CORPUS CHRISTI, Texas — The COVID-19 pandemic isn't the only reason that Nueces County courts have backlogs of cases right now.
People who have mental health issues getting released from jail only to commit crimes and get sent back there is something 347th District Court Judge Missy Medary and other judges see too often.
"We all see a revolving door in our courtrooms," she said. "Because the bottom line is that we do not treat the individuals for their baseline issues. And instead, we send them back out with no treatment, and they come back in again."
Treating mental illness in people accused of crimes is something the proposed Nueces County Public Defenders Office would do.
And now, the county has the money to open it thanks to $7.2 million in funding from the Texas Indigent Defense Commission that Medary announced at the Nueces County Board of Judges meeting Wednesday.
The Nueces Commissioners Court still needs to vote to accept that grant which was half of what was originally requested.
Medary was still pleased to receive what they got.
"It was the largest grant that TIDC issued," she said. "There were many other grants, but this was the largest. And they recognized the need of Nueces County.”
It's a need that criminal defense lawyer Lisa Greenberg says is nothing new.
"These are the most marginalized people," she said. "They tend to have no voice. And so I believe we’ve always had this need, and it’s just gotten bigger."
Greenberg is one of more than a dozen lawyers, social workers, and other community members that the Board of Judges has nominated to be on the Public Defenders Office Oversight Committee.
If approved by the Commissioners Court, Greenberg and the other committee members would select a chief public defender who would staff the rest of the office.
Staff members would include defense attorneys, but also mental health professionals and other people who could help defendants with any issues they have, in hopes of keeping them from becoming repeat offenders.
The Public Defenders Office would handle 45 percent of criminal cases in the county that include mental illness, along with 13 percent of cases that don't.
The grant will fully fund the office for the first two years with the county paying a percentage that grows annually in subsequent years.
Medary and Greenberg believe it will be well worth the future costs.
“To start this incredible program that I believe is going to take care of some of the most marginalized individuals in our community," Medary said.
“My hope is this start will give an office a chance to show that they can be effective, that they’re needed, and that they can reduce jail backlog," Greenberg said. "That they can dispose of cases quicker, that they can help move some of the mental health cases and save the county money and time in jail for these people which also costs money. And once we see that this is a good solution for the problem, maybe it will grow.”