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Is the county’s public defender proposal good enough?

This op-ed by Charlie Baird, judge of the 299th District Court in Travis County, and William Sessions, former chief judge of the U.S. District Court for the Western District 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 public concerns about judicial conflicts of interest in picking defense lawyers, excessive caseloads and the poor quality of legal representation, Harris County agreed to create a pilot public defender office. Last week, Harris County applied for a grant from the state to pay for half of the public defender office over the first four years of operation. That grant is worth $4.4 million in the first year and $13.2 million over four years.

Unfortunately, Harris County is on the brink of not receiving that money because the planned public defender office lacks: 1) independence from the judiciary; 2) workload standards; and 3) uniform use of the public defender office by all judges.

With some tweaking, the proposal could be a step in the direction of justice for Harris County. But as it’s now written, justice will continue to be denied even with the new public defense office in operation.

A major problem with the proposed plan is that it permits individual judges to decide whether they want to maintain the status quo and not let the newly established public defender office represent defendants in their courts. The core of our justice system is to treat every individual brought to court on criminal charges fairly. How then can some judges opt out of the reforms in favor of business as usual? In such a system, the extent of justice a person receives may be entirely dependent on the court in which the case is heard.

Additionally, the new proposal fails to establish limits on the workloads of public defenders or appointed counsel. These limits are essential to ensuring that quality defense services are provided and that defense attorneys do not violate their ethical duties to provide competent and diligent representation to their clients.

More about that grant for which the county is applying is here. I’ve said before that I don’t accept the objections from the judges who want to maintain the status quo. Even if a few of them are doing a decent job with their own pool of contract attorneys, the system as a whole isn’t working, and it’s not just those judges who’d be opting out if they are allowed to do so. If we’re going to do this, and I believe we should, we need to do it right.

And these are not just theoretical concerns, either.

The Task Force on Indigent Defense, created by the Texas Legislature in 2001, has asked the county to spend some of its own money on the office, expand its scope and create an independent oversight board.

If the revisions adequately address what James Bethke, the task force’s director, calls requests for “clarification,” the county would be well-positioned for a grant. If the revisions do not pass muster at the task force’s August board meeting, Bethke said, the county would have to wait a year for another shot.

“We respect local control,” Bethke said of Harris County’s plan, but “certain principles … do need to be met.”

On Wednesday a task force committee gave the county until July 12 to fix its plan.

Baird and Sessions’ suggestions would cover the task force’s items. It’s up to the county to make this work, and they are on the clock to do so.

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2 Comments

  1. […] we know, the county’s proposal has some flaws and may not get the funding from the state that it needs to get off the ground. I’ve said […]

  2. […] he said. The county is slowly and hesitantly taking steps in that direction, though there are still some kinks to iron out. At least the basic idea has started to sink in. Grits has […]

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