Thursday, June 5, 2014

One way to reduce indigent defense bill

So you think it's hard to get a court-appointed attorney in Harris County. There are judges who will tell defendants who have been able to scrape up enough money to post bond that they have to sell everything they own before an attorney will be appointed for them.

Nevermind that in most cases the bond money was put up by family members or friends and not by the actual defendant. In Harris County, if you're not wearing an orange jumpsuit when you ask for an appointed attorney you have a very hard road to hoe.

The judges know there are plenty of attorneys who will take cases on the cheap and plead their clients out on the first or second setting without ever investigating the case. The judges seem to have no idea what it actually costs to hire an attorney in Houston who's actually going to work on your case. The result is a whole lot of folks with convictions on their records who may have stood a good chance of having their cases dismissed or the charges reduced after a little bit of legwork on the part of their attorneys.

But, hey, it clears another case of the docket and that's a good thing. Right?

In McLennan County (that would be Waco for those of y'all not familiar with the lay of the land), they have taken the denial of counsel one step further. If you want to have an attorney appointed to handle your case you have to fill out an application. That application will then be investigated by a sheriff's deputy who's going to come to your house and take a look around to see if you're really as indigent as you say you are.

Now, just a word of warning here. There are those of us who practice criminal law on a regular basis who would be very hard pressed to come up with a retainer fee on a felony case. I know plenty of attorneys who do quite well who would be considered indigent if they were charged with a felony in federal court.

What's really going on up in Waco is the courts are trying to make it harder and harder for those accused of serious crimes to defend themselves. Just because someone was able to borrow money from their parents or their grandparents to post bond doesn't mean they have the money to pay an attorney. Parents and grandparents will often do whatever they can to help out their wayward children and grandchildren - but you can't expect them to pick up all the bills.

In sending out a sheriff's deputy to investigate those seeking appointed counsel, the courts are doing their best to intimidate those who are able to post bond not to ask the county to pick up the tab for their lawyer. To make matters worse, officials like to brag about arresting folks on felony charges of falsifying government documents when they make a questionable statement on their application.

As I said yesterday, if the county is concerned about the amount of money they're spending on appointing lawyers for indigent defendants, then maybe law enforcement officials and prosecutors should think twice before arresting folks or filing charges. A little discretion here and there can go a long way to reducing the county's legal bills.

Now I don't think I'm going out on a limb here but I would imagine that the number of black defendants asking for appointed counsel is probably disproportionate the African-American population in McLennan County which means this investigation program is just another tool for the state to discriminate against blacks.

The worst thing about the article is the way in which the writer is all rah-rah with the police and court officials. Nowhere in his piece does he even raise the question of whether this program serves to deny folks their constitutional right to counsel when the state is attempting to take away their liberty. I guess being a sycophant is much easier than being an actual reporter.

For those of y'all who wish to let the reporter know what a great job she did regurgitating the Sheriff's PR release, her name is Stephanie Butts and her e-mail address is Here's her LinkedIn profile.

1 comment:

Bad Wolf said...

So how does it work if you don't have the money? Does the judge just proceed and assume you are representing yourself?