Advocacy Groups Demand Tangible Plan for Legal Defense at Bail Hearings

Short test run of the program didn’t cut it, they say

Travis County’s test run of having counsel present at bail hearings (Screenshot via Zoom / Travis County Jail)

The call for Travis County to implement 24/7/365 legal counsel for detainees at first bail hearings grows louder.

The Austin Justice Coalition, alongside other advocacy groups like Texas Civil Rights Project and Grassroots Leadership, is demanding county leaders fully enact Counsel at First Appearance (CAFA). In April, the county attempted two eight-hour shifts using CAFA, which served less than 1% of the jail population. Advocates say the limited-time test run failed to both gather sufficient data and result in a concrete plan towards using CAFA full-time.

The Sixth Amendment protects citizens during criminal prosecutions, giving them the right to legal representation during hearings. However, as of right now, when individuals in Travis County meet with a magistrate judge to receive the details of their bail and release, they do so alone. Courts haven’t determined yet whether this is a constitutional rights violation, but an ACLU lawsuit against the county aims to solidify that the right to counsel kicks in even in pretrial hearings including bail hearings.

The consequences of having no lawyer present for these bail hearings are far-reaching. Bails in Travis County tend to be expensive, forcing some arrestees to choose jail time over having to pay the fee. This overcrowds the jails, an issue Alycia Castillo at the Texas Civil Rights Project claims is a statewide crisis.

“We’re calling on County leaders to recognize the urgency of this moment and take decisive action to promote public safety by implementing safe, evidence-based practices that keep residents from needlessly languishing in jail,” Castillo said in an Austin Justice Coalition press release.

Research shows that CAFA produces more favorable results for criminal defendants and can shorten jail time, which could in turn alleviate the risk of a defendant getting fired from their job, losing custody of their children, or having critical evidence discarded or tampered with.

“Grassroots Leadership wants nothing less than in-person representation, with a holistic component that factors in the complex challenges all those who face criminal allegations have to address. These are innocent people until proven guilty and deserve every constitutional right afforded every citizen with or without means at their disposal,” said Robert Lilly, a criminal justice defense organizer with Grassroot Leadership.

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