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Hays County does not have a Public Defender’s Office (PDO) in place forcing low-income individuals to wait months in jail for trial. Hays County Judge Ruben Becerra allowed the implementation of a PDO in Hays County in May of 2022, but the office has still not been implemented by the county.

“I was able to allocate $5 million to [the PDO’s] formation,” Becerra said. “For the most part, the commissioners on court don’t want it and have been protesting it. It’s been very slow [to implement] due to pressure.”

Hays County Commissioners Court allocated $5 million from American Rescue Plan money toward starting a PDO in the county. It chose Neighborhood Defender Services to represent clients in the district.

“We have earmarked money from our own budget when we had free money from the state to do it," Becerra said.

The PDO that would be implemented will be a holistic defense office meaning more than just public attorneys will be provided.

“They don’t just have attorneys in-house, they also have social workers and other people that see people as whole people,” Sarah Minion, senior program associate with the Vera Institute of Justice said. “So not only will they provide effective counsel but also the kind of wraparound services through social work that can help folks get access to housing or mental health care that they need.”

Not running the office can cause massive issues in the jails and courts of Hays County. As of Oct. 29, 474 inmates were held in Hays County Jail pretrial. These inmates are held on average between one to six months without any sort of representation or chance to prove innocence.

“Eighty percent of those sitting in our jails that we’re wasting millions of dollars holding have not yet had their day in court,” Becerra said. “They’ve not yet seen a judge and so it is truly a broken judicial system that is incarcerating the poor.”

Currently, only private defenders are available to represent people who cannot afford an attorney. These attorneys are assigned to their clients. Becerra said they are likely overworked and underpaid meaning there is little motivation to pay attention to a case.

The lack of a PDO directly harms young people, low income individuals and minorities according to Becerra.

These numbers can be seen at The Vera Institute of Justice’s Jail Transparency Dashboard, which works to provide accurate numbers and statistics about the jail population in Hays County.

“We wanted to create opportunities for people to have real conversations about what was actually driving the jail population,” Minion said. “We can craft actual policy that’s data-driven to try to change what you’re seeing on the dashboard.”

However, this amount is too long for some as some organizations and individuals have worked for years to implement this office in Hays County.

“We often say justice delayed is justice denied,” Karen Muñoz, cofounder of Mano Amiga said. “We’ve been fighting for this for three years so we waited a long time.”

Mano Amiga is a local organization that works to improve the criminal justice system and immigration policies. The organization has been fighting for the implementation of a PDO since 2019, holding demonstrations and speaking at Hays County Commissioners Courts.

The lack of urgency with the contract is not due to Neighborhood Defender Services as they are ready to go according to Becerra, but rather because the commissioners do not want the implementation of the PDO.

“What we’re supposed to do is keep putting pressure on the court to have a finalizing of the agreement contract with Neighborhood Defender Services, so that we could be one step closer,” Becerra said. “But it is splitting hairs with these [commissioners] that don’t want it so it is foot-dragging and stall tactics.”

People being held pretrial for longer periods of time can cause the incarcerated population to overwhelmingly inflate. While those numbers will not decrease overnight according to Minion, there would be a return on investment with the population and public safety.

There can be serious effects of the PDO not being implemented besides the rise of the incarcerated being held pretrial. One example of this is people feeling pressured to take plea deals.

“Unfortunately when people don’t have access to effective and quality council, they often might take a plea deal while in jail to get out,” Minion said. “Because they might be losing their job and housing and kids, you see people pressured into taking a plea deal to better their situation.”

Commissioners are targeting the Nov. 22 meeting to take action on the contract, but it is unsure whether the contract can be signed by then. According to Muñoz, while the PDO may be put in place at this meeting, it can take months for the office to actually be up and running for the county.

“A system like the public defender’s office will ensure that no matter what your last name is or how much money you have in your bank account or in your pocket,” Minion said. “You will have a zealous advocate who will show up for you and who will be able to get you the resources that you need.”

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