Thursday, February 02, 2006

New PD office should improve "Law West of the Pecos"

In Del Rio, Val Verde County officials are about to enact one of the most important changes in their criminal justice system since Judge Roy Bean declared himself the "Law West of the Pecos."

Val Verde recently received a fat grant from the Texas Task Force on Indigent Defense to launch a new public defender office that should help control attorney costs and jail overcrowding ("
County to get public defender program," Del Rio News-Herald, Jan. 22). They're hoping the new office will cover up to three other counties besides Val Verde, making it the first regional public defender in the state. The job may wind up being contracted out to a nonprofit legal services group. Reported the News-Herald:
According to figures provided by the task force, Val Verde County’s expenses in providing legal representation for persons who cannot afford attorneys when they are charged with a criminal offense have risen 83 percent since the state passed the Fair Defense Act in 2001.

In Fiscal Year 2001, the county spent $176,404 on indigent defense.

In Fiscal Year 2005, it shelled out $323,659.

The $470,304 grant provided to the county through the Task Force on Indigent Defense will help the county set up a regional public defender program that will serve both Val Verde County and neighboring Edwards County.

“Two other counties, Terrell and Kinney, will be offered the opportunity to participate. The program will be implemented either as a county department or a non-profit corporation,” said Bryan Wilson, grants administrator for the Task Force on Indigent Defense.

“A request for proposals (RFP) will be issued by commissioners court in accordance with the Texas Code of Criminal Procedure. The county’s current preference is for a non-profit corporation. If a non-profit is awarded this contract, it will be the first time in Texas that indigent defense would be provided in this manner,” Wilson added.

Wilson also noted that “it will be the first time in Texas that a regional solution for constitutional effective assistance of counsel has been provided in a formal program.”
Regular readers know I'm a fan of public defenders' offices, especially compared to the sorry, court-appointed system many Texas counties operate under now, where indigent clients too often receive inadequate representation from attorneys who aren't really paid enough to care. That doesn't mean every attorney who accepts court appointed clients does a bad job -- not at all. I know some first-rate lawyers who give court-appointed clients the identical representation they do to those who pay them. But in aggregate, the results are spotty, inconsistent from client to client in comparison to public defenders.

By contrast, PDs typically provide more consistent, zealous defense than appointed systems. What's more, they save counties money on indigent defense costs, and help reduce jail overcrowding by advocating more frequently for personal bonds and processing cases faster through the system.

A little birdie told me that the nonprofit group being considered to run the public defenders office is Texas RioGrande Legal Aid, a quality outfit that seems like a good fit for the border region.

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