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Victoria County decided not to apply for state funding that would partially pay for a new public defense program.

The state money would pay for a nonprofit to build a public defender’s office in Victoria, which would then handle most indigent defense cases. Anyone accused of a crime who cannot afford to pay for their own defense has the right to a state-appointed lawyer.

County Judge Ben Zeller said the county was not seeking the funding “largely due to our stakeholders not being on the same page and us still having some unanswered questions.

“It may be something we look at doing in future years, maybe even next year, but for the moment we aren’t pursuing it,” he said.

The deadline to apply for the grant was Friday.

Victoria County District Attorney Constance Filley Johnson told commissioners last month that she opposed opening a public defender’s office this year.

Filley Johnson, who took office in January, said the county’s potential cost savings from a partnership could not be accurately calculated until she had been in office for at least a year.

The county’s top prosecutor said she expected to try fewer cases than her predecessor, Stephen Tyler, meaning the county’s overall cost for indigent defendants would be lower than in previous years.

Zeller also said the county’s district judges and county court-at-law judges were divided over whether the partnership was a good idea.

Commissioners were considering the partnership because of potential cost savings for the county. For the past two years, indigent defense has cost Victoria County more than $1 million. If Victoria had received the grant funding, the state would have paid for 80% of the costs in the program’s first year, 60% in the second year and 50% for all subsequent years.

Texas RioGrande Legal Aid, the nonprofit that would have operated the office in Victoria, has successfully opened public defender’s offices in 10 counties using the same state funding program.

The majority of Texas’ 254 counties have a public defense system like they are in Victoria County, where a judge appoints a private practice attorney to represent someone who’s been accused of a crime, said David Hall, the former executive director of Texas RioGrande Legal Aid. Those attorneys are paid at a fixed rate that is usually a fraction of what they’d make doing the same work for a paying client.

Hall and other proponents of public defender’s offices say that type of system creates an incentive for private attorneys to resolve indigent cases as quickly as possible.

“You find some exceptional lawyers who feel like they have an obligation to represent the client with vigor and achieve some form of justice and maybe even have a trial, but that’s rare,” Hall said about systems that use court-appointed lawyers.

Hall said one benefit of a public defender’s office run by Texas RioGrande Legal Aid is that the nonprofit enforces case limits so that no lawyers are taking on more cases than is recommended in a given year.

In addition, Hall said, a public defender’s office can usually dedicate more resources than a private lawyer can.

Such offices usually have investigators on staff who do research and groundwork that a private attorney might not have the bandwidth for, he said.

Hall said he hoped Victoria County would consider the partnership in the future. He said other counties in the program had seen reduced spending for indigent defense and jail costs as well as a more efficient justice system.

Ciara McCarthy covers local government for the Victoria Advocate as a Report for America corps member. You can reach her at cmccarthy@vicad.com or at 580-6597 or on Twitter at @mccarthy_ciara.

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Ciara McCarthy covers local government for the Advocate as a Report for America corps member. You can contact her by emailing cmccarthy@vicad.com.

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