Harris County commissioners on Tuesday approved a pilot program to make public defenders available at bail hearings, a step aimed at retooling a criminal justice system that has increasingly drawn criticism for jailing thousands of poor, low-risk offenders.
Within months, county officials anticipate that two public defenders will be present at bail hearings for those accused of misdemeanors and felonies. The vast majority of the roughly 80,000 defendants at these hearings each year does not now have legal representation, and the change means that defendants of limited means charged with a Class B misdemeanor or above will be able to have access to a lawyer when a judge sets bail.
The pilot represents a major change in the way Harris County processes those accused of crimes. The move also makes it the first county in Texas to create such a program, though one official noted that the county lags behind other major metro areas – New York City, Los Angeles and Chicago – in making attorneys available at bail hearings.
“I think it’s a huge step forward that will assure that people’s rights are protected at these hearings,” said Alexander Bunin, Harris County’s chief public defender, whose office developed the pilot program.
The attorneys would provide information on the defendants’ financial situations to hearing officers who set bail, with the goal of releasing those who cannot make bail, pose a low risk to society and have not been convicted of a crime.
Several top Harris County officials – including County Judge Ed Emmett, Sheriff Ed Gonzalez and District Attorney Kim Ogg – have also said recently that the bail system should be restructured so that it doesn’t differentiate between rich and poor defendants.
“This is a positive step forward on the long road to fixing a broken criminal justice system,” said Precinct 1 Commissioner Rodney Ellis, a former state senator who has sharply criticized the county’s bail bond system.
Emmett, a Republican, also praised the pilot program’s creation Tuesday.
“It’s going in the right direction,” he said. “This is one of those things we needed to do.”
See here for the background. This makes sense on so many levels. It will be cost-controlled, as he public defender’s office budget is approved by Commissioners Court. The defenders assigned to bail hearings will always be there. There will be no concerns about quality or conflict of interest with public defenders, which as we know from long and painful history is not always the case with court-appointed attorneys. It will help prevent defendants from incriminating themselves out of ignorance and lack of representation. And not to put too fine a point on it but it greatly reduces the problem of people getting thrown in jail for no reason other than not being able to pay bail. It’s not a complete solution, in that there are still issues to be resolved in the bail practices lawsuit, but it’s a big positive step. Kudos all around.