EL PASO, Texas - The El Paso County Public Defender's Office is taking on a lot more work than it was in the last fiscal year, according to a report presented to County Commissioners Monday.
In the first four months of Fiscal Year 2017 (October 2016 - January 2017) the public defender's office has taken on 1,403 felony cases -- that's 254 more cases than in the first four months of FY 2016.
The office projects that by the end of the fiscal year, it will take on nearly 900 more cases than the previous year.
The numbers are troubling, Chief Public Defender Jaime Gandara said.
"That's a great big number of cases. If you take the caseload average that we try to stay within, that's at least five lawyers more to handle the work to properly represent the client," Gandara said.
The public defender's office currently has 44 attorneys. Mike Izquierdo, the executive director of the council of judges, said that in order to qualify for a public defender, a person must be at or below the poverty level. In 2016, the federal poverty level for a family of four is $24,300.
"It could be that more people are qualifying for an appointed lawyer, that's one possibility," Gandara said. "Another possibility is that the general rate of crime is going up. As our population grows that's another possibility. At this point, I'm not exactly sure which one it is."
Gandara said his office is also seeing an increase in cases involving clients with mental illnesses. The County unanimously approved that the public defender's office can apply for a grant that helps establish a mental health and advocacy unit that would specifically tackle these cases. The grant is worth nearly $1.3 million.
"We knew that there would be an increase in those cases," county judge Veronica Escobar said. "We did not anticipate that the increase would be this significant."
Escobar also said she would wait until the fiscal year was over to cast an overall judgment.
"We need a full year, really, to get a good assessment because things fluctuate sometimes," Escobar said. "We still have a lot more information to gather, and to understand in order to better gauge whether this is an on-going trend."