AMARILLO, Texas (KAMR / KCIT) – Potter County Judge Nancy Tanner said on Monday 510 people were in Potter County Jail. With the implementation of the county’s new indigent advocacy program, Tanner hopes anyone in jail who does not have access to a lawyer will soon be able to have one.
“Of the 510, a large percentage of them will not be able to hire a lawyer,” she said. “It will help them get the lawyer they need, get the representation they need, deal with what they did or didn’t do, get them out of jail and get them back to their normal life. ”
After years of work and many potential iterations of the program, the Potter County Commissioners Court approved the establishment of a County-led Indigent Advocacy Program for Potter County and Armstrong County. at the regular meeting on Monday. According to a county memo, the program will award the allocation of felony, misdemeanor, appeals and juvenile cases referred from the courts that are of indigent status.
It comes after the county received an assessment from the Sixth Amendment Center, which highlighted some issues with the county’s current indigent advocacy program, which included access to a lawyer, as well as oversight and independence issues. organizational.
During Monday’s meeting, the court adopted the plan for the program itself, as well as a set of regulations that the Potter County / Armstrong / Managed Assigned Counselor Oversight Council will follow. The court also approved a first group of nine members of the initial supervisory board.
The nine members of the initial supervisory board are:
- Judge John’s counsel
- Armstrong County Commissioner Adam Ensey
- Lawyer Amanda Mayfield
- Community representative Brenda Gonzales Taylor
- Community representative Claudia Stuart
- Lawyer Jarrett Johnston
- Community Representative Joe Morris
- Lawyer Bonnie Gundon
- Community Representative Pastor BF Roberts
An advisory committee had been working on a plan to fix these problems in the system for years, said John Kiehl, director of regional services at the Panhandle Regional Planning Commission. The committee’s work resulted in the approved final plan for the system.
Doug Woodburn, a judge with the 108th Potter County District Court, saw firsthand these issues highlighted by the Sixth Amendment Center report, with his court receiving 80 to 100 new indictments per month.
“The Potter County District Judges realized that we had fewer and fewer lawyers willing to accept appointments in major cases: first degree crimes like murder, kidnapping, that sort of thing, and second degree crimes, which are also very serious. This type of case can range from two years in penitentiary to life imprisonment. You really need quality lawyers to take care of that, ”said Woodburn. “We used to have many lawyers ready to take on court appointed cases, but these lawyers have shrunk and aged a lot. We just recognize the dire need for additional lawyers to handle the case numbers we have. ”
The goal of the public defenders portion of the program is to attract “qualified lawyers – locally and from other geographies – to replenish the shrinking pool of volunteer lawyers” willing to participate in the public defenders office, according to the memo. . The nominated lawyers branch managed by the program will work in conjunction with the public defenders part, relieving “the first instance courts of administrative burdens related to the allocation, monitoring and review of payment receipts for nominated lawyers” . The program also establishes a scholarship program, giving young lawyers the opportunity to participate in a two-year paid internship, recruiting them from the region.
To help fund this new county-run indigent advocacy system, Kiehl said it would be funded 50% by a grant from the Texas Indigent Defense Corporation (TDIC) for the first four years of its existence. Officials predict that the program will cost $ 1,513,519.00 in fiscal year 2021-2022 and increase to $ 1,938,703.00 in fiscal year 2022-2023.
The county will cover the remaining 50% of the funds in the program’s first four years, Kiehl said. After these first four years, the county will be responsible for all costs.
Although the program will cost money, Kiehl believes it is a necessity for Potter and Armstrong counties.
“I think the county will find it more advantageous than costly. I think that will build a good rapport with the community, ”Kiehl said. “The county is doing the right thing and it knows it. It is a difficult thing for them to do because they will spend more money on it. It’s a tough commitment to make, but they’re doing the right thing.
After years of discussions around this program, Tanner said she was happy the process was over and the county had a defined plan for the issues the county has faced for years.
“It will be a good thing for the county,” she said. “The people in our prison need a representation that will take them out and bring them back to their normal way of life. It is a good thing for the county. I think it will last a long time.
Woodburn also said he was happy with the plan and his position.
“I am very happy that we were able to develop this plan,” he said. “I think it will be good for citizens and people accused of crimes. They need and deserve very good representation.
Monday’s vote was an important step in the process of that program, Kiehl said. But once one stage of a race ends, the other begins.
“My message to them, for all it’s worth, is congratulations,” Kiehl said. “I think they did a good thing here. I hope that in the years to come they will appreciate the work that they have done and the work that the advisory committee has done because I think it is going to be good for the criminal justice system here and I hope eventually too .
But even with the potential impact this needy new defense system will have on Potter and Armstrong counties, Kiehl sees the potential for it to impact the rest of the 26 counties in the Texas Panhandle.
“Everyone feeds on the same pool of avocados in this region,” he said. “They’re all pretty well stretched. It would be nice, at some point, if the system that is being created today could be extended to serve an even larger area, because I think it could bring benefits to a larger area as well.