Sunday, November 06, 2005

New Hidalgo public defender office spurred by jail overcrowding

In South Texas, Hidalgo County (Edinburg) officials last month created a new public defender's office led by Jaime Gonzalez, a 28-year old former prosecutor, in an effort to reduce pre-trial detention and jail overcrowding. According to the McAllen Monitor ("Hidalgo County gets its first public defender's office," Nov. 6):

They started representing clients in misdemeanor cases Oct. 21 and have so far tried 60 and disposed of 32. Handling cases through his office reduces the two-week processing time about 10 days, Gonzalez said, predicting his office probably will handle 25 percent of Hidalgo County’s misdemeanor cases every year.

"Public defenders are seen as a mechanism for larger counties," Gonzalez said. "But that’s what we are now."

That's true. Hidalgo County's 1,150+ beds makes their jail one of the dozen or so largest in the state. I'd commented previously that Hidalgo officials appeared to want to blame others for jail overcrowding problems. It's good to see local officials also plan to take responsibility for the large number of low-level defendants languishing in jail awaiting trial.

The new public defender's office was made possible by a state grant that will subsidize its first four years. (The same pot of money is available for other Texas counties that want to reduce overcrowding by creating a public defender's office.) Reported the Monitor:

In 2005, Hidalgo County received a four-year grant from the Texas Task Force on Indigent Defense. For the first grant period, which runs from March 2005 to February 2006, the state funded about $396,000 for the public defender’s office. The county matched that with about $94,000. As the office becomes more established, the state funding decreases and the county’s contribution increases.

However, Gonzalez said by the time the county would have the higher percentage, the office would be self-sufficient.

"Our budget would be a drop in the bucket," he said.