chair of the working group and executive director of the Texas Fair Defense Project. “We see significant racial and class disparities between who is sentenced to jail or prison and who is able to avoid a conviction.”

Working group members when drafting the plan said they referred to the American Bar Association’s ten principles of a public defender system. Woog said many conversations centered around the principle of independence. 

“We don’t have other elected officials going in to tell the district attorney's office or the county attorneys how we should be operating,” Woog said. “We need a public defender institution that has real independence from the other actors in the system.”​

Under the four-year plan, public defenders would take on 30 percent of cases by 2021.There would also be pay parity with county prosecutors and increased staffing of immigration attorneys, investigators, and social workers. In total for four years, the proposal requires a nearly $40 million budget.

Some commissioners expressed concerns about how much the state was contributing. The total indigent defense costs for 2017 were $265 million, of which the state covered less than $32 million.

“Both the state and the county really have to invest in more money in indigent defense, I don’t think there’s any way around that,” said Geoff Burkhart, executive director of the Texas Indigent Defense Commission. “Right now the state portion is relatively small and we’re working hard to step that up, we’re working hard in the legislature to make sure the state is contributing more and more.”

Advocates said it is not just about saving money in the long run, when it comes to investing in indigent defense. 

“We’re talking about people spending unnecessary time in jail and prison, simply because they couldn’t afford a quality attorney,” Woog said. “While we can talk about cost and tie into improved efficiency and cost-effectiveness, we really need to stay focus on the human cost to our current system.”