According to the report, Harris would likely see significant financial advantages by creating a public defender office. Once established, "these offices do not significantly raise indigent defense spending and in fact generate savings in other areas of the criminal justice system," particularly reducing jail expenses, which are a major concern for Harris.
Public defenders typically are cheaper per-case than appointed counsel, says the report, but jail costs arguably may be the most important area a PD office would produce savings. "For example, the Hidalgo County Public Defender Office reduced the average number of days between arrest and disposition of an imprisoned misdemeanor defendant's case from 15 to 11 days." In Kaufman County, officials attribute reducing the county's average jail population from 306 to 246 inmates their new public defender.
Using an appellate public defender similarly can result in jail cost savings by reducing the amount of time defendants spend in jail post-conviction:
Bexar County‟s Appellate Defender Office has been successful in shrinking the number of post-conviction days individuals spend in county jail by expediting court proceedings and implementing filing deadlines that often are in advance of the 30-day time period allowed under the Rules of Appellate Procedure. These innovations have decreased the average time inmates spend in Bexar County custody after conviction from six months to 55 days. As a result, inmates are transferred to the Texas Department of Criminal Justice (TDCJ) more quickly ... and the County yielded a $531,000, savings in incarceration costs between October 2007 and August 2008 alone.Because Harris County currently sends inmates to other counties and to a private prison in Louisiana, TFDP estimates that for every reduction of ten prisoners in the jail, the county saves $10,800 per month in money paid to other jail systems.
PDs also offer greater financial predictability on indigent defense and reduce administrative costs, says TFDP, because they "dramatically reduce the number of decisions judges have to make about attorney appointments, training and experience qualifications, caseload management and fee vouchers," which translates into savings in the time and money spent by court officials performing these functions.
In addition to the financial benefits, the paper argues that creating a public defender office would improve oversight of appointed attorneys and give decisionmakers more information about their activities.
Currently some appointed attorneys maintain caseloads that are far greater than the maximum recommended by the National Legal Aid and Defender Association. TFDP cited one attorney (who was paid $1.9 million over an eight year stretch) who carried as many as 12 capital cases in a single year as well as an above-guidelines caseload of non-capital felony clients. The Houston Chronicle reported in May that about a third of attorneys who take felony appointments in Harris have more appointed clients than recommended by these guidelines.
Further, appointed attorneys may be less likely to visit their clients in jail before going to court. Citing courtroom observations by a staffer in 2008, TFDP says that "attorneys frequently fail to meet with their clients promptly and in advance of formal court proceedings" and that "many lawyers clearly had never met their clients before the clients' first court date." (They knew this because "lawyers would call out client names, ask clients to identify themselves, and then introduce themselves to the clients," according to a footnote.)
PD offices also boost defense access to investigators. Texas public defenders from 2003-2005 spent between $38 and $49 per case on investigators in felony cases, according to a study out of Texas A&M, while cases with appointed lawyers saw $17-$18 spent on investigators per case.
PD offices increase professionalism, TFPD argues, by offering entry level positions and opportunities for advancement that enable them to recruit and develop young talent just like prosecutors, as well as offering better training and intangible but important benefits from greater institutional memory. They also allow specialization in areas where clients have "special needs" - particularly in cases involving mentally ill defendants (who represent about a quarter of defendants in the county jail, to judge by how many are taking psychotropic medication).
TFDP could have suggested another strong argument for creating a public defender office that was made Tuesday by Stephen Bright of the Southern Center for Human Rights in testimony (pdf) before Congress: Preventing the conviction of innocent people. Specifically citing Harris County's example, Bright said that sloppy representation by appointed counsel who take on too many cases increases the chance that innocent people will be convicted who receive inadequate representation.
Hopefully the Harris Commissioners Court will heed the arguments in this white paper and move forward next week toward creating a new defender office. So far there's been no media coveage of the TFDP report, so I hope commissioners will take the time to educate themselves on the subject. Given their chronic jail overcrowding problems, it might be a chance for Harris County to kill more than one bird with a single stone.
RELATED: See this letter (pdf) to the Harris County Commissioner's Court from the Texas Criminal Justice Coalition and an array of religious and community groups supporting the creation of a public defender office.