Defendants who are black or unable to hire their own lawyers have been underrepresented in a Travis County district attorney's office program that gives select felony defendants a rare chance to escape their charges without a criminal record, according to an Austin American-Statesman analysis.This is coming up because District Judge and Democratic DA challenger Charlie Baird has made it an issue in the race:
Travis County District Attorney Rosemary Lehmberg said she is concerned about the imbalance and hopes to further diversify participation in her pretrial diversion program, which she started in 2010, with more education for defense lawyers about it.
Lehmberg said she hopes to encourage defense lawyers to be on the lookout for clients who would qualify and succeed, especially African Americans.
But defense lawyers interviewed said they know about the program, and some believe that it's Lehmberg's rule that disqualifies anyone with a prior criminal record that has led to the dearth of participation by black defendants and people represented by court-appointed lawyers.
They said many defendants who require court-appointed lawyers often have a disqualifying criminal record.
The program has been criticized by former District Judge Charlie Baird, Lehmberg's challenger in the May Democratic primary for the county's top felony prosecutor position.I don't believe the reason the program has few black folks in it is that there weren't enough minority prosecutors in decision making slots. Instead, there's something about the criteria set by the DA - perhaps especially surrounding prior convictions or indigence - that's playing into those distinct ratios, something probably more related to class than race. When just 11% of defendants in the program have appointed counsel compared to 73% overall, that tells you there are barriers to entry that for the most part only the well-heeled are overcoming. Maybe the answer isn't to "open the doors ... to anybody," but perhaps it's worth considering cracking the door a bit wider to avoid such disparate outcomes.
Baird called the entry requirements discriminatory, saying he does not believe that prosecutors are rejecting applications because of the race or ethnicity of defendants. He said he would allow defendants convicted of some misdemeanor crimes to participate and would expand the list of crimes considered for the program, although he said he is still developing specifics on his proposed new criteria.
Baird said he wants more people to get the chance to avoid a felony conviction, which can forever affect a person's ability to secure things such as loans, jobs and housing.
"The collateral consequences of a felony conviction are just devastating to an individual who is truly repentant, remorseful and who otherwise would live a good, solid, happy life supporting themselves and their family," he said.
The American-Statesman analysis comes after a review of court files, data from Lehmberg's office and data from the Travis County court administration office.
The analysis found that although African Americans made up about 32 percent of those arrested in Travis County on new felony charges during 2010 and 2011, they account for 9 percent of the 131 defendants who have been accepted into the pretrial diversion program since its creation in 2010.
About 73 percent of felony defendants in Travis County during the previous two years were found to be poor and given a court-appointed lawyer. About 11 percent of defendants accepted into the pretrial diversion program were represented by court-appointed lawyers.
Lehmberg said she has already taken some steps aimed at ensuring the program is fairly administered.
Late last year she added two trial court prosecutors — Monica Flores, a Latina, and Craig Moore, an African American — to the panel that decides who gets into the program. That panel had previously had three veteran white male supervisors in her office.
"I do not agree with (Baird) that the answer to this is to throw open the doors to the program to anybody," Lehmberg said. "This program is intended to provide an opportunity to nonaddicted defendants with no record who made a mistake and want to accept responsibility and go on with their lives."