In late October, Travis County Judge Sarah Eckhardt and the Commissioners Court pulled together 14 people with varied legal backgrounds and directed them to come up with ways to improve the quality of representation for poor people charged with crimes. Enhancing indigent defense, Eckhardt has stated, is perhaps the biggest constitutional responsibility lawmakers in the county face.

But the people tasked with identifying solutions butted heads and failed to make meaningful progress, according to several members of the group who spoke with the American-Statesman. Practicing lawyers have clashed with nonlawyer group members over the best direction for bolstering indigent defense and key players have withdrawn because they said they felt disrespected by other members.

At stake is $12 million to $15 million in state funding for the creation of a public defender's office if the county misses a March 11 grant deadline.

Andy Casey, a local defense attorney who heads the Austin Criminal Defense Lawyers Association, said last week he believes there is "zero chance" the group will unify in time to file the paperwork with the Texas Indigent Defense Commission. Casey, whose association pulled out of the group three weeks ago amid differences with nonlawyers, called the legal conglomeration that the commissioners put together "a huge mess right now."

Among the differences between the group's current and former members is how the courts should go about assigning cases to attorneys who represent poor defendants. The consensus among the lawyers in the group is that the county would be best served by continuing to develop the fledgling Capital Area Private Defender Service, which launched in 2015 and assigns cases to lawyers — a role that criminal court judges were previously tasked with. Many of the lawyers say they are not opposed to a public defender's office, but fear the county would not be able to fund it properly.

The other members in the group have made it known they'd prefer to diminish the private defender service's role and create a public defender's office that would handle 30 percent of misdemeanor and felony cases. One benefit, they say, is that lawyers would be held more accountable for their performance through increased managerial oversight from the new office. The county currently has small public defender's offices for juvenile defendants and defendants with qualifying mental health issues.

Rebecca Sanchez, a member of the working group who specializes in development and visual projects with the nonprofit Grassroots Leadership, confirmed the discord and said defense lawyers have belittled her views and those of other group members because they do not practice law.

The attorneys "fail to realize that some people live in the trenches and are never able to escape when they clock out," she said.

The group's chair, Amanda Woog, of the Texas Fair Defense Project, also criticized the lawyers in the group. "When you're trying to make really big changes to a system, you inevitably meet resistance from people who are currently working in that system," she said.

Defense lawyer Krista Chacona, who resigned from the group last month, made her own accusations about people like Woog and Sanchez, who she said did not respect the attorneys' recommendations.

"It became so toxic because they never wanted us there and attacked any contribution we tried to make," she said.

The hostilities prompted Eckhardt to play peacemaker.

"Let's try to not throw each other under the bus because we're going to need everybody," she said at the Feb. 19 Commissioners Court meeting.

The competing sides agree on at least one thing: Any improvements will cost more money than Travis County historically has been willing to spend. The county spends $34.8 million annually to prosecute indigent adults, but it spends less than half of that amount — $13.5 million — to defend them.

And there's no easy solution, Eckhardt said. With state lawmakers pushing for a property tax revenue cap in the legislative session, the imbalance is likely to remain.

Poor people in jail

The county's concerns over the quality of indigent defense first arose last spring with the release of a study that showed defendants charged with state jail felonies for drug possession with an appointed attorney received significantly worse outcomes in their cases than defendants who hired an attorney to represent them. Among the highlights: Eighty-eight percent of defendants with a court-appointed attorney went to jail, compared with 58 percent of defendants who hired their lawyer.

Alarmed by the disparity, Eckhardt set out to find solutions and helped form the working group. Its charge, she advised, was threefold: Explore the feasibility of creating a public defender's office that would handle some cases involving indigent defendants, make improvements to the private defender service so that it can effectively litigate the remaining cases and boost the pay for lawyers who represent these defendants.

The commissioners decided the group would be composed of five defense lawyers, four people who had been incarcerated or were close to someone who had been, three people from community organizations, a University of Texas Law lecturer and another defense lawyer in the role of contrarian.

Signs of a fissure were first noticeable in late January when Chacona resigned from her position in the group. In her resignation letter, Chacona, who was representing the Austin Criminal Defense Lawyers Association's interests, accused nonpracticing lawyers of visiting indigent people in jail to solicit negative opinions about their defense attorneys.

Within days, lawyers association followed Chacona's lead and pulled out of the group with a sharply worded resignation letter.

"We sent you busy, experienced practitioners prepared to have serious discussions about proper caseloads, staffing and culture," the letter said. "Instead our members were disregarded, discounted, and vilified by non-legal activists lacking the technical expertise and experience necessary to build a legal services organization; and who prefer reckless stunts that jeopardize the community they are fighting to protect over civil discourse."

Eckhardt said she believed all along that the group had too many members to function properly, but that the county commissioners insisted on a wide cross-section of the legal community.

"I believed then and I believe now that there were too many cooks, and we were never going to produce a stew that would taste good enough to move this forward as quickly as I'd like," she said. "That was the choice of the Commissioners Court; they chose to put a lot of seats at the table."

Some defense lawyers say the study Eckhardt cited for wanting to retool indigent defense is misleading. In general, they say, a defendant with the money to hire a lawyer on a drug case is more commonly released from jail on bond, which puts them in a position to receive a lighter sentence through a treatment plan ahead of the disposition of their case. Likewise, they say, people with money for a lawyer also are more likely to be first-time offenders or have a minimal criminal history.

"People who retain their counsel are often steadily employed and have a low criminal history," defense attorney Keith Lauerman said.

Judges' approval

Meanwhile, the county's 15 criminal court judges have watched the group's discord unfold from the sidelines after declining an early invitation to participate in it. Their concern, according to presiding Judge Brenda Kennedy, was the involvement of community groups.

"They weren't people you bring to the table to develop a plan," she said.

For the county to land the state grant, at least one of the judges must approve the required paperwork. None are interested in doing so, Kennedy said. In a letter dated Feb. 5, Kennedy called the initial draft that the working group submitted for review "glaringly inadequate."

Kennedy, who presides over all criminal courts and often speaks publicly on behalf of her peers, told the Statesman that she viewed the proposal as a "trust me kind of thing" that lacked specifics, such as where the county would find office space for the public defender and how the county would come up with the $1.4 million it needs to match the state funds in the first year of the four-year grant.

Woog, the group's leader, responded last week that the $1.4 million does not require additional funding and would not be taken from existing indigent defense funds. The county's spending toward a public defender's office would increase by 20 percent each year of the grant until it is fully funded in its fifth year.

Early budget forecasts have the county increasing indigent defense spending by roughly $2 million in 2020 to cover anticipated cost increases.

Undeterred by the acrimony that has undermined her goal to improve indigent defense, Eckhardt said she has been speaking with many of the group members in hopes of getting them to agree on the phrasing of the letter of intent for the grant. She hopes to get it done by the time the Commissioners Court meets Tuesday. Then, with approval from at least one judge, the county would submit the paperwork to the state before the March 11 deadline.

"If we don't meet this deadline, it does not mean a public defender's office is dead in Travis County," Eckhardt said. "It just means we didn't make this deadline."