Four Years in Jail Without Trial: A New Public Defender Office Comes to Hays County, Texas

Erica Bryant Associate Director of Writing
Jul 06, 2023
November of 2022, Cyrus Gray speaks before commissioners for the first time, urging them to follow through on finalizing a contract with Neighborhood Defender Services and finally establish the public defender office.

After Cyrus Gray was arrested and could not afford to pay bail, he received an ominous message from staff at the Hays County Jail in Texas. “They tell you, ‘Get comfortable,’” he said. “’You are going to be here a while.’”

Indeed, Gray spent an unimaginable four and a half years behind bars waiting for trial, a victim of pretrial injustice that has upended the lives of millions of people in the United States. He could not afford an attorney, and Hays County had no public defender office at the time. The court appointed Gray a private lawyer who did not return any of his phone calls.

“I felt more and more helpless,” said Gray, who is now the lead Hays County Jail Advocates jail researcher for the non-profit Mano Amiga. “I really want people to understand, just because you are in jail does not mean you are guilty. Some people are just there because they don’t have the finances to afford bail or an attorney who cares enough to try to win their freedom.”

Hays County made a step toward a fairer pretrial justice system this April when it opened the county’s first public defender’s office. This represented a major victory for Mano Amiga, an advocacy group and Vera partner that led a three-year campaign for the office’s creation.

Many counties across Texas do not have a dedicated public defender’s office, relying instead on county-funded strategies to ensure that poor people have representation in court. A growing body of research suggests that people represented by public defenders have better case outcomes than those represented by appointed counsel, including increased pretrial freedom, shorter sentences, and fewer overall pleas or convictions.

Some people suggest that poor performance by court-appointed counsel can be explained, in part, by their very meager compensation, which can create an incentive for lawyers to take on too many cases. Data from the Texas Indigent Defense Commission shows that many appointed council attorneys are carrying caseloads far surpassing what research shows a lawyer can reasonably handle.

If attorneys are overstretched, the likelihood that they can zealously advocate for each of their clients decreases, including when judges make the first vital decisions about whether, and how, to set money bail. The need for attorneys who will fight for pretrial freedom is clear. As of June 25, 2023, more than 76 percent of the people in the Hays County Jail were being held pretrial. Even a few days in jail is enough to destabilize a person’s life, jeopardizing their employment, custody of their children, and housing. Pretrial detention also makes people more likely to be convicted and serve time—in part because the longer people sit in jail, the more they are incentivized to take a plea, regardless of whether the charges against them would hold up at trial. Pretrial injustice weighs heaviest on people of color, who are more likely to be detained without bail, or granted higher bail amounts.

As of June 25, the median length of stay for people held pretrial in Hays County was 92 days and more than 12 percent of the jail’s population had been held pretrial for more than a year. Thirteen people had been imprisoned waiting for trial for more than three years.

Gray lost his job as a personal trainer while waiting for trial in jail and laments the fact that friends he made there lost time with their young children. “When you are found innocent, you don’t get that time back,” he said. “They just send you a bill for court fees.”

On average, the jail sees less than one attorney visit per incarcerated person per year, according to Vera analysis. While in fiscal year 2021 Hays County spent only $1.7 million on indigent defense, the 2021 budget for the county’s district attorney was $5.8 million, with staff salaries totaling $4 million.

“There has been continued investment in overincarceration and not nearly enough in representation,” said Eric Martinez, executive and policy director of Mano Amiga, which fights for criminal legal system reforms in Central Texas. “There is a culture of deprivation on the defense side.”

In November 2022, Hays County Commissioners approved a five million dollar multiyear contract for the public defender office. Seeded with funding from the American Rescue Plan Act, Hays County’s new public defender office supplements the county’s existing system of assigning court-appointed private attorneys to people who can’t afford to pay for their own legal defense.

Hays County’s public defender office will eventually be staffed by salaried criminal defense attorneys, as well as social workers, client advocates, and investigators. It will follow a holistic model, meaning that staff will try to help clients address the underlying causes of contact with the criminal legal system, including poverty, mental illness, and substance use. They will also help clients deal with the collateral consequences of criminalization, including loss of housing, employment, and child custody, as well as immigration status issues. With teams of people working to ensure people’s rights are protected, fewer people will be detained just because they are too poor to pay bail and cases will be processed more fairly and quickly.

“It takes a team to ensure that people’s rights and interests are protected in an unjust criminal legal system,” said Shannon Anglero, the chief advancement officer for Neighborhood Defender Service, which will run the Hays County public defender office.

Hays County’s next priority is establishing a pretrial services office so that more people can receive support before trial and judges can be further encouraged to reduce their use of money bail.

The Constitution guarantees the right to legal representation in criminal proceedings, to due process, to a speedy trial, and to freedom from excessive bail and cruel and unusual punishment. People without resources often see these rights trampled upon, because of a money bail system that punishes people for being poor and because of an overburdened criminal legal system that relies on plea bargains.

Establishing a public defender office is an important first step toward a pretrial justice system that fulfills the promises of the Constitution. More municipalities must follow the lead of Hays County and invest in infrastructure that protects people’s rights, no matter how much money they have in their pockets.