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Public defender office gets OK from Commissioners Court

Good.

The Harris County Commissioners Court voted Tuesday to start a public defender office on an experimental basis, as long as the state covers the $4.4 million cost for the first year.

The unanimous vote authorizes the county to apply for a grant from the Texas Task Force on Indigent Defense. If awarded the money, Harris County would open an office with lawyers dedicated to representing indigent defendants full time in October. It would start with mis demeanor mental health cases and felony appeals cases.

Within two years, it would expand to a staff of 68 handling about 6,400 criminal cases of all types in the civil and district courts. The office’s lawyers would be involved in about half of all felony appeals, about a quarter of juvenile cases and smaller percentages of adult misdemeanors and felonies, according to projections provided by Caprice Cosper, director of the county’s Criminal Justice Coordinating Council.

A public defender office would not replace the current system, in which judges choose defense counsel for the indigent from a randomly generated list of lawyers. The result would be a hybrid system for indigent defense in which the public defender and judge-appointed lawyers would share the caseload.

You can learn more about the Task Force on Indigent Defense here; my thanks to Scott Henson for leaving a comment in my previous post about them. Here’s hoping the grant application is successful.

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3 Comments

  1. […] of Texas, suggest that the start-up public defender’s office that Commissioners Court recently voted to authorize suffers from the same problem as the current system: lack of adequate oversight. In response to […]

  2. […] other things, the TFID would be the grant-awarder for the Harris County public defender’s office. I’d have to go back and re-read that Texas Monthly profile on Keller from 2009 to see if […]

  3. […] Back in April, Harris County Commissioners Court voted to start a pilot public defenders office, contingent on getting a $4.4 million grant from the Texas Task Force on Indigent Defense to help cover costs. That initial effort was subsequently criticized for being inadequate, and the TFID gave the county 30 days to improve its grant application. That has been done, and Commissioners Court is trying again. The county’s previous version of the application received criticism from academics, local ministers, defense advocacy groups and the local state senator who authored the law authorizing the creation of public defender offices in Texas counties. Among the criticisms were that not enough judges planned to participate, that the office would not serve high-level felony defendants and that the office was subject to control by the judiciary and Commissioners Court. […]

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