Friday, September 16, 2005

Does Tarrant County need a public defender?

Does Tarrant County need a Public Defender office? It seems like it to me, but a new draft consultants' report shoots down the idea.

In 2001, Texas passed the Fair Defense Act (SB 7) setting standards for appointment of attorneys for indigent defendants, spurring a rise in defense costs statewide. But Tarrant (Fort Worth is the county seat) witnessed higher-than-normal increases, prompting the county to
commission a study (pdf) by the National Center for State Courts to identify why. (Grits obtained the document under the Texas Public Information Act.) Here's the crux of the problem:
During the first three years of its implementation ... the cost for appointed counsel in Tarrant County rose significantly. Specificaly, the county's expenditures for appointed counsel incresed by 87% between FY 2001, prior to the implementation of SB 7, and FY 2004 ($5,736,459 in 2001, and $10,764,443 in FY04). During the same period, statewide expenditures for court-apponted counsel rose by 40%.
Those extra costs mostly stem from the new system, not higher caseloads. Despite an 87% cost increase, over the same period "the number of cases in which court appointed counsel is assigned increased by approximately 13 percent."

Tarrant County appoints private attorneys through a decentralized system at 37 different locations. Since passage of SB 7, judges use a "wheel" system for assignments rather than their own discretion. The consultant proposed centralizing the process in a single spot -- a strategy that may have merit but which also suffers from tremendous logistical barriers and startup costs.

They rejected another suggestion, not because it's unworkable, but because stakeholders didn't like it: "Satisfaction with the status quo is a strong impediment to forming a public defenders office," the consultants wrote.

If Tarrant really wanted to control indigent defense costs, though, that'd be the way to go.
In Dallas, which has a public defender office handling half the indigent cases, defense costs increased just 10.6 percent over the same three years that Tarrant's went up 87%. Maybe folks in Fort Worth could learn something from their neighbor next door.

Statewide, Dallas, Colorado, Wichita, Webb, and El Paso counties presently have public defenders. Travis and Cameron counties use PDs only for juvenile cases. Reported the consultant, "The costs of indigent defense have been stated at $386 per client for counties with a Public Defender, and $422 for counties without."

Questions have been raised whether the Dallas office is underfunded and understaffed, they report (it handles half the county's indigent cases at 1/3 the total cost), plus "annual wage increases and the need for additional staff as caseloads increase are a reality for established governmental entities." However, "In a large urban jurisdiction there are certainly economies of scale that could keep the cost of indigent defense lower than using court appointed counsel."

The consultants announced that "Nothing in the review of the Tarrant County criminal justice system suggests the time is appropriate to establish a county public defender office," but that statement ignores the financial arguments they'd just laid out. Moreover, they seem to view a public defender office as the main possible solution to rising indigent defense costs if the county decides to get serious: "If the county continues to experience escalating costs for indigent defense that are deemed unacceptable, a proper planning mechanism should be established to assess the feasibility of a public defender system."

If they were really clever, Tarrant officials would begin "proper planning" now. If they wait three more years and indigent defense costs double again, taxpayers will be wondering why they didn't act sooner.

For more information, see the Texas Task Force on Indigent Defense's "
Blueprint for Creating a Public Defender Office in Texas."

See also from Grits: Bail policies juice Tarrant jail overcrowding.

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