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County redoes its public defender proposal

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.

Originally, 11 of 22 district court judges had volunteered to use a public defender on felony trial cases and only three agreed to the new office’s use on appellate cases. Now, 20 judges have bought in on felony trials and 18 on appeals.

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To protect the public defender from meddling by Commissioners Court or the judiciary, an independent oversight board would be established for the office. Judges, attorneys, indigent defense groups, the county attorney and Commissioners Court all would get to make appointments to the board.

In the original application, public defenders would represent felony defendants accused only of low-level crimes such as possession of small amounts of drugs. The revamped proposal would have the public defender take on more serious felony trials. The plan also continues to provide for juvenile, appeals and mental health cases.

The county is also only asking for $4.1 million now, and there were some other changes made as well. It looks like they took the feedback they got seriously, and kudos to them for that. We’ll see how it goes from here.

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