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.