Commissioners hear report about increasing indigent legal costs

Karn Dhingra By Karn Dhingra

March 20, 2017 at 10:51 p.m.
Updated March 21, 2017 at 6 a.m.

From left, Commissioner Danny Garcia, Precinct 1; Commissioner Kevin Janak, Precinct 2; Commissioner Gary Burns, Precinct 3; Commissioner Clint Ives, Precinct 4; and County Judge Ben Zeller

From left, Commissioner Danny Garcia, Precinct 1; Commissioner Kevin Janak, Precinct 2; Commissioner Gary Burns, Precinct 3; Commissioner Clint Ives, Precinct 4; and County Judge Ben Zeller

Costs to provide legal representation to Victoria County residents who cannot afford to hire an attorney rose to more than $1 million for the first time in 2016.

At their Monday meeting, Victoria County commissioners heard a report outlining how much it costs the county to ensure constitutional rights of indigent defendants.

Victoria County's costs to provide legal counsel rose 16 percent from 2015 to 2016, or from about $708,904 to $822,866, according to a report prepared by Nora Kucera, Victoria County's pre-trial services coordinator.

Additionally, Victoria County is responsible for Child Protective Services-related costs, which were $191,810 in 2016, and fees paid to the Attorney General's office, which were $12,384 in 2016. In all, Victoria County spent $1,027,060 in 2016 on indigent legal costs.

Texas counties are responsible for 87 percent of the costs for indigent defense, Kucera said.

The Texas Indigent Commission picks up the other 13 percent.

The Sixth Amendment of the U.S. Constitution guarantees citizens the right to legal counsel. If a person is unable to pay for counsel, the government is required to cover the cost.

According to the Texas Indigent Act of 2001, anyone who receives public assistance in the form of food stamps, Medicaid, public housing, Social Security income or Temporary Assistance of Needy Families (TANF) automatically qualifies for a court-appointed attorney. Any person residing in a public mental health facility qualifies as well.

Kucera said it was likely state legislators could restore funding by 4 percent or $2.87 million in this session of the the Texas Legislature. State lawmakers made the cut in the last session of the Legislature, she said.

Victoria County is responsible for indigent court costs for four courts - County Courts Nos. 1 and 2 and the 24th and 377th State District courts.

Victoria County is the only county in the six-county San Antonio judicial district that handles CPS cases, Kucera said. Calhoun, DeWitt, Goliad, Jackson and Refugio are the counties in the judicial district that have turned over case filings to San Antonio, she said.

Victoria County District Attorney Stephen Tyler said Victoria County taxpayers pick up half the salary for the attorney who handles CPS matters.

"The costs are actually lower with us handling it because San Antonio would pretty much do every case," said Tyler.

Tyler said he prefers that Victoria County handle CPS cases because his office knows the community better than attorneys in San Antonio and his office would keep track of juveniles moving through the system.


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