Victoria Hirschberg: The Monitor

EDINBURG - Meet Hidalgo County's first public defender, Jaime Gonzalez.

Gonzalez, a 28-year-old former prosecutor with the Hidalgo County District Attorney's office, wants to advocate for his clients - the underserved population that cannot afford private counsel.

"We give a voice to those who don't have a voice," he said. "You get those clients who come in, they don't have money, they are illegal, they can't afford to hire counsel, and we get appointed a certain percentage of these clients. I hand-pick my staff, and they are all well-qualified."

Gonzalez and his young staff of five other attorneys, one investigator and an administrative assistant are the first salaried employees of the county's public defender's office. They started representing clients in misdemeanor cases Oct. 21 and have so far tried 60 and disposed of 32. Handling cases through his office reduces the two-week processing time about 10 days, Gonzalez said, predicting his office probably will handle 25 percent of Hidalgo County's misdemeanor cases every year.

"Public defenders are seen as a mechanism for larger counties," Gonzalez said. "But that's what we are now."

The county's increasing population, coupled with increased crime, has resulted in consistent overcrowding of the Hidalgo County Jail in Edinburg. County officials have pointed to the public defender's office as a way to decrease the inmate population and save money. Every time Hidalgo County has to house a prisoner out of county, it costs almost $40 per day for each prisoner.

In addition to saving money on out-of-county prisoner housing, Gonzalez said attorneys from his office cost less than a court-appointed private lawyer. Even so, county officials budgeted about $3 million to hire court-appointed attorneys during 2006, on top of the allocation for the new public defender's office.

"We have, unfortunately, an increasing crime situation that we're trying to address," said County Judge Ramon Garcia. "We're providing more law officers, they're making more arrests and more people are ending up in jail. We need to move them through quicker and that's what the public defender will do.

"We need to give it the opportunity to work," Garcia said. "It has worked in other counties."

In 2001, the Texas Senate passed Bill No. 7, or the Fair Defense Act, which called for the state and counties to allocate more money for indigent defense. Larger counties such as El Paso, Dallas and Travis already have public defenders.

In 2005, Hidalgo County received a four-year grant from the Texas Task Force on Indigent Defense. For the first grant period, which runs from March 2005 to February 2006, the state funded about $396,000 for the public defender's office. The county matched that with about $94,000. As the office becomes more established, the state funding decreases and the county's contribution increases.

However, Gonzalez said by the time the county would have the higher percentage, the office would be self-sufficient.

"Our budget would be a drop in the bucket," he said.