CORPUS CHRISTI, Texas — A few months ago, the Nueces County Courthouse Public Defender's Office began representing people accused of a crime who can't pay for an attorney, with a key focus on those with mental health issues.
Last year, Nueces County received a two-year $3.6 million grant to open this public defender's office, with a plan to address the looming mental health crisis in the county.
At the time, advocates pointed to defendants going in and out of jail without receiving mental health services. The office isn't fully staffed, but in May began accepting cases and as of June 30, it had 70 pending and another 30 closed cases.
Chief Public Defender Danice Obregon said the office utilizes attorneys and social workers to ensure defendants are getting the help they need.
"Our social workers have helped us map out what is in Nueces County, what's available, and connect those folks with what they need," she said. "That helps facilitate resolving the case quicker because we have a solution."
Obregon said a vast majority of their cases are related to people with mental health conditions.
"At this point, I would say more than half are mental health because we are still trying to get the numbers right," Obregon said. "So what we have been able to do with the staffing is have our social workers help on those cases."
Anyone with a diagnosed or self-reported mental health condition who needs of an attorney will be assigned to the office. Others are assigned randomly to either the public defender's office or private attorneys on an approved list.
Those assigned to the public defender's office receive an attorney who only handles cases in Nueces County. Obregon said that helps them resolve cases quicker.
"As part of being committed to only Nueces County cases we are also housed right next door to the jail and so our attorneys are visiting their clients very often because we have very easy access right next door," Obregon said.
For Obregon, this commitment is key to the mission of the office.
"Just pushing back a little bit on the system to make sure the system is behaving fairly treating people fairly no matter what their financial status is," she said.
Obregon said Nueces County was one of the largest counties in Texas without a Public Defender's Office