Sunday, August 12, 2007

Mental Health Public Defenders Office Helps Clients Cut Red Tape

Monday, August 13, 2007

Mental Health Public Defenders Office Helps Clients Cut Red Tape
By Mary Alice Robbins
Texas Lawyer

A 24-year-old brain-injured man who ran away from his parents at an Austin hospital spent four days in the Travis County jail on charges of resisting arrest and failing to properly identify himself to police officers whom the parents had asked to help find him.

The young man might have spent more time behind bars if the new Travis County Mental Health Public Defenders Office had not taken his case in June.

"One of our goals is to get people with mental illness out of jail," says Jeanette Kinard, the county's mental health public defender. ...

The young man's case is typical of the types of cases the mental health public defenders office handles. Kinard, a criminal defense solo in Austin for almost 20 years before Travis County hired her on April 1, says that since April 25, her office has represented clients in about 30 cases involving failure to identify, criminal trespass, family assaults and other offenses. "We only handle misdemeanors," Kinard says.

Jim Bethke, director of the Texas Task Force on Indigent Defense, says the Travis County office is the first stand-alone mental health public defenders office in the nation. Bethke says the task force awarded Travis County a $500,000 grant in November 2006 to start the public defenders office, which, at full staff, will have two attorneys, two social workers, two caseworkers and two clerical workers.

Travis County provided $125,000 for the office in the current budget year, Bethke says. The task force awarded a four-year grant that will reduce state funding by 20 percent each year of the grant period, as the county gradually increases its funding for the office, he says.

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