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UPDATE: Bexar County Receives $3.4 Million To Improve Defending The Poor

Bexar County Courthouse
Ryan Loyd | Texas Public Radio
TPR News
Bexar County Courthouse

In recent years Bexar County has increased funding for indigent defense, or public funding, for defending poor residents charged with a crime.

This story was originally published on June 2, and updated on June 18.

The Texas Indigent Defense Commission has awarded a 4-year, $3.4 million grant to radically reshape how the poor are represented in Bexar County courtrooms. The award was confirmed Thursday.

Eight out of 10 people arrested in Bexar county are so poor they can access indigent defense, according to the county administrative judge. That defense can be a public defender — but most often it is a court-appointed, private attorney.

Those private attorneys are appointed by elected judges who they are at times campaign donors for.

“We are removing the politicization of the justice system from judges hands, and placing (appointments, qualifying and pay) under an independent organization,” said Ron Rangel, 379th district court judge and administrative judge for Bexar County.

With the money and nearly identical matching total funds from the county they will create a Managed Assigned Counsel (MAC) system that creates a separate board and executive director that would qualify attorneys, approve, pay and also increase resources.

Bexar ranks last of the top five largest counties in pay per indigent case, according to Rangel. A 2020 study from Texas A&M showed that 40%of indigent clients didn’t meet with their attorney prior to the first hearing. It also showed that expert witnesses and investigators were underfunded and underutilized by indigent defense attorneys. The study showed gaps in data collection as well.

With the grant, the county will collect more data throughout the indigent system as well as hire a data analyst. The program includes money for expert witnesses, administrative assistants, training, resource attorneys and social workers who can help with issues external to the courtroom, but have big impacts on what happens at trial,. This could include connecting the accused with housing and mental health assistance.

The extra resources mean that defense attorneys aren’t having to start from scratch each case, that they have mentors and assistance to give indigent defense lawyers a community of expertise.

“To make it a community, to make it a group of individuals working together for a common goal, representing individuals to the best of their ability under the constitutional rights that they're supposed to put forward, I think is a panacea. I think that's the key to everything,” said Rangel.

The plan is supported by the San Antonio Bar association and the San Antonio Criminal Defense Lawyers Association. Chief Public Defender Michael Young said it complemented his office and the data collection would help Commissioners Court accurately compare the two efforts to defend the most needy.

“I think the problem I've had and then what's been frustrating for me is that it's like playing basketball. And we have to keep score, but the other side doesn't,“ he said.

Commissioners have praised Rangel for his continued work, pushing several reforms over the past five years.

“You have ushered in the most heroic criminal justice reform, looking at that bullet of things that have happened in the last couple of years since, frankly, the 1968 Civil Rights Act here in Bexar County,“ said Commissioner Tommy Calvert.

Commissioner Trish DeBerry was more skeptical voicing support but asking for accountability

“It's not enough for us to appropriate the money, you got to come back to us and let us know how are you moving the needle,” she said.

Rangel and other advocates have said they believe the reforms will lead to lower costs in a variety of ways including less people in the county’s jail.

“I think the takeaway is that, there's a chance at least we can improve quality and accountability and transparency,” said Geoff Burkhart, executive director of the Texas Indigent Defense Commission.

The grant would fund the program 80% in the first year and decline through year four.

Rangel said he has already made administrative changes to improve areas identified in Texas A&M’s study, but the grant will make wholesale change possible.

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Paul Flahive can be reached at Paul@tpr.org