'Game changer': Bexar County hopes new public defense system will improve criminal justice in 2022 – San Antonio Express-News

Judge Ron Rangel said creation of a new Managed Assigned Counsel Department, as provided under a 2011 state law and with the help of a $3.4 million grant, will protect poor and low-income defendants, provide more resources for defense lawyers, relieve judges of unnecessary administrative tasks, save taxpayers on jail costs and make Bexar County a safer community.
Judge Ron Rangel has assured Bexar County commissioners that creation of a new Managed Assigned Counsel Department, as provided under a 2011 state law and with the help of a $3.4 million grant, will be a “complete game-changer” for the county’s indigent defense system.
Bexar County Chief Public Defender Michael Young said he welcomes a new system that pairs private defense attorneys with the Public Defender’s Office as a unified system to ensure that low-income defendants are treated fairly.
Jim Bethke, former executive director of the Texas Indigent Defense Commission, will lead the new Bexar County Managed Assigned Counsel Department as its program manager.
A new program that will oversee indigent defense in Bexar County and replace a disjointed system of private court-appointed attorneys will start in January.
Bexar County’s Managed Assigned Counsel Department is the product of several years of work to reduce crowding in the jail and make San Antonio a safer community, with fewer people falling into a cycle of criminal activity.
Funded partly with a state grant, the new “MAC” division will be coupled with the 16-year-old Public Defender’s Office as a unified system to ensure defendants get fair representation.
It replaces a system that has run into problems for years, including a lack of resources and low flat-fee structures that give lawyers little incentive to help clients. MAC will track data on costs and case outcomes among private attorneys and compare it with results from public defenders.
“Because they’re two different systems, they each should have advantages in different ways. To be able to study that and know why one system seems to be more effective allows us to figure out ways to improve both systems,” said District Judge Ron Rangel, administrative judge of the state district courts.
“Hopefully, the transparency then turns into community confidence in the system, which is a win-win for everybody,” he said.
On ExpressNews.com: County secures $3.4 million indigent defense grant
Bexar County commissioners recently approved $1.8 million in first-year startup costs and appointed Jim Bethke as program director.
Rangel introduced Bethke as “the father of the MAC system in Texas,” having seen it used in San Mateo County, Calif., in 2008 and replicated in Lubbock, Collin, Travis and Harris counties. He was selected by an oversight board comprising legal experts and community members.
Bethke, who holds a doctor of jurisprudence from Texas Tech University School of Law, was executive director of the Texas Indigent Defense Commission from 2002 to 2017 and has been Harris County’s director of justice administration since 2019. He said he looked forward to moving to San Antonio and establishing “unified defense delivery” as a “crown jewel” in Bexar County’s justice system.
“There’s been a lot of success. There’s been a lot of improvement dealing with the delivery of the indigent defense services,” he told commissioners.
The first MAC system in Texas was formed in Lubbock County in 2009, and the Legislature passed a law in 2011 enabling other counties to establish similar programs. A mental health-managed counsel system in Collin County, near Dallas, has been credited with reducing jail costs in its first two years — $176,000 in 2013 and $630,000 in 2014, according to a 2017 report by the Indigent Defense Commission.
That commission is giving Bexar County a five-year, $3.4 million grant to initiate the program. The grant provides 80 percent of first-year costs, with the county pitching in $372,577. The local share of program costs will rise by 20 percent each year, reaching the total amount in the fifth year.
Along with the pressure to reduce jail overtime staffing costs of $13.3 million in fiscal year 2021, county officials hope to avoid high-profile deaths at the detention facility. The deaths in December 2018 and April 2019 of two inmates with a history of mental illness — Janice Dotson-Stephens, 61, and Jack Michael Ule, 63, both incarcerated on misdemeanor trespassing charges — put a spotlight on the need for better representation for those who can least afford it.
Critics of the current system have said too many private lawyers take on more cases than they can handle, leaving clients languishing in jail. The county spent more than $15 million on indigent defense in 2019 without any oversight that the new managed system will provide, Rangel said.
The new system seeks to address flaws outlined in a 2020 report by Texas A&M University’s Public Policy Research Institute. The study found that Bexar County spent the least amount per indigent defense case among the five largest Texas counties in 2019 — $356 per case compared with $494 in Travis County, the next-lowest. Harris County had the highest, at $890, followed by $689 in Dallas County and $654 in Tarrant County.
The San Antonio Bar and San Antonio Criminal Defense Lawyers associations have supported the new program, which also has the backing of the Commissioners Court. But Bexar County Judge Nelson Wolff said it’s critical to physically position the new 16-member department near the Public Defender’s Office, which recently was expanded by five positions to 30 attorneys and six support staff members.
“You want to give every defendant a proper representation, but you don’t want to leave him sitting in the jail for a year — and that happens,” said Wolff, who has made restorative justice one of the pillars of his 20-year tenure as the county’s top elected official.
Bethke vowed to “give it 100 percent” and set up the office in a “fiscally responsible way.” Michael Young, the county’s chief public defender, said he welcomes Bethke’s expertise.
“He’s seen what works and what doesn’t work. And he can bring all that here to Bexar County,” Young told commissioners.
Commissioner Trish DeBerry, focused in her first term on slashing jail costs, has made it clear she’s less interested in hype than documented results.
“I’m going to be hard on you guys when it comes to budget and how you’re moving the needle,” she said. “We’ve appropriated money, but I want to know what you’re doing to make it work.”
On ExpressNews.com: County may create system to handle indigent defense cases
Rangel assured commissioners the system will be “a complete game-changer.” County Manager David Smith predicted “an exciting couple of years” as the new division and Public Defender’s Office work in tandem to fix deficiencies.
Judges and lawyers also will benefit, Rangel said. The new department will be staffed with senior attorneys to offer advice, along with an immigration lawyer and social workers. Requests from defense attorneys for expenses for an immigration lawyer or an investigator currently are subject to a judge’s approval and often delay the legal process.
Defense lawyers will be able to consult attorneys and legal experts on the staff when relations with a client get strained, Rangel said.
“It’s a tough position to put a judge in when there’s a client that says, ‘My attorney is failing in their duties,’” he said. “That puts a judge in a position of having to investigate why there’s an attorney-client issue when a judge should be completely unbiased, completely unknowing about the relationship. What the MAC does, it allows the opportunity to resolve issues between attorney and clients, removing the judge from doing that.”
The county will seek applicants for two senior attorney positions and an office manager, Rangel said. The department is on track to start work in January with a focus on misdemeanors. It is expected to be fully operational by late summer.
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Scott Huddleston is a veteran staff writer, covering Bexar County government, local history, preservation and the Alamo. He has been a reporter at the Express-News since 1985, covering a variety of issues, including public safety, criminal justice, flooding, transportation, military, water and the environment. He is a native Texan and longtime San Antonian. 

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