Victoria County’s top prosecutor discouraged county commissioners from outsourcing most of the county’s public defense cases to a nonprofit, instead asking them to wait to make such a decision until she had more time in office.
District Attorney Constance Filley Johnson told commissioners the number of indigent residents facing criminal charges would likely change under her administration and that it would be difficult for commissioners to calculate potential cost savings until she had been in office longer and there was more data available.
Commissioners discussed a proposal at their meeting Monday to partner with Texas RioGrande Legal Aid to create a public defender’s office in Victoria County. The partnership would be partly funded by the state through the Texas Indigent Defense Commission, the state group that advises counties in their duty to provide legal defense to anyone accused of a crime who cannot afford to hire their own attorney.
The state would pay for 80% of the costs in the program’s first year, 60% in the second year and 50% for all subsequent years, said Edwin Colfax, a grant program manager at the commission.
David Hall, the former executive director of Texas RioGrande Legal Aid, discussed the group’s expansion into public defense programs. The group currently represents poor residents accused of crimes in about 10 counties and got its start in 1970 representing Texas farm workers in civil cases.
After hearing details about the program, Johnson urged commissioners not to start the program this year. Johnson took office in January after she defeated incumbent District Attorney Stephen Tyler. Tyler lost popularity in part over his policy to take every misdemeanor driving while intoxicated case to trial. Johnson has said she will not continue that policy.
“I would be remiss at this junction if I didn’t speak up,” Johnson told commissioners. “I’m not saying that in Victoria County, in the future, this may not be the direction that we need to go, but I’m saying to you: Not yet. I would appreciate the opportunity to have a full year or two under our belt to see the impact a new philosophical approach has on these numbers.”
Advocates for those accused of crimes say private attorneys don’t have the same level of supervision and accountability as defense attorneys who work in a public defender’s office, and they also note that private attorneys don’t always have the resources to hire investigators to review evidence against the accused. Commissioners are also considering the partnership because of the significant state funding it opens up. In the past two years, the county paid more than $1 million on indigent defense cases. County Judge Ben Zeller said he would want to seriously consider the partnership if the county could save about $250,000 or more.
If the commissioners decided to move forward with a partnership, the legal aid group would create an office dedicated solely to representing poor clients, with about 10 attorneys on staff, Hall said. Right now, Victoria County assigns criminal defense cases to one of several dozen private attorneys in the area, who are paid for the work at a fixed rate.
Bill White, a private attorney who represents court-appointed clients, said a public defender’s office could reduce the number of available private attorneys willing to take court-appointed cases and asked whether the state funding for a partnership with Texas RioGrande Legal Aid would be available in perpetuity.
Commissioners said they would continue to work with the Texas Indigent Defense Commission to develop the most accurate estimates possible for potential cost savings. Nora Kucera, the county’s pre-trial services coordinator, told commissioners Victoria County had an unusually high number of cases with co-defendants. Because of that, the county would still have to turn to private attorneys if two people are charged in the same crime because a public defender’s office could not ethically defend them both. Commissioners also said they would seek feedback from district judges and judges with county courts-at-law.
The county would have to apply for state funding by May 10 if it decides to pursue the partnership.
Commissioners also received the formal notice of a $1.1 million grant award from Rebuild Texas, which will pay for most of the county’s purchase of the Victoria Advocate’s office building. The county is partnering with the Victoria County Long-Term Recovery Group, which will use the Advocate’s building, rent-free, as a headquarters so it can continue to help residents recover from Hurricane Harvey.