Travis County – the seat of the state capital– is the largest county in the U.S without a public defenders office. But after months of debate over the issue, and a new proposal from a work group appointed by Travis County Commissioners, that may change.
Jennifer Laurin is a professor at the University of Texas at Austin School of Law, and says while all criminal defendants have access to lawyers, there isn’t a public defender office in the county to oversee the work of those lawyers.
“What a public defender’s office can provide is an organizational structure that can supervise and regularize the quality of defense services that are provided,” Laurin says.
She says those offices make decisions about how public defenders conduct their work, including the amount of resources they put into investigating a particular case, or the extent to which they evaluate how a criminal case could affect a defendant’s immigration status.
“Those are all the kinds of decisions that an individual in solo practice might be making entirely on their own,” Laurin says. “But in a public defenders office, you can have supervisors, you can have policies, you can have more regularized training that’s gonna encourage higher-quality decision-making.”
In a jurisdiction without a public defenders office, like Travis County, a judge appoints a lawyer to each case, and determines that lawyer’s compensation. But the lawyers on the judge’s list can come from a variety of backgrounds, including larger law firms or individual practices.
There’s a push now for a public defenders office in Travis County because smaller cities elsewhere in Texas have recently opened their own. Also, Laurin says recent studies in Travis County have shown that defendants there have experienced negative effects from a lack of a public defenders office. Lastly, she says there’s growing public support for one, especially by those who have experienced the state’s criminal justice system.
“That combination of existing models, some demonstrated problems with quality and … community organizing has brought this to a head now,” Laurin says.
Those who don’t want a public defenders office say that the existing system would work better if it had more funding.
“Practicing lawyers, a lot of the judges, say, ‘You know what, we’re not getting quality results because we’re underpaying the lawyers that we have now,’” Laurin says.
Laurin says judges, in particular, may also fear they’ll lose control over how they conduct their work if there’s a public defenders office.
Overall, she says the fact that some are pushing for a public defenders office is a signal that the current system isn’t working. She says some lawyers and others working in that system may struggle with that criticism.
“That’s a very uncomfortable reality to contend with, but it’s part of the conversation that’s going on right now,” Laurin says.
Written by Caroline Covington.