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The University Star

The Student News Site of Texas State University

The University Star

The Student News Site of Texas State University

The University Star

PDO aims to bring equity, justice to county

Ryan Claycamp
The front of Courtroom 7, Friday, Sept. 15, 2023, at Hays County Government Center in San Marcos.

After years of planning and advocacy, the Hays County Public Defender’s Office (PDO) opened its doors in March 2023 and began taking cases.

PDOs are law offices that provide indigent defense, or legal defenses for defendants in criminal cases who can not afford an attorney.

The contract for a PDO in Hays County was awarded to the New York based company Neighborhood Defender Service (NDS) in November 2022. 

Mano Amiga, an advocacy group which seeks to reform the justice system in Hays County, has been advocating for the creation of a PDO for years to address issues with the indigent defense system already in place.

“It took over four years of advocacy,” Sam Benavides, the communications manager for Mano Amiga said.”[It was] a really long drawn out battle, but the doors are now open.” 

According to James Hohl, the supervising attorney for NDS in Hays County, the PDO is helping around 260 clients and has taken 530 cases since March 28. 

Although the public reaction to the PDO has been mostly positive, Hays County District Attorney Kelly Higgins, who served as a defense attorney for two decades before becoming a prosecutor, is wary of how successful the office has truly been.

“The reason to have [a PDO] is so that they’re available all the time to take cases,” Higgins said. “However, when they came in, they put limitations on the number of cases they would take, I have not found them helpful in reducing the jail population.”

Meagan Walters

Hohl said his office now handles roughly a quarter of all the criminal cases in Hays County, but there are still other attorneys working indigent defense.

According to Hohl, there are a few types of cases his office does not take.

“We handle everything except for a capital charge, where they would seek the death penalty and we don’t handle appeals,” Hohl said. “We handle [everything else] from a Class B misdemeanor to a first degree felony.” 

According to Higgins, indigent defense cases are assigned by the local Indigent Defense Coordinator based on a wheel or list of attorneys.

Before the creation of the PDO, many of the attorneys on the wheel often handled a workload higher than recommended by state guidelines, which sometimes led to delays in cases.

“[Before] you had one court appointed attorney that didn’t have the bandwidth to address your case and now you can completely get it addressed in a more holistic way,” Hays County Judge Ruben Becerra said. 

Hohl said making sure the attorneys at the PDO stay at or under the Texas Indigent Defense Comission’s guidelines workload recommendation is one of the main goals of his office.

“It’s something that we constantly monitor, we’re always aware of it and we are in contact with the Indigent Defense Coordinator in Hays County often,” Hohl said.

In the past, there have been complaints about indigent defense counsel in Hays County taking too long to communicate with their clients. While Hohl has no control over the indigent defense attorneys outside of his office, he said timely communication with his office’s clients is one of his largest priorities. 

“We immediately send out written correspondence when we get appointed, then we attempt to make either in person, phone, or remote contact as soon as possible,” Hohl said.

Hohl said there were a couple challenges in opening the PDO, but his office has overcome them and looks forward to continuing to serve the people of Hays County in the future.

“I think you run into challenges anytime you’re establishing a brand new office anywhere,” Hohl said. “I think just in general, we’re happy to be here as an organization and a community partner. We’ve had a chance to do some good work and we look forward to continuing to do good things.”

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