Support Remains for a Travis County Public Defenders' Office

Local judges, community leaders on what needs to happen to create a new office

(l-r) Brian McGiverin, Sarah Eckhardt, Geoff Burkhart, Andy Casey, and Darwin Hamilton
(l-r) Brian McGiverin, Sarah Eckhardt, Geoff Burkhart, Andy Casey, and Darwin Hamilton (Photo by Michael King)

Judging from Monday night's Carver Library forum, sponsored by local Democratic groups, stakeholders still want to work toward a Travis County Public Defenders' Office. The panel discussion focused on the basic details of what needs to happen – and what it would likely cost – to create a new office, as has been proposed for several years. As Geoff Burkhart, executive director of the Texas Indigent Defense Commission, noted early on: "The key is money."

The sizable panel also included Travis County Judge Sarah Eckhardt, Andy Casey of the Austin Criminal Defense Lawyers Association, Amanda Woog of the Texas Fair Defense Project (who has chaired the county's indigent defense work group), Judge Elisabeth Earle, Darwin Hamilton of Grassroots Leadership, and Roger Jefferies, the justice and public safety executive for Travis County. Woog summarized national research on PD offices that shows "major differences in outcomes for defendants" when compared to court-appointed lawyers.

An often-mentioned goal was for 30% of local felony and misdemeanor cases to be handled by a PD office, with the rest going to private counsel or the existing Capital Area Private Defender Service, which some in attendance feared would lose resources to a new office. Eckhardt implored the stakeholders not to "villainize one another" while trying to come up with a plan, noting that Travis County already has four PD structures in place: for juveniles, for parent and child representation on the Child Protective Services docket, and for mental health misdemeanor cases. She suggested a PD structure provides an "anchor," training, and mentorship for attorneys working in indigent defense, estimating at least five years for such a program to get on its feet. (The county has already received an extension from TIDC for a 2019 grant application, a necessary first step.) Eckhardt estimated current spending on indigent defense at $12.5 million, and that a PD office would require another $9 million. (The state Senate's property tax cap proposal, Senate Bill 2, was amended before passage Monday to exempt indigent defense costs.) From the audience, Judge Julie Kocurek declared, "This is the most interest in indigent defense since as long as I've been a judge. We need to strike while the iron is hot."

Grassroots Leadership hosts a forum on the topic next Thursday; see Civics 101.

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