County prepares to inaugurate $ 2.2 million annual bureaucracy

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SAN ANGELO, TX – Commissioner Sammy Farmer, Station 2, told Tom Green County Commissioners Court this morning that the county has only three finalists left for the lawyer who will lead the new public defender’s office.

The Chief Advocate will lead the new Office of the Public Defender with an estimated annual budget of $ 2,204,011.62 and a staff of 23, mostly new recruits, as well as 13 additional lawyers with salaries of around 80,000. $ per year. The office will be located on the first floor of the Judge Edd B. Keyes Building, 13 W. Beauregard Ave., across from the County Courthouse. The budgeted allowance for the Chief Advocate is $ 170,000 per year. The creation of the new county department has a one-time cost of $ 736,435, according to a presentation by county commissioners.

The Advocate’s Office will be referred to as the Advocate’s Regional Office because lawyers and staff will serve six adjacent counties that are part of the 51st and 119th Judicial Districts, including Coke, Concho, Irion, Runnels, Scheicher, Sterling, as well as Tom Green Counties. . The Advocate’s office will be headed by a nine-member board of directors with representatives from the participating counties. Don’t let district numbers distract you. There are four district courts in the county and the Advocate’s Office will handle all of the district court and county court indigent defense requirements in Tom Green County. The district court numbers correspond to those of the two prosecutor’s offices also appointed respectively for the 51st and 119th districts.

Adding an annual $ 2.2 million bureaucracy to an already cash-strapped county government was not something County Judge Steve Floyd said he would consider under his tenure. Floyd will retire at the end of this current term on January 1, 2023. Floyd changed his mind after considering options – continue to be under-funded when hiring independent contract lawyers or become the Sixth County. of Texas to have a public defender’s office and the first to inaugurate a regional public defender’s office. Government grant money helped influence the commission. Grants have been offered by the Texas State-run Indigent Advocacy Commission that make this new bureaucracy affordable. County commissioners believe the series of grants promised over the next five years, along with grants for the initial setup, will forever support the Public Defender’s Office. In June, CDTI awarded Tom Green County $ 2.3 million to launch what will be known at the Concho Valley Regional Defender Office (CVRDO). http://www.tidc.texas.gov/media/8d9…

While the county budget will benefit in the short term from state grant money, some have expressed concern about the new bureaucracy. It will destroy small businesses, a prominent lawyer told us. Many independent business law firms in San Angelo benefit by accepting public defense cases. This will wipe out the county income for them. A public defender’s office is a sea change in the way criminal defense will be conducted from now on, the lawyer said. But before the Commissioners embarked on this change, they got advice from the local bar, and most of the local lawyers seemed nice.

What also pushes the county to move away from the traditional time-honored way of appointing contract lawyers for criminal defense cases is that the way defendants are classified as “indigent” has changed dramatically over the past 25 years. years. In 1996, for example, few defendants qualified for free counsel. As the level of income classified as “poverty” as determined by the US Department of Health and Human Services increased, so did the number of defendants eligible for the indigent defense. A family of three, for example, is considered to be living in poverty if the annual household income is $ 21,960 or less. Tom Green County’s guidelines for judges to appoint a free defense attorney is that the defendant’s income is less than 125% of the HHS poverty line. In the case of a defendant in a three-person household, he or she is entitled to a free defense lawyer if he earns less than $ 27,450 per year.

Even if the accused is ineligible because of too high an income, county and district judges have the discretion to appoint a free defense lawyer if, “taking into account the nature of the criminal charges , the anticipated complexity of the defense, the estimated cost of obtaining competent private legal representation for the indicted case, and the amount needed to support the accused and his dependents ”, according to the plan of defense of the indigent of the county. http://tidc.tamu.edu/IDPlan/ViewPla…

For this reason, the demand for indigent criminal defense appointments in the local courts of San Angelo has exploded.

Today, 27 percent of misdemeanors, 79 percent of felonies, 100 percent of minors and 100 percent of appeal cases have a county-paid defense attorney in Tom Green County. Across Concho County, there are over 2,000 defendants with duty counsel.

Commissioners hope a dedicated staff of defense lawyers will reduce the burden on the prison. Sheriff Nick Hanna, responsible for managing the Tom Green County Detention Center, said the backlog in courts is costly to the county. The longer it takes for a criminal case to make its way through the justice systems, the more defendants remain in prison.

“We have inmates who have been in jail for over 1,000 days. Stephen and Gary Jennings were both jailed for 1521 days, ”Hanna said. The two are among three murder charges in the 2017 Duckworth Road murder who have been in jail since the summer of 2017.

A CDTI study presented to county commissioners in March claimed that in Kaufman County, a public defender reduced jail days by 113 per felony. Additionally, CDTI claimed there was a 22% reduction in re-arrests in mental health cases in Travis County after that county opened a public defender’s office.

The county’s prison population reduction eliminates the need to contract more beds in neighboring counties in the event of an overflow. Instead, opening more beds in our jail allows Tom Green County to make money from their jail at a rate of around $ 52 per inmate per night by absorbing overflows from neighboring counties. Our prison currently has no possibility of inbound overflow, although it is new and larger.

The county budget will benefit from the grant money. Two CDTI improvement grants will pay for CVRDO’s physical infrastructure and 80 percent of variable costs such as salaries in the first year. Thereafter, until at least the fifth year, the grant will cover 66% of the variable costs. For fiscal year 2022, the county judge’s budget estimates that $ 683,771 will be spent by Tom Green County on CVRDO, with neighboring participating counties also helping to pay for the cost. In subsequent years, this number will increase as programmed grant revenues decline. However, the grants make the CVRDO appear to be a gigantic boon to the county budget, as in the current year, fiscal year 2021, more than $ 2.5 million has been budgeted for the criminal defense of the indigent. .

However, county court observers warn not to clap too loudly. CDTI grants are dependent on funding from the Texas Legislature. The legislature meets every two years and the next regular session begins in January 2023. But for now, whoever the finalist for CVRDO chief has a job for at least until fiscal year 2024… Or beyond. Who has heard of a government body removing some of its bureaucracy and the scale of a departmental tax increase that will be required to pay CVRDO without a state subsidy?


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