By Andy Ross
Killeen Daily Herald
A new program focused on training and evaluating attorneys who provide legal services for indigent defendants will soon operate in Bell County thanks to a $285,000 grant.
Earlier this month, the Texas Task Force on Indigent Defense announced Bell County was one of five counties that will be awarded discretionary grants to implement specific programs related to indigent defense work.
The program - developed by Bell County's pre-trial services department along with input from local judges - is only the latest example of initiative being taken to improve legal help for the poor, said Wesley Shackelford, the task force's deputy director/special counsel.
"There are a relatively small number of counties that have really aggressively pursued new and innovative ways to improve the process, and Bell County is certainly in that group," Shackelford said Thursday.
The Texas Task Force on Indigent Defense was created through legislative action in 2001 and functions as an arm of the Texas Judicial Council. Each year, the task force allocates millions of dollars in formula grants to help counties offset legal costs for the poor.
The task force also awards discretionary grants intended for targeted programs that are pitched by local governments.
Since 2001, Bell County has received more than $1.5 million in formula grants. Last year, the county also received a discretionary award of $397,000 to implement a new software program.
The most recent grant will fund a program that provides orientation for court-appointed attorneys and information on working with defendants who are veterans or suffering from mental health issues. The county is awaiting word on a third discretionary grant that would be used specifically for mentally ill, indigent defendants.
Linda Ingraham, director of Bell County's pre-trial services department, said the software program and the new training system for attorneys are unique.
"This is a first for Texas, which is why the task force is so excited," Ingraham said. "When you develop anything like this, it has to be where it can be shared with other counties."
Due to the shortfall facing the state, an $8.6 million cut to the Texas Task Force on Indigent Defense has been proposed for the next biennium. Shackelford said, however, that he is "optimistic" about a budget amendment pending in the Legislature that would restore the bulk of the funding.
Contact Andy Ross at email@example.com or (254) 501-7468.