Victoria County Courthouse March 19

The Victoria County Courthouse, where the Commissioners Court convenes for its weekly meetings.

Criminal defendants have a constitutional right to an attorney, but getting access to a public defender in the Crossroads can be challenging, according to one official.

Victoria County Judge Ben Zeller said a new regional public defender office could be a solution. Such a facility in Victoria would require state funding.

“We are looking to set up a regional office that would serve Victoria, Jackson, Lavaca and Refugio counties,” Zeller said. “It would be primarily funded by the state. They would cover two-thirds of the expenses.”

The state currently covers 15% of expenses related to indigent criminal defense, Zeller said. Victoria County applied for a grant last year, but were not selected.

“Currently, the county pays private attorneys to serve indigents,” Zeller said. “The cost to do this is over $1 million.”

On Monday, the Victoria County Commissioners Court will hear an update regarding the county’s effort to secure grant funding.

Zeller said annual funding from the state for indigent criminal defense would be permanent if Victoria County receives a grant this year.

A regional office for indigent criminals would be led by a chief public defender, Zeller said.

“It provides a more effective system for a constitutional guarantee,” Zeller said. “It also leads to cost savings for the county.”

In 1963, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that the Sixth Amendment right to a lawyer applies to criminal defendants.

Also on Monday, commissioners will consider to approve a tuition reimbursement program for county employees.

Zeller said the benefit, as it is currently written, would apply to any employee who is enrolled at an accredited institution while they are employed by Victoria County.

“There would be a cap on what would be offered, but $10,000 to $12,000 provides at least a little bit of help,” Zeller said. “I have taken advantage of tuition reimbursement during my career.”

Zeller said tuition reimbursement is a benefit that can make the county a more competitive employer.

Leo Bertucci is a Report for America corps member who covers energy and environment for the Victoria Advocate.

Energy and Environment Reporter

Before moving to the Crossroads, Leo Bertucci studied journalism and political science at Western Kentucky University.