Thursday, March 13, 2008

Rodney Ellis stumping for Harris County public defender office

If state Senator Rodney Ellis gets his way, Harris County will have a public defender office in the near future, reports Lisa Falkenberg at the Houston Chronicle ("An idea whose time has come?" March 12):

The time is ripe, Ellis believes, to begin the first real push for a public defender office in Harris County. All that's needed is one judge to support it and county commissioners to fund it. But Ellis has work cut out for him.

It shouldn't be such a radical concept. Harris County is the largest urban area in the nation without one.

Even in Texas, other large counties such as Dallas, Bexar and El Paso use public defender offices. Dallas' is the oldest. It started in 1983 with eight lawyers. It now has 90.

Ellis might get less resistance from defense attorneys than he expects. A few do-gooders are selflessly, shockingly endorsing the idea. Patrick McCann, president of the Harris County Criminal Lawyers Association, the county's largest defense bar, recently took a poll and the group's attorneys came out 2-to-1 in support of some kind of public defender office.

McCann refused to tell me how many of the 370 members participated in the poll — jokingly saying "it's more than 10" — but the fact that the group's president and its most active members supported the concept sends a message.

"I think our bar has come to an understanding that the playing field is so uneven, in terms of funding and resources," says McCann.

In Harris County, indigent defendants are represented by private attorneys whom judges appoint through a rotation system or on a contract basis. Defense attorneys complain that some judges aren't fair in divvying out appointments and some refuse to pay full costs for investigators and experts. And there are no real performance standards.

McCann says Harris County has gotten used to providing indigent representation "on the cheap." While the DA's budget is around $50 million, McCann says the county spent $24 million last year on appointed counsel. "The DAs have 30 investigators on their staff, on top of all the police they've got working for them, and we've got nobody," McCann says. "Five investigators (in a public defender office) would be such a leveling thing, you can't imagine."

Ellis also expects to get opposition from judges.

"The judges are fighting it," he told the lawyer group. "And the judges have gotten a few people who look like me and a couple who speak Spanish and some decent white folks, too, to buy into it just so they can get a few little old crumbs."

The few judges I talked to took issue with that statement, saying they wouldn't likely oppose anything that improves representation for poor defendants.

"Maybe he knows something I don't know," said Kelly Smith, staff attorney for 22 district court judges. "I've never heard any of the judges make a statement against a public defender's office."

The county's head prosecutor didn't voice outright opposition, either.

"I don't have strong feelings either way," said Bert Graham, who became acting district attorney after Rosenthal resigned. But he added, "I would think whatever gives the best representation for a defendant without breaking the county's coffers is the way you ought to go."

Even the most conservative judges in the state endorse more public defender offices, and they've worked well in other Texas counties where they've been implemented. I'd named the expansion of new PD offices one of the top criminal justice stories in 2006, and with the help of the Texas Task Force on Indigent Defense their growth has continued since then. In other states PD offices are much more common; Harris is the largest (by population) county in the nation that doesn't have one.

Harris County is receiving $1.7 million from the Task Force on Indigent Defense this year, but I could not tell from their grant information online what they're using the money for. To me, that's exactly what the Indigent Defense Task Force funds are for, and if they're not going to some version of a PD program, that money should be diverted to Sen. Ellis' pilot public defender idea. There's a decent chance after November he'll easily find new judges willing to give a PD office a try, and the Harris commissioners court will surely be more receptive if the senator comes in having identified a pot of money for them to jump start the program.

12 comments:

Anonymous said...

Court appointed attorneys get paid for 3 visits with their clients. So, if you're sitting in jail, you'll see your defense attorney once. the other 2 time are for court appearances.

Anonymous said...

Is the level of defense increased for more serious offenses?

It should be......

rage said...

Court appointed attorneys get paid for 3 visits with their clients. So, if you're sitting in jail, you'll see your defense attorney once. the other 2 time are for court appearances.


This speaks volumes about the system, but also the attorneys who take those cases and practice that way. The system should be changed, those attorneys should be shot.

Gritsforbreakfast said...

If you think that's bad, rage, you should see the paltry sums allotted for capital murder defense.

Before the laws were changed to require a PI's license to do the work, I used to do some investigative work for appellate attorneys in capital cases (and actually once was hired to perform a how-to training for capital investigators). The paltry sums allotted for investigators in death cases given the mind boggling scope of the task, particularly to perform minimal due diligence for the mitigation research in the sentencing phase, simply assumed that little significant investigation would be done. I worked 3 or 4 such cases, and in each of them wound up doing some of the investigation pro bono because there were leads that otherwise wouldn't have been followed up. I'll guarantee investigators from the DA's office didn't have that problem.

Anonymous said...

Still picking my jaw up off my desk that a city as large as Houston lacks a PD office.

And surprised that I didn't already know this... just appalling.

BB

rage said...

Yeah, I know Grits. If a lawyer can't effectively do the job and intentionally defaults on his duty to his client, he should not take the cases. Period.

Taking a case and then saying you aren't paid enough so you don't even talk to your client more than once should get you suspended.

TexPD4Parity said...

Travis County's juvenile public defenders office pre-dates the Dallas office.

Anonymous said...

I don't know in which county anonymous practices, but in Harris County, I have never had a judge limit the number of visits I have had with a client nor have I ever had a judge deny a request for payment for investigative assistance. Maybe someone should talk to some lawyers that actually do accpet appointments in Harris County and stop just accepting as gospel truth the gumblins of attorneys who can't pass the test to get on the appointment list.

Anonymous said...

HARRIS COUNTY DOES HAVE A HUGH PROBLEM...MY FRIEND SITS IN JAIL WAITING TO EVEN BE HEARD IN FRONT OF A JUDGE. HIS COURT APPOINTED ATTORNEY MEETS WITH HIM BEFORE THE HEARING WHICH ONCE WAS CANCELLED BECAUSE THE DA COULDNT MAKE IT AND TWO OTHER TIMES HE DON'T EVEN HAVE A CLUE AS TO WHY THE DATE WAS RESET. THE LAST TIME HE DIDNT EVEN SEE HIS LAWYER NOR GET RESET DATES. IS THIS JUSTICE? THE WORST PART IS THAT WITHOUT A HEARING A BOND CAN'T BE SET SO THERE HE IS IN JAIL GOING ON TWO MONTHS, NOW UNABLE TO WORK, NOW UNABLE TO MAKE CHILD SUPPORT AND NOW STILL SITTING WAITING WAITING WAITING.....

Anonymous said...

Honorable -----------------
I recently had the opportunity to hear Randall Kallinen speak on the badly needed Public Defenders Office.

I happened across this meeting because I follow Houston property rights group where Randall spoke. I expected something much different.

Since all my experience has been civil, until recently, I always thought of court appointed attorneys as those harvesting the low hanging fruit. It doesn’t take much effort and the rewards plentiful. I thought this miserable cadre was out to consume more tax dollars while doing what they seem to do best. Nothing according to those who use them!

How wrong I was… Even more so in the costs of incarceration. It is amazing. Who is profiting at this? Money going out of my city. My understanding is Louisiana lobbyists already pay dearly to keep our gambling money there and now they want to collect on more sins and can do it cheaper?

I am a landlord of working class folk, clean 3 bedroom houses with updates like central a/c good doors and healthy environments. Not much sexy about it but it allows me to be gainfully under-employed most of the time. Perhaps my ego should be bigger and force me to work harder but that is another topic.

Since you support Randall this is what I suggest.

As long as it is legal I can place your political signs and get written permission from owners at no charge to you. I finally have a gas sipping car and I am on a mission.

Dennis Anga @ 713-643-4446

I am in the Hobby area and likely an area under served by volunteers. Most of are working to hard to raise our head up for voluntary work.

Don’t get me wrong here. This effort is completely self interest.

When the city incarcerates my tenants I don’t get paid.

When people tell me they are seeking something for the principal of it I always know that is when it will cost the most. Judges won’t like Randall’s proposal at all. I would also suggest he be the founder of the new government. He understands civil rights.

Anonymous said...

We have appointed attorneys in Galveston county and a County judge married to an employee of the Da's office but every one thinks that is ok

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