Tuesday, September 21, 2010

County indigent defense costs far outpacing inflation

While I was away, most Texas counties approved their annual budgets and one of the big criminal justice growth areas in recent years for many of them has been rising indigent defense costs - a function of increased state regulation and the fact that the number of new cases has continued to rise (inexplicably) despite crime declining across the state.

In 2009, Texas counties spent a total of $186,307,540 on indigent defense, more than a 109% increase from 2001 when counties spent $91,426,518, according to public data on the website of the Task Force on Indigent Defense. According to the Inflation Calculator, overall inflation increased just 21% over the same period, meaning the costs in many jurisdictions are soaring compared to other expenses. Here are the data for a few selected counties:

Increased county spending on indigent defense: 2001-2009

Bexar: 146.23%
Cameron: 187.59%
Dallas: 39.41%
Denton: 89.38%
El Paso: 111.09%
Fort Bend: 333.84%
Galveston: 122.20%
Harris: 135.19%     
Hood: 178.25%
Hunt: 245.44%
McLennan: 110.30%
Montgomery: 205.77%
Nacogdoches: 190.10%
Potter: 28.13%
Randall: 94.33%
Smith: 74.64%
Tarrant: 135.83%
Travis: 89.34%
Val Verde: 303.88%
Victoria: 186.61%
Webb: 115.33%
Wichita: 95.61%
Williamson: 204.76%

The state regulations were installed in response to federal courts' determinations that Texas' indigent defense systems were inadequate and aren't likely to change any time soon. But there are things counties can do to rein in these expenses, specifically establishing public defender offices and simply prosecuting fewer people. For example, Dallas is the only large county on this list that has had a public defender office for all of the last decade, and their costs grew at a dramatically lower rate than other large jurisdictions.

The Lege could help with this by downgrading certain Class B misdemeanors to Class Cs - marijuana arrests in particular are a big one, but they could also consider downgrading some of the other offenses for which police have been authorized to give a summons instead of making arrests. Courts must supply indigent defendants with lawyers for Class B misdemeanors on up, but Class Cs carry only fines as punishments and don't trigger counties' indigent defense responsibilities.


Anonymous said...

You have to take the state's population increase into consideration too, which increases caseloads.

Gritsforbreakfast said...

True, but population growth statewide was just 17.7% from 2000 to 2010 - these are still large increases by comparison, particularly those up in the triple digits.

Alexandra M. Gauthier said...

I think you would find the main reason for the increase in spending was, is, senate bill which set standards to pay for indigent defense as well as standards for lawyers to meet before they could represent indigent clients. I am going to go out on a limb and postulate that the counties in the tripe digits were not paying a pauper's wage to the attorneys in their counties.

Alexandra M. Gauthier said...

That is Senate Bill7 and triple....clearly I need more coffee prior to posting comments...

Alexandra M. Gauthier said...

Senate Bill 7 the Fair Defense Act, aka Indigent Defense Act and triple...clearly I need more coffee prior to posting comments...

Anonymous said...

But then if you bump down POM and DWLS to Class Cs, you simply shift the burden to Municipal and JP courts, and DPS. The defendants don't get an attorney, and then they don't show up to court because they can't afford the fine and/or can't get off work and/or don't have transportation and/or just "forget," then they get the failure to appear, which turns into an OmniBase fee, a warrant, and a DL suspension, then they're arrested, plead guilty, and spend a few days in jail to lay out the ticket, then they're hit with a surcharge or DL suspension, and then they get another DWLS, and round and round and round it goes. From a fiscal standpoint, it may be a more efficient use of limited financial resources for the courts to just pay baby lawyers $150 a pop to roll indigents through the plea mill to get time served. Not that it's right, but criminalizing the underclass doesn't come cheap.

Gritsforbreakfast said...

8:16, of course I hate the Driver Responsibility surcharge too and there are quite a few at the Lege who want it to go away. Michigan is in the process of repealing theirs.

Also, the Class B penalties involve sending folks to jail (both for the arrest and potentially for punishment), so when you add in those costs plus indigent defense I've little doubt it'd be cheaper for counties to ratchet down the penalties for those offenses than to do what you've proposed.

Alexandra, I think that's a large part of it, for sure, combined with expanding caseloads during a period of declining crime. But SB7 isn't something that's going to change anytime soon, and shouldn't. If counties want to reduce costs they need to find structural solutions.