Tuesday, January 11, 2011

Head of new PD's office speaks to press

The new public defender's office in Harris County will debut in February. The office will handle criminal cases for indigent defendants with mental health issues and appeals. Alex Bunin, who was appointed by Commissioner's Court to head up the office, has started up PD's offices in Alabama, Vermont and New York.

Some of his answers during a recent interview with the Houston Chronicle lead to more questions.

When asked what the office's budget will be, Mr. Bunin replied:
The grant is for $4,150,545. That will be our entire budget for the first year. The second year, the grant pays 80 percent. For the next two years, the grant will pay 20 percent and the county will pay 80 percent. After four years, the county will be paying the whole tab.
Part of the impetus behind the creation of the office was to save the county money. What's going to happen when the county has to pick up more of the tab for the office? Will we see public defenders overworked with too many open case files to handle adequately? Will we see pressure from Commissioner's Court to reduce the cost of running the office?

When asked if the office would save the taxpayers' money, Mr. Bunin said he didn't know.
If you're asking me to give you a dollar figure that says it's going to save this amount of money, I can't tell you that. But we think we're going to do it in a more efficient manner and provide better representation.
You can't just compare what you're paying assigned lawyers to what you're paying us. There are so many interrelations in the system that are outside of what the courts pay lawyers. There's the jail cost, there's the social services, there are a lot of things that are affected.
Unlike other counties in which I work, in Harris County offers are routinely made in cases in which defendants are unable to post bond. So the Harris County Jail isn't overcrowded because of the manner in which appointments are doled out. Now, might there be some attorneys who would rather get paid for another reset or two rather than recommend their client take an offer? I'm sure there are. But the real causes of overcrowding are the bond schedule and the way in which drug cases are handled in Harris County.

If a person is arrested on a nonviolent misdemeanor offense and has a clean record, that person should be eligible for a personal bond. Minor possession cases should be handled through the issuance of citations with a promise to appear.

Often the debate on indigent defense is framed with taxpayers and indigent defendants on opposite sides of the ball. Rarely does anyone question that basic assumption that indigent defendants are "them" while taxpayers are considered to be "us."

When asked what he wanted the public to know about the new PD's office, Mr. Bunin did his part to reframe the debate.
They will be skilled and compassionate lawyers representing people in Harris County.
Amen to that.

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