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The county’s proposal for a public defender’s office

Next week, a proposal for a “hybrid” public defender’s office will be presented to Harris County Commissioners Court.

It is considered a hybrid because it would allow courts to use both public defenders and private attorneys. For example, two of the county’s three juvenile courts are interested in assigning public defenders to represent 60 percent of the young defendants; the other 40 percent would get lawyers appointed by the judge.

Advocates say creation of a public defenders office can help quickly reduce chronic overcrowding in the Harris County Jail, where more than half of the 11,500 inmates are awaiting trial. The lawyers hired for the office would earn the same as prosecutors employed by the District Attorney’s Office.

The proposal, included in the county’s midyear review before Commissioners Court next week, was applauded by defense advocates who favor the county’s approach to modify the existing system.

“It’s an excellent step in the right direction,” said Jim Bethke, director of the Task Force on Indigent Defense, part of the Texas Judicial Council in Austin. “Ultimately, we want to help county government improve delivery of indigent defense services, and the work and effort they put into this is extremely commendable. They’re not trying to just jump into it and throw something together.”

The proposal, so far, appears to have less than full support among the county’s state district criminal judges.

Only 11 of the 22 state district criminal judges expressed interest in the use of public defenders for appellate work, while only five courts endorsed the concept for felony trials. Two of the three juvenile courts are interested in public defenders, while all 15 county criminal courts have agreed to a hybrid system to represent mentally ill or disabled indigents, according to documents from court administrators.

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The public defender proposal, under study since April, was drafted by the Office of Court Management and will be referred to the county’s newly created Criminal Justice Coordinating Council after it’s presented to Commissioners Court on Tuesday.

The proposal was not endorsed by District Attorney Patricia Lykos, nor by the county’s criminal defense lawyers.

“The mission of the Harris County District Attorney’s Office is to seek justice. Defendants are entitled to effective representation, and indigent defendants have the right to have counsel appointed,” said Lykos, in a statement released late Friday. “Whether counsel is court-appointed or provided through a public defender’s office is a public policy decision. This office will respect whatever decision is made.”

JoAnne Musick, president of the 600-member Harris County Criminal Lawyers Association, said her group is “split roughly 50-50,” and even lawyers who favor a public defender office are reserving judgment until they see how it would be administered. And the county’s judges are unlikely to agree on a program that will curtail their ability to select, and approve hefty legal fees, to private attorneys, she said.

Ana Yanez-Correa, executive director of the nonprofit Texas Criminal Justice Coa­lition in Austin, said the county’s proposal “is one of the strongest proposals we’ve seen in a while.”

It also could provide another benefit, she said, noting that the Harris County Jail is overcrowded, “and what adds to overcrowding is not having a responsible, fast way of handling cases.”

The CJC sent a letter in support of a public defender’s office last week. Grits has more on the proposal itself. I’d be interested to know which judges are in favor of it and which are opposed. Is there a partisan divide? Are the judges who are up for re-election in 2010 more or less likely to favor it? I think we deserve to know the answers to those questions.

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