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.