Thursday, December 28, 2006

Indigent defense scheme would fill up county jails

State Rep. Tommy Merritt (R-Longview) is unhappy about Gregg County's indigent defense costs, but he's proposing a solution that might be an even worse budget buster. No bill has been filed yet, but according to the Longview News-Journal ("Merritt questions Craddick's tactics," Dec. 28):

Specifically, Merritt said he wants to eliminate indigent defense costs from Gregg County's budget, so long as an inmate has the financial ability to make bail.

"Should we have to pay for an attorney even if the person can make bond?" Merritt asked. "This is more about a state mandate that we put on the county, without the funds to pay for it."

He said Gregg County taxpayers shell out as much as $3 million annually to pay for criminal defense attorneys for those who cannot afford one.

"It's astronomical, and it's growing," Merritt said. "The public should vote as to whether or not we want to pay for indigent defense with local funds, then it would be tested as to whether it's constitutional."

Gee, why not ask the state to pay for the District Attorney's office, while you're at it? Merritt is certainly right that indigent defense costs are growing, but his solution would cost taxpayers even more.

If the rule were that people who make bail don't qualify for indigent defense, then people who can't afford both bail and a lawyer will sit in the already overcrowded jail, at taxpayers expense. So he'd be reducing one expense and increasing another. If enough defendants made that cost-benefit analysis and decided to stay in jail to get a lawyer, it could require expanding the jail which would be a LOT more expensive than paying for lawyers.

Ironically, Merrit's very next complaint in the article was that state policies on transferring convicted prisoners are contributing to Gregg County jail overcrowding. But his proposal would do more to fill up the jail unnecessarily than the state transfer policy he derides (I've got a separate post brewing in me on that topic for another day).

Whether state or local taxes pay for indigent defense is something the politicians care greatly about and the public (justly) couldn't care less - it's all their tax money, whichever government entity pays. The average citizen wants quality services provided in an efficient, cost efffective manner, but who cuts the checks is just insider baseball.

The better solution here is simple and could be implemented at the local level: Gregg and other counties experiencing high indigent defense costs need to move to public defender systems to save money, provide higher, more consistent quality defense, and ultimately to move cases more quickly through the system.

That'd be a lot cheaper and easier than some cockamamy scheme that even Merritt thinks may not be constitutional.


No comments: