Wednesday, June 13, 2018

Harris County Chief Public Defender under fire

Alex Brunin is the Chief Public Defender for Harris County. His clientele consists of those who haven't the money to hire an attorney to defend themselves in criminal court.

He is now being accused by Steve Radack, a Harris County Commissioner, of leaking confidential records to attorneys fighting the county on the way bonds are set for defendants. Prior to Federal District Judge Lee Rosenthal's finding that both the misdemeanor and felony bond schedules were unconstitutional as they did not take into account a defendant's ability to pay, a magistrate would ask the prosecutor what the defendant was charged with, whether there were any enhancements and whether the defendant had a prior record. Based on the answers to the those questions, the magistrate traced his or her finger on a chart and set the defendant's bond.

The result was that almost three-quarters of the people held in the Harris County Jail on any given day hadn't been convicted and were awaiting resolution of their cases. That is a mind-blowing number. And totally fucked up.

As head of the Public Defender's Office, Alex Bunin finds himself caught between a rock and a hard place. The office is funded by a grant. And, as I know I've written before, once that grant money starts to run out the case loads for everyone in the office will rise as will the pressure to plead out defendants. Mr. Bunin knows he will get no favors from Commissioner's Court. He's a thorn in the side of those who want to return to the days of the plea mill.

His position depends upon the whims of politicians from outside the Houston city limits - in other words, politicians who represent wealthy white suburbanites who want nothing to do with guaranteeing the constitutional rights of those accused of crime. Mr. Bunin has little or no political capital as indigent defendants don't have a voice in Harris County politics.

Make no mistake about it, this isn't about whether or not Mr. Bunin passed on information, confidential or otherwise, to attorneys fighting about the Harris County bond schedule, this is about a man who is doing his best to give voice to those who don't have one. That, in a nutshell, is Alex Bunin's sin. He dared to provide a vigorous defense for those who had nothing.

Thus far Harris County has spent in the neighborhood of $6 million fighting to preserve a bail system that a conservative federal judge and the most conservative appellate court have found to be unconstitutional. And yet the county continues to fight to preserve a system that led to coerced mass pleas.

Two judges, Mike Fields and Darrell Jordan, have urged the county to drop the fight and to work on finding a solution. Thus far their words have fallen on deaf ears.

But now Mr. Radack has a scapegoat. Instead of defending the money spent on defending the indefensible, he can hold Alex Bunin up to the conservative mates and blame him for the lawsuit and the changes to the bail system. But there's even more to it.

If Mr. Radack and his cabal can get rid of Alex Bunin they can replace him with someone who isn't as committed to defending the indigent. He can install someone who is more interested in the appearance of "fairness" than in actual reform. He can install someone who will be more than happy to carry his water bucket, increase case loads and pressure his staff to plead more cases out.

After a testy meeting yesterday, Mr. Bunin wasn't fired, but the matter was referred to the county public defender board for further recommendation. As was to be expected, the county commissioners who represented mostly white suburbanites were most critical of Mr. Bunin's actions.

And that's what this is ultimately all about -- a return to the days when court-appointed attorneys were more than happy to team up with the judge and prosecutor to work cases out without much effort or cost.

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