Sunday, June 25, 2006

New Hidalgo Public Defender office focused on bail reductions

Earlier I linked to a new report (pdf) by the Spangenberg Group analyzing new public defender systems in Bexar and Hidalgo Counties. I still haven't thoroughly read the 40-page document, but ran across this fact bite on sources of jail overcrowding in Hidalgo County. Thirty percent of Hidalgo Jail inmates are awaiting trial on misdemeanor charges, says the report, a huge proportion compared to other counties. (In Tom Green County, for example, 13% of jail inmates are misdemeanants, in Travis County it's 11%.)

That's why Hidalgo created a new public defender office specifically focused on representing misdemeanor defendants, as Grits mentioned last year. Said the Spangenberg Group after its site visit:

Jail overcrowding is a huge problem in Hidalgo County. It was suggested to us that bond is typically set too high and this contributes to the overcrowding. There are no recommended bonds or county policies on setting bond; the discretion is left to the justice of the peace or magistrate setting bond.

In addition, court-appointed lawyers are not appointed until after magistration, therefore defendants rarely have assistance of counsel when bond is set. If the client has posted bond, then formal charges may not be filed for one to two months. If the defendant is in jail on a Class B misdemeanor, a bond reduction hearing must be held within 15 days, and the same rule applies within 30 days for a Class A misdemeanor. In all cases, the defendant must see a magistrate to be informed of the nature of the charges, to ask for courtappointed counsel, and to have bond set within 48 hours.

Bond reduction hearings must be done before the judge that magistrated the accused. This may present a problem for the public defender attorneys who will have to travel around the county for hearings in front of various justices of the peace; however, if the charge has been submitted by a district attorney, then the public defender can go to the county court for a bond reduction hearing. Despite these problems, we were told that the public defenders are filing bond reduction motions as frequently as possible.
Hidalgo's example shows how jail overcrowding crises caused by excessive bail may find relief through creating a public defender: when indigent defendants have attorneys aggressively requesting their bail be reduced, they're more likely to get out of jail quickly. No big surprise there, but it demonstrates how a front-end investment in staff attorneys can reduce overall expenditures simply by excercising defendants' rights within the system.

There are other ways to accomplish the same goal: Other counties have created Pretrial Services divisions that identify defendants who should be eligible for release on personal bonds. There are a lot of ways to skin the overincarceration cat, and it's interesting to me to watch the various methods employed by different counties. There is no inherently right or wrong response to jail overcrowding, though some ideas like creating public defenders or empowering Pretrial Services to give more personal bonds seem to have few downsides. If that 30% figure declines, Hidalgo's new public defender will have earned its keep by any measure.

See related Grits coverage: