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Complaining about the public defender office

At least one judge doesn’t like the new Harris County Public Defenders office.

“In short there is no evidence that a public defender’s office can be of any benefit to the Harris County Juvenile Justice system,” state District Judge John Phillips said last month in an open letter.

Chief among Phillips’ complaints is that the public defender system in the juvenile courts costs two and half times more than the system of appointments he uses, a number denied by those connected to the office.

Phillips said the average cost per case is $649, compared to $264 for assigned lawyers.

Alex Bunin, who oversees the public defender’s office, said Phillips’ numbers are wrong. He said the judge cited a preliminary feasibility study with estimates that were not accurate.

“Those numbers are not meaningful,” he said.

Bunin said the costs are closer to actual public defender averages across the state. Established public defender offices in Texas average $406 per case against $540 for appointed attorneys.

“The point is that the numbers are fairly comparable,” Bunin said. “There’s no support for ‘two and half times the cost.’‚ÄČ”

Bunin said a comprehensive review has been commissioned and is expected in about six months.

“We’ll know things about the quality of our work, as well as the cost effectiveness of it,” Bunin said. “When we get ready for midyear budget, we’ll have something on paper.”

I found Judge Phillips’ letter here. The story references an open letter in response to Judge Phillips from Lawrence Finder and George “Mac” Secrest, but I was not able to locate it. (Dear Houston Chronicle: Would it kill you to include links to stuff like this that you reference in the online version of your stories?) Not being familiar with the system, Judge Phillips’ letter and the documents he included as evidence did not make much sense to me. I do agree with Bunin that the costs cited in an initial feasibility study don’t really mean much any more, and that the actual costs that will be reflected in their midyear budget will tell a much more accurate story. Judge Phillips also cites a number of reforms that the juvenile courts have implemented to save money, to which I say Great! Good job! But I don’t see why those reforms and the Public Defender office should be mutually exclusive, and even if they were that doesn’t address the need for the Public Defender office in other courts. And finally, not to be crass, but I’d like to know what if any connections there are between Judge Phillips and Gary Polland. Judge Phillips complained that supporters of the Public Defender office have politicized the issue, but that is quite clearly a two-way street. Let’s see what their budget request looks like and we’ll go from there.

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