Commentary: Why Travis County needs a public defender’s office

Every day, thousands of people of color are trapped in Travis County’s criminal justice system. We are disproportionately stopped, arrested by the police, and held in jail at a higher rate than our white counterparts. We are on the receiving end of longer prison sentences.

After arrest, we are more likely to plead guilty, to spend a longer time in jail before conviction and receive a longer a prison sentence than a defendant with hired counsel. While Travis County can’t get rid of racism overnight, the county is in control of who will defend us against these practices. It is time to start a full-scale adult public defender’s office. We can’t afford not to. A place to start funding a public defender’s office is by using the savings created by the merger of the county attorney and district attorney.

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The current indigent defense system — a managed, assigned-counsel program — has made no progress ending racial disparities in representation. Attorneys are usually paid a flat fee per case, although some are paid hourly. The more cases an attorney has, the more money the attorney makes. The faster and more often clients plead guilty, the more cases the attorney can take. There are no real caseload controls, so caseloads under the program are too high; some lawyers had over 700 cases in one year. Attorneys who are handling that many cases are paid over $150,000 in attorney fees by Travis County. The administration of the program is costing taxpayers over $1 million a year, yet there has been no improvement in quality of defense.

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A public defender’s office is a better option for Travis County because of what it can offer us: It takes away financial incentives for representing poor people, standardizes the quality of defense across the office to ensure fairness of counsel, and provides a mechanism for individual lawyers to be accountable to their supervisors. Without the financial incentives of a payment per case, lawyers will not be encouraged to take hundreds of cases or bill for meaningless time just to make a buck off of our backs. Instead, public defenders can focus on what’s important: their clients. We have been waiting long enough for quality representation — and it is time for Travis County to move forward on this issue.

Travis County is progressive in so many ways: We love our county, our culture, and the unique lifestyle that Austin offers. Yet, we don’t understand why Travis County has not followed Harris, Dallas, Bexar and El Paso counties in opening an adult public defender’s office.

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If we should be leading Texas anywhere, it should be ensuring that the county does all it can to end racial disparities in the criminal justice system. While quality of counsel may be just one factor — the police and district attorney certainly play a large role — it is time for Travis County to make real steps forward and open a public defender’s office. We can’t afford not to.

Linder is president of the Austin chapter of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People. Zapata is a client board member of Texas Rio Grande Legal Aid and Texas Legal Services.

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