Free court counsel collapses: County ends pilot program thwarted by staffing crises – News

The Court of Commissioners voted to end a program that offered free counsel on first appearance to arrestees (Photo by Jana Birchum)

Even with the unconditional support of the Court of Travis County Commissioners, Sheriff’s officedistrict and county attorneys, and Public Defender’s Officea pilot program providing free legal assistance to people in need Travis County Jail collapsed. The program, called “counsel on first appearance”, or CA FA, began operating on April 8 but was discontinued 9 days later due to a staffing crisis at the prison. Months of meetings to resuscitate the program have not worked; on July 19, the Court of Commissioners voted to end it.

The disappointed vote Bradley Hargiswho runs the Capital Region Private Defense Service, a group of lawyers who reportedly received a $500,000 grant to provide legal representation. “The most heartbreaking part was the cancellation of the grant after so much effort had gone into trying to make it happen,” Hargis said. “It’s been in active discussion for three years; it’s been in conversation for at least five years.”

Hargis had worked to link the grant, provided by the Arnold Ventures Foundation, to a year-long study developed by researchers from Texas A&M. The study reportedly paid CAPDS lawyers to represent half of indigent people appearing before judges after being jailed, an appearance known as the bench. The other 50% would not have received the free lawyers. At the end of the year, the researchers would have compared the results of the two groups.

Those who can afford lawyers can better fight the charges against them during the bench and argue for more lenient bail terms, allowing them to return to their jobs and continue to provide for their loved ones. For those without a lawyer, the dialogue with the judge is often one-sided, Hargis said, resulting in higher bail amounts and stricter bail conditions that keep them in jail at disproportionate rates. Austin is the only major city in Texas that does not provide some form of CAFA to indigent people, which is why it was seen as an important step in addressing wealth-based disparities in local criminal justice.

Hargis said the CAFA program was working as intended before the sheriff Sally Hernandez pulled his cooperation – the move followed the resignations of corrections officers tasked with maintaining security at meetings between arrestees and attorneys. During weeks of talks to relaunch the program, Hernandez lost even more staff. The sheriff ended up offering to facilitate CAFA for just 2% of indigent people arrested – two eight-hour shifts a month out of a total of 90 – instead of the 50% originally planned by the program.

“It would be one thing if we started with two teams for two months, then we went to 10 teams, then 20 – you know, if there was a plan to ramp up quickly,” Hargis said. “But that’s where we are now – what resources would it take, and what kind of time frame would it take, to get to 100% representation on the bench? And one of the challenges in Texas is that the State provides relatively few resources to indigent defense, so the majority of money would have to come from county taxpayers’ money.Thus, commissioners would have to balance other priorities and other spending in other places.

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