With more than 6,000 inmates, the Dallas County Jail houses more people than the prison systems in a dozen states, so you don't really get to operate it on the cheap, but you wouldn't know it to read this article from the Dallas News ("Dallas County Commissioners pledge no tax increases amid budget deficit," June 4), where Kevin Krause reported that the county may slash the public defender budget to cut costs:
Some ideas discussed Tuesday include self-imposed hiring freezes and cashing unclaimed tax refunds. The public defender’s office was at the center of proposed cuts. Generally, using public defenders is cheaper than paying court-appointed private defense lawyers, according to county statistics.
Many of the county and district judges have increased their use of public defenders in recent years, but some judges are not assigning enough cases to them, county officials said. As a result, costs per case are increasing.
If the judges continue not sufficiently using their public defenders, the positions will be cut, commissioners said.
Some judges have public defenders who cost more than court-appointed lawyers.
The public defender’s separate appeals division that began operating in 2007 at a cost of $629,675 annually appears headed for the chopping block due to lack of use by district judges. It was supposed to save money, but costs associated with that division increased 50 percent last year, county records show.
Part of the problem, officials said, was that the 2006 elections swept into office a new slate of criminal court judges who weren’t as aware of using public defenders for certain cases as a cost savings.
Commissioners asked Chief Public Defender Brad Lollar why his misdemeanor attorneys weren’t handling more of the easier cases. Mr. Lollar said quality of representation is more important to him than costs and it’s difficult to know which cases will end up going to trial and which ones will end in a plea bargain.
Slashing the public defender budget would be penny wise and pound foolish. A much better approach would simply be to convince local judges to use the agency more. Why appoint private counsel when the county already pays lawyers to handle the cases? What's more, the appointment process creates delays in the system while representation by a public defender can help process cases more quickly, reducing unnecessary (and expensive) jail time.
Dallas operates a hybrid public defender system that also relies partially on court appointed lawyers. You have to wonder what incentives Dallas judges act on when they fail to use the public defender office? Is the answer, as Krause wrote, simply that new judges elected in 2006 were unaware of the PD office, or is there some darker political influence? A good followup to Krause's story would be to figure out which attorneys are getting the most appointments, then cross reference their names to judges' campaign contributors. (Ditto for the county commissioners court.)
The Dallas jail only recently began to pass state inspections, and the Sheriff can barely keep it staffed adequately. Any new hitch that boosts the jail population - like extra delays caused by appointing counsel instead of using a PD - could bump up expenses far beyond the small savings Dallas might achieve by cutting PD jobs.
Why do readers think new Democratic judges in Dallas aren't using the public defender office as much as their GOP predecessors? Based purely on stereotypes, one might assume Democrats would be more sympathetic to a PD office, but their ascension to judicial power could wind up gutting the office. That's both an odd development and a bad idea.
UPDATE: Dallas not the only PD office facing funding cuts.