Tuesday, September 29, 2009

Harris County to fund public defender's office

Harris County commissioners voted 5-0 to create a hybrid public defender's office in Harris County. Of course the devil of such a proposal is in the details and there is no consensus on how the office would operate and whether the county's various courts would have to participate in a public defender system.

Currently in Harris County indigent defendants are represented by private attorneys. Some courts used a rotating list of eligible attorneys while others employ contract attorneys. Harris County's indigent defense system has been criticized in the past for the number of felony cases assigned to particular attorneys. (See "Crowded House.")

  • 11 of the 22 state district courts would use a public defender office for appellate work;
  • 5 of the 22 state district courts would use the office for adult felony cases;
  • 2 of the 3 juvenile courts want to use both public defenders and private attorneys; and
  • all 15 county courts want to use public defenders for defendants who are disabled or who have mental problems.

Commissioner Steve Radack said he was supporting the office in order to take care of overcrowding in the Harris County Jail. Hmmm. Let's think about that for a second. In Harris County (with rare exception) the only defendants who are eligible for appointed counsel are those who are unable to bond themselves out of jail. Offers on Class B misdemeanors range (typically) from time served to 30 days. I fail to see how a public defender's office would alleviate jail overcrowding given that scenario.

And this isn't even factoring in the ridiculous offers of 30 days on DWI cases or the escalating sentences in prostitution cases. The way to reduce overcrowding in the Harris County Jail isn't to create a new bureaucracy -- the answer is to rethink how we handle those accused of committing minor offenses. The police can issue more personal bonds on minor drug possession cases (so-called "catch and release"). Magistrates could take into consideration a defendant's ability to post bond when setting bond by the county's bail schedule.

Instead the county wants to create a new office funded and beholden to those in office to defend those who can't afford to retain their own counsel. Just wait until budgets and staffing are cut in the name of budget constraint and political pressure.


Anonymous said...

Commissioners Court did not vote to "fund" anything.

Anonymous said...

Cool. It'll be good to see those appointed attorneys who complain about the State being on the public teat being removed from same. I know all appointed counsel are not incompetent but you have to agree that you wouldn't want to be represented by many of them yourself.

Paul B. Kennedy said...

Mr. Anonymous No. 1 (it would be so much easier if you would show the courage of your convictions and post comments under your own name) -- I said Commissioner's Court voted to create a hybrid office. I never said they voted to fund said office. However, if a public defender's office is created, the county will be funding it.

Anonymous said...

Mr. Houston DWI Attorney Paul B. Kennedy No. 1:

Your post is entitled "Harris County to fund public defender's office".


Anonymous said...

Not all of us are stupid enough to blog under our own name or post under our own name. If you don't like it, don't blog. Or do like the other defense attorney bloggers that can't stand the heat in the kitchen do and ban anonymous bloggers.

I thought a great civil libertarian like you would love the 1st amendment and want to foster free speech.

Anyway, the PD's office is coming like a big train down the tracks with no brakes. And the incomes of attorneys who can't get retained business will suffer greatly.

As a taxpayer, I resent funding the private businesses of lawyers who can't get enough business on their own to survive. Really, appointed defense lawyers are no different than prosecutors, since the money comes from the same place. So when defense attorneys gripe about prosecutors not being able to make it in private practice, just remember, same goes for the defense attorney who takes appointments.