Travis County Mental Health Public Defender Office to Open in 2007
December 1, 2006
Travis County's new Mental Health Public Defender (MHPD) Office is scheduled to open in early 2007. Although Texas' major metropolitan counties of El Paso and Dallas have mental health units within their public defender offices, Travis County will have the first stand-alone mental health public defender office in the nation.
Through grant funding from the Hogg Foundation, Texas Appleseed spearheaded advocacy efforts to establish the MHPD Office and supported Travis County in the creation of a separate mental health appointment wheel. Texas Appleseed, a nonprofit organization, assists consumers and attorneys address the needs of defendants with mental illness as part of their fair defense work.
The new MHPD Office will consist of attorneys, social workers, case workers and administrative support staff who will work together to provide their clients holistic representation, which includes not only a quality legal defense, but also help accessing social services and community-based mental health services. Social workers and case workers can better monitor offenders diverted to treatment and assist them in finding jobs and social services.
Currently, 10 attorneys on the Travis County Mental Health Appointment Wheel represent indigent offenders charged with misdemeanors who have a mental illness. When the MHPD Office opens, the two MHPD Office attorneys will assume part of the Wheel's misdemeanor caseload.
The county and the MHPD oversight committee are in the process of reviewing bids to run the MHPD Office, submitted in response to a Request for Proposals (RFP) posted by Travis County, said Deborah Fowler, who is the legal director for Texas Appleseed and a member of the oversight committee.
The RFP officially closed on October 17. Reviewing the bids and selecting the organization will take several weeks. Once the oversight committee makes its recommendation to the county, the recommendation will be considered during a commissioner's court hearing. The commissioners will ultimately vote on which bidder is selected to run the office.
"Although this office will serve defendants with mental illness in Travis County, we hope it will develop into a model that can be replicated in other counties across Texas," said Fowler. "In the meantime, it will be a valuable source of information for attorneys in other counties."
The estimated cost to operate the MHPD Office is $625,000 each year. In the first year, the office will be funded by a $500,000 grant from the Texas Task Force on Indigent Defense and a $125,000 matching grant from Travis County. In subsequent years, the county will fund 20 percent more while the state funds 20 percent less. By the fourth year, the state will pay 20 percent and the county will pay 80 percent.