A state panel has awarded Harris County a $4.1 million grant to launch a public defender office, which is expected to start taking cases early next year.
The county plans to roll out the office in phases over the next two years to handle appeals, juvenile cases, adult felony trials and mental health cases. The new office will be a pilot project. It will not supplant the existing system in which judges appoint defense lawyers for the indigent. The county will use a hybrid of both approaches.
“This is a major milestone in the history of the criminal justice system in Harris County,” Precinct 2 Commissioner Sylvia Garcia said. A public defender office offers a greater chance at justice for criminal defendants, she said, as well as taxpayer savings in avoided jail costs. Defendants are likely to spend less time in jail awaiting trial and more likely to receive alternatives to jail sentences — such as drug treatment – with the help of specialized defense attorneys, Garcia said. That could reduce a jail population so large that the county houses 1,500 inmates in other counties and in Louisiana.
The county plans to hire a chief public defender by Nov. 1. The chief will hire a team of attorneys expected to begin working cases on Feb. 1.
That’s just great news. It was a hard slog to get here, but get here we did. Kudos to all involved. Here’s a statement from State Sen. Rodney Ellis about this:
“I commend the Task Force on Indigent Defense for approving Harris County’s $4.1 million grant request to establish a public defender office. If implemented and operated correctly, I believe the office will improve representation of indigent defendants, reduce the county’s jail population, and reduce recidivism, as public defender offices have been shown to do in other parts of the state.
“I also commend the hard work of the county officials, judges, and county staff who revised the public defender plan in response to concerns expressed by Houston-area clergy and national advocacy organizations seeking to improve indigent defense. In particular, I would like to thank Commissioners El Franco Lee and Sylvia Garcia, co-chairs of the Harris County Criminal Justice Coordinating Council’s Public Defender’s Office Workgroup; their colleagues on the Commissioners Court; District Court Judge Mike Anderson; and Caprice Cosper, Director of Harris County’s Office of Criminal Justice Coordination, for their hard work and dedication to improving indigent defense in Harris County.”
Ana Yanez Correa of the Texas Criminal Justice Coalition, who’s doing some guest-blogging at Grits for Breakfast while Scott is off the grid, joins in the celebration, and notes a couple of other good things that happened today for criminal justice, one of which was the Task Force on Indigent Defense voting to forward the final recommendations made by the Timothy Cole Advisory Panel. Here are the recommendations, plus statements from Sen. Ellis and State Rep. Ruth Jones McClendon for more.