Potter County Commissioners’ Court officially establishes new, county-led, indigent defense system

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AMARILLO, Texas (KAMR/KCIT) — As of Monday, Potter County Judge Nancy Tanner said 510 individuals were in the Potter County Jail. With the implementation of the county’s new indigent defense program, Tanner’s hope is that everyone in the jail who do not have access to an attorney will soon be able to have access to one. 

“Out of the 510, a big percentage of those will not be able to hire an attorney,” she said. “This will help them get the attorney they need, get the representation they need, to face what they have done, or not done, and get them out of jail and get them back to their normal life.” 

After years of work, and numerous potential iterations of the program, the Potter County Commissioners’ Court approved the establishment of a county-led indigent defense program for both Potter County and Armstrong County during Monday’s regular meeting. According to a memo from the county, the program will allocate the assignment of felony, misdemeanor, appellate, and juvenile cases referred by the courts that are of indigent status. 

This comes after the county received an assessment from the Sixth Amendment Center, which outlined some issues with the county’s current indigent defense program, which included access to counsel, as well as oversight and organizational independence problems. 

During Monday’s meeting, the court passed the plan for the program itself, as well as a set of bylaws which the Potter/Armstrong County Public Defender/Managed Assigned Counsel Oversight Board will follow. The court also approved an initial set of nine members of the initial oversight board. 

The nine members of the initial oversight board are:

  • Judge John Board
  • Armstrong County Commissioner Adam Ensey
  • Attorney Amanda Mayfield
  • Community Representative Brenda Gonzales Taylor
  • Community Representative Claudia Stuart
  • Attorney Jarrett Johnston
  • Community Representative Joe Morris
  • Attorney Bonnie Gundon
  • Community Representative Pastor B F Roberts

An advisory committee was working on a plan to address those issues in the system for years, John Kiehl, the regional services director at the Panhandle Regional Planning Commission, said. The committee’s work culminated in the final approved plan for the system.

Doug Woodburn, a judge in the 108th District Court in Potter County, could see those issues highlighted by the Sixth Amendment Center’s report first hand, with his court receiving 80-100 new indictments per month. 

“The district judges in Potter County realized that we were running fewer and fewer attorneys willing to accept appointment to major cases: first degree felonies like murder, kidnapping, that sort of thing, and second-degree felonies, which are very serious as well. Those kinds of cases carry anywhere from two years in the penitentiary to life in prison. It takes really quality lawyers to take care of that,” Woodburn said. “We used to have many many lawyers that were willing to accept court-appointed cases, but those lawyers have dwindled as well as aged quite a bit. We just recognize the terrible need for additional attorneys to handle the case numbers that we have.” 

The goal for the public defenders’ portion of the program is to attract “qualified lawyers — locally and from other geographical areas—to replenish the diminishing pool of willing lawyers” willing to participate in the public defenders’ office, according to the memo. The managed assigned counsel arm of the program will operate in conjunction with the public defenders’ portion, relieving “ the trial courts of the administrative burdens of assigning, monitoring, and reviewing payment vouchers for, assigned counsel.” The program also establishes a fellowship program, giving young lawyers the opportunity to participate in a two-year paid internship, recruiting them to the area. 

To help pay for this new county-led indigent defense system, Kiehl said it will be 50% funded by a grant from the Texas Indigent Defense Corporation (TDIC) for the first four years of its existence. Officials expect the program will cost $1,513,519.00 in the 2021-22 fiscal year and increase to $1,938,703.00 in the 2022-23 fiscal year. 

The county will cover the remaining 50% of the funds during the first four years of the program, Kiehl said. After those initial four years, the county will be responsible for the whole cost. 

While the program is going to cost some money, Kiehl believes it is a necessity for both Potter and Armstrong counties.

“I think the county is going to find that it’s more beneficial than costly. I think it’s going to build some good community rapport,” Kiehl said. “The county is doing the right thing and they know it. It’s a hard thing for them to do because they are going to be spending more money on this. That’s a hard commitment to make, but they are doing the right thing.” 

After years of talk surrounding this program, Tanner said she is glad the process is over and that the county has a set 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 jail need some representation that will get them out and get them back to their normal way of living. This is a good thing for the county. I think it will last a long time.” 

Woodburn also said he is happy with the plan and where it stands. 

“I’m very happy that we’ve been able to come up with this plan,” he said. “I think it will be good for the citizens, and those people accused of crimes. They need, and deserve, very good representation.” 

Monday’s vote served as a milestone in the process for this program, Kiehl said. But once one leg of a race ends, the other one begins. 

“My message to them, for whatever it’s worth, is congratulations,” Kiehl said. “I think they have done a good thing here. I hope that in the years to come, they come to appreciate the work that they have done and the work that the advisory committee has done because I think it’s going to be good for the criminal justice system here and I hope eventually too.” 

But even with the potential impact this new indigent defense system will have on Potter and Armstrong counties, Kiehl sees the potential for it to impact the rest of the 26 counties within the Texas Panhandle. 

“Everybody feeds off the same pool of lawyers in this region,” he said. “They’re all pretty well stretched thin. It would be nice, at some point in time, the system that’s being created today could be expanded to serve an even wider area because I think it could provide benefits to a wider area too.” 

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