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Taylor County commissioners ponder solutions to public defender shortage

ABILENE, Texas (KTAB/KRBC) – Taylor County commissioners are considering creating a regional office of rural public defenders, bringing together attorneys from five counties to handle trials that are backlogged because of the pandemic.

At a recent meeting with Taylor County commissioners, attendees discussed how such an office could work and how they would get it off the ground. In depth interview for Politics of the great country, County Judge Downing Bolls explained how a shortage of public defenders was crippling the “quick” part of a fair and speedy trial.

“COVID was so bad in so many ways, but the backlog of cases – we have people who have just been sitting in jail waiting for their case to be heard and they can’t,” Judge Bolls explained. “We have about 18 to 24 months of trials ready to go now.”

Judge Bolls cited two major factors in the shortage of public defenders:

  1. With a heavy load of Child Protective Services (CPS) cases and multiple attorneys often needed for a trial, these cases draw much of the county’s needy resources.
  2. As the backlog of cases is linked to the CPS, lawyers are less inclined to take on these difficult cases, in addition to a normal workload.

“[The lawyers] have to go visit that child before the hearing takes place, and they cannot do so on the morning of the hearing,” Judge Bolls said. “Which means they have to travel longer distances. And it’s so cumbersome now, because if you remember, each child involved has to have their own lawyer.

If such an office is created, it is possible that new lawyers starting their careers will be recruited from across the Big Country to tackle this growing backlog. Judge Bolls said the effort is more likely to be funded by the state of Texas if there are alliances among the five proposed counties (Jones, Callahan, Coleman, Shackelford, Taylor). This additional funding is essential, Justice Bolls explained, to bring the cost of public defenders into the county budget.

‘We are trying to control the cost to taxpayers,’ Judge Bolls said when commissioners decide their budget. “With the CPS backlog and the rest of the backlog, the judges are coming in and saying we have to pay our lawyers more to stay and take on these cases.”

On Tuesday, Judge Bolls said early research indicates that training for the Regional Office of Rural Public Defenders may be fully or nearly fully covered by the Texas Indigent Defense Fund. He located a similar office already developed in Tom Green County. Along eight counties, the fund was able to cover the cost of Tom Green County’s public defenders.

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