Wednesday, April 28, 2010

County approves hybrid public defender's office

Harris County commissioners yesterday approved a proposal to create a hybrid public defender's office that would handle felony appeals and misdemeanors involving mental health issues. The creation of the office is dependent upon the county getting a $4.4 million grant from the state. According to Ms. Caprice Cosper, director of the Criminal Justice Coordinating Council, within two years the PD's office should be handling about 6400 cases. That figure would include about half of the felony appeals filed, a quarter of the juvenile cases and a smaller share of other felony and misdemeanor cases.

The new office would not replace the current hodge-podge system used in the county for appointing counsel for indigent defendants in which some courts use a "wheel" to assign attorneys while others use contract attorneys (shall we talk about the appearance of a conflict of interest?).

Precinct 1 Commissioner El Franco Lee praised the new proposal as a tool to ease jail overcrowding. Someone might want to let Mr. Lee know that this new plan won't have any affect on speeding up cases. The only possible  outcome that might ease overcrowding is getting defendants with mental health issues out of the county jail and into a treatment facility.

County Judge Ed Emmett said the new office could result in savings to the county in the event that fewer defendants are convicted due to poor representation. But wait just a minute - the new office won't take over defending indigent persons in Harris County. I guess that's just a minor detail that slipped Mr. Emmett's mind as he plans his next speech from Transtar headquarters during hurricane season.

The county plans to ask the state for a grant to fund the office through 2014. After the grant phases out, the county will pick up the tab, estimated at $7 million a year. So the county can't (or won't) foot the bill to create the office but four years down the road will set aside enough money to keep the office operational? No one on Commissioner's Court has any idea what the economic conditions will be like in 2014 or beyond. What effect will the economy have on property values and tax collections? How long until the county tells the head of the PD's office that the budget needs to be cut, case loads need to be increased and dockets need to be reduced?

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