As a federal judge weighs imposing more injunctions against Galveston County over its treatment of low-income jail inmates, the civil rights group behind the complaints argues one solution would be creating a public defenders office.
But while some officials, including Galveston County Judge Mark Henry, said they generally supported the idea, objections of the county’s district court judges appear to be standing in the way.
The American Civil Liberties Union of Texas sued Galveston County, the county’s district court judges and District Attorney Jack Roady in April 2018 claiming the county’s bail system violated the due process right of low-income people. The lawsuit accused the county of keeping lower-income people in jail without considering their ability to pay as part of bail hearings.
The county has instituted some reforms to its bail system since then, but the civil liberties union continues to push for more changes.
In February, the group asked for an injunction that would require the county to provide defense attorneys to people being booked at the jail before their first hearing in front of a magistrate judge — when the judge makes an initial decision about whether a person can be released on bond.
While the injunction doesn’t explicitly call for the creation of a public defenders office, the group pointed to precedents set in other states where government-supplied attorneys represent defendants in pretrial hearings.
Officials acknowledged this week that they have considered creating a public defenders office to address the concerns brought up in the lawsuit.
A coordinating council assembled to propose bail system reforms drafted a six-page memorandum outlining a basic proposal for a public defenders office.
The memo, which was part of grant application to the Texas Indigent Defense Commission, proposed an office that would provide attorneys at all hearings.
“The attorneys will present information on defendants’ financial situations to reduce bail or getting personal recognizance bond, which should reduce the standing population in the jail by decreasing the length of stay for defendants,” the memo said.
It’s not the first time the county had considered asking the commission for grant funding for public defenders.
County commissioners had previously discussed applying for a grant to create a public defenders office in 2018, before the lawsuit was filed. The county backed off that idea after the commission signaled Galveston County would not be successful in in application.
Part of the reason for rejection was the county lacked enough building space to house the new office, Henry said.
Recently, however, the county has explored buying land near the Galveston County Justice Center on Broadway, and suggested it be used to create more administrative office space. A new building could have space for a public defenders office, Henry said.
Although he generally supported the idea, he was not planning to push for a defenders office, or task his staff to work on it, he said.
“We’re not the decision makers,” Henry said.
State law gives the power to create a public defenders office to the district court judges, Henry said.
In Galveston County, the district judges have opposed the idea of appointing defense attorneys at pretrial hearings.
The cost of creating a public defenders office, and using that office to provide magistrate services, would be an “inefficient use of limited governmental resources,” attorneys for the county’s district court judges wrote in April.
District Court Judge Lonnie Cox, the county’s former administrative judge, reiterated that argument on Friday.
“I’m not aware of any judge that thinks that’s a good idea,” Cox said. “I think the costs of it would be prohibitive.”
He said his preference was to continue the current system of having district court judges assign defense attorneys to indigent defendants, when a case reaches the trial stage.
“Many organizations actually try to contract their work out to reduce the costs,” Cox said. “That’s what we’re doing.”
The idea of creating a public defenders office has never come up as an official proposal to the district judges, Cox said. He did not expect one to come forward any time soon, he said.
U.S. Magistrate Judge Andrew Edison’s is currently considering the ACLU’s motion for an injunction. There’s no indication on when Edison will make a ruling on the motion.