ABILENE, Texas (KTAB/KRBC) – Taylor County Commissioners are looking into forming a Rural Regional Public Defenders Office, bringing attorneys from five counties together to address trials backlogged by the pandemic.

During a recent meeting with Taylor County commissioners, attendees discussed how such an office might operate and how they would get it off the ground. In an in-depth interview for Big Country Politics, County Judge Downing Bolls shared more insight into just how badly a shortage of public defenders is crippling the “speedy” part of a fair and speedy trial.

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

Judge Bolls cited two major factors for the public defender shortage:

  1. With a large load of Child Protective Services (CPS) cases and multiple lawyers often needed for a trial, those cases are pulling much of the county’s indigent resources.
  2. As the backlog of cases are CPS related, lawyers are less inclined to take on those difficult cases, on top of a normal workload.

“[The lawyers] have to go and visit with that child before that hearing takes place, and they can’t do it the morning of the hearing,” Judge Bolls said. “Which means they’re having to travel longer distances. And it is so cumbersome now, because if you’ll remember, every child involved has to have their own lawyer.”

If such an office is created, it’s possible new lawyers just entering their careers could be recruited to the Big Country to tackle this growing backlog. Judge Bolls said that effort is more likely to be funded by the State of Texas if alliances among the five proposed counties (Jones, Callahan, Coleman, Shackelford, Taylor) exist. That extra funding is very much needed, Judge Bolls explained, in order for the cost of public defenders to fit into the county’s budget.

“We’re trying to control the cost to the taxpayers,” Judge Bolls said on when commissioners are deciding their budget. “With the CPS backlog and the rest of the backlog, the judges are coming in and saying we need to pay our attorneys more to get them to stay and take these cases.”

As of Tuesday, Judge Bolls said early research indicated the formation of the Rural Regional Public Defenders Office could be completely, or nearly completely, covered by the Texas Indigent Defense Fund. He sited a similar office was already developed in Tom Green County. Along eight counties, the fund has been able to cover the cost of public defenders in Tom Green County.