• December 27, 2014

Coryell officials may tap state for more indigent defense legal help

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Posted: Saturday, March 15, 2014 11:00 pm

GATESVILLE — Coryell County commissioners are weighing the benefits of applying for a second year of state funding to provide legal services for indigent defendants.

Commissioners have until May to apply for about $93,000 through a multiyear discretionary grant from the Texas Indigent Defense Commission. The county approved the grant last year and set up a new department to manage pretrial services for indigents.

During their regular meeting last week, commissioners got mixed signals on how the program is working after its first year.

In his annual report, pretrial services director Michael Hull told commissioners his office avoided hundreds of thousands of dollars in costs by bonding defendants who would otherwise be in jail.

Hull’s cost-avoidance analysis drew a quick rebuttal from County Attorney Brandon Belt, who called the calculations “distorted.” Sheriff Johnny Burks also said the cost figures Hull used in the analysis were inaccurate.

Hull said that based on a daily cost of $57 per inmate in the Coryell County jail, the county avoided more than $800,000 through indigent bonds. Burks said the daily cost figure for the Coryell jail is $48 per inmate.

“I don’t know where that (higher) figure came from,” Burks said.

Using the daily cost of $45 per inmate for the Milam County jail, where Coryell inmates are sometimes housed due to overcrowding, Hull said the county would have saved more than $600,000 last year.

Burks said that number, too, was inaccurate because the Milam cost is $43 per inmate per day.

Aside from the cost figures, Belt took issue with Hull’s assumption that a defendant’s average time on bond — 86 days — would equal his jail stay.

“If (a defendant) is sitting in jail, that case is resolved in two weeks, not 86 days,” Belt said.

Hull said his office usually does not release defendants charged with “assaultive offenses” — such as felony assault, burglary, family violence and driving while intoxicated — without approval of a judge or prosecutor. Defendants in only 34 such cases were released last year.

Belt said Hull should spend more time on those “top end” cases and less time on “bottom end” cases — such as driving while license is invalid, possession of small amounts of marijuana, trespassing and minor thefts. Hull’s office handled 116 such cases last year.

Hull agreed that weekly drug testing for a defendant charged with possession of a small amount of marijuana “is a waste of time,” but said such monitoring is often requested by the justice of the peace.

“Mr. Hull needs to tell the JPs ‘no,’” Belt said. “I can help him say ‘no’ on these low-level cases that don’t need supervision.”

Belt questioned whether many driving with invalid license cases required an arrest much less pretrial supervision.

“The unintended consequence is delaying the process for some cases,” Belt said. “This is costing us time and money rather than saving time and money.”

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