Harris County Commissioners have requested a $4.4 million grant from the State to fund a public defender's office that would handle appeals on felony cases for indigent defendants and misdemeanor cases involving mental health issues. The plan calls on the PD's office eventually to take on all felony and juvenile appointments.
Proponents of a PD's office say it will upgrade the quality of representation for indigent defendants in Harris County and will remove some of the abusive practices currently seen at the Harris County Criminal (In)justice Center. Gone would be the days of defense attorneys pleading out their clients in order to curry favor with the court (and secure more appointments). The public defender will fight more aggressively in defending his client that a court appointed attorney would. While they're at it, the PD's office should be able to reduce greenhouse gas emissions, implement universal healthcare and cure cancer.
Well, not exactly. A PD's office will be at the mercy of Harris County Commissioners who will decide how much funding is needed for indigent defense -- and let's not forget, the political power in Harris County resides largely in the right-leaning Republican suburbs; hardly a breeding ground for discontent over the violation of the constitutional rights of a person alleged to have committed a crime.
Then there's what happened up in Dallas County in 2008 (See "Common Clashes: Politics, Pressure and the Public Defender's Office" Texas Lawyer, July 7, 2008).
Let's see... the State of Texas brings criminal charges against an individual alleged to have done something wrong. The prosecutor is employed by the Harris County District Attorney's Office -- funded by Commissioners' Court. With a PD's office, the same entity that is prosecuting indigent Johnny Rotten will also be employing Mr. Rotten's attorney. What happens when the county needs to cut its budget? What happens when the Harris County Jail is packed to the gills with indigent defendants who can't post bond and who won't plead their cases?
I'm not thinking indigent defendants make up much of a constituency in the 'burbs.
"What, Price justice?" Dallas Observer, July 10, 2008
"Broken Cogs" Dallas Observer, Sept. 11, 2008