By Bill Spinks

The rapid growth of population in Ellis County has put a strain on the county’s indigent defense fund, and the Commissioners’ Court took steps at last week’s meeting to address the issue.

The court agreed to establish a committee of up to 10 members to review the program. County Judge Todd Little will chair the committee, each commissioner will appoint a committee member, and each of the district and County Court at Law judges will appoint a committee member as a result of the approved motion.

This committee will weigh whether a public defender’s office or a managed assigned counsel program is more appropriate for the county, and will report back to the Commissioners’ Court with recommendations before July 1.

Little said the county is spending more than $2 million per year to comply with the constitutional and statutory requirements of the indigent defense program and suggested the current “wheel” program for both felony and misdemeanor cases is no longer adequate.

“That account has gone from about $1.6 million to about $2.2 million in the last two to three years,” Little said. “We have an indigent defense coordinator and they’re doing a good job. But what’s happening is the growth in population in the county is coming so fast and furious, we’re going to lose the battle when it comes to the money and what we’re providing.”

Little said the committee might consist of those whom he called “stakeholders” — himself, a commissioner, a representative from the adult probation department, a member of the county attorney’s office, either a judge or staff from the court system and attorneys who make up the indigent defense team.

Little proposed setting aside up to $7,500 for expenses such as a consultant, but Precinct 3 Commissioner Paul Perry said the court should wait until it is determined an expense is needed.

The matter before the court last week is separate from issues caused by TechShare, the software that supports the county’s indigent defense system. Ellis County’s contract with TechShare expires at the end of 2020.

In a meeting late last December, Judge Little said the county spent almost $2 million in its indigent defense program, and a significant portion of that cost was simply due to delays caused by glitches in TechShare.

“We’re going to have to look at options for solutions … and we need to include the defense bar in that discussion,” Little said at the time. “But as we go forward, that seems like an unsustainable-type cost.”