Thursday, December 13, 2007

At one-year anniversary, Kaufman County public defender says focus on mentally ill

Via Robert Guest at I Was The State, I was pleased to discover an article from the Terrell Tribune ("Just a year old, Kaufman County PD's office serves as a model for others around state," Dec. 13) reflecting on the one-year anniversary of the Kaufman County public defender office. Guest points to a common theme in MSM reporting about public defender offices:
The news article seems to focus on the cost savings to the county. Much is made over the fact that the average cost per case is down 50% over 2005-2006. Is that a good thing? I know the county wants to save money but the government created the need for indigent defense. Instead of looking for the cheapest defense maybe we should rethink our incarceration epidemic.
Good point. We certainly don't see enough news coverage about that! Besides, providing counsel to defendants isn't nearly as costly to taxpayers as housing them in jails and prisons after they've been convicted.

Perhaps an even more important upside from the public defender office in Kaufman County from a public safety perspective may be the creation of a de facto advocate for mentally ill defendants who use up tremendous extra resources, using the local jail as a substitute for community based mental health treatment. (Regular readers know that Texas jails and prisons warehouse tens of thousands of mentally ill inmates.) Buried in the Tribune article public defender Andrew Jordan exudes:
“I am really excited to be working right now with the district attorney, the sheriff and the judges to create a special program for mentally ill clients,” Jordan said. “Sadly, over the last several years the Legislature has continued to under fund programs that care for people with recognized mental illnesses.”

According to Jordan, the result has been that the county jail has become the de facto care facility for citizens who, through no fault of their own, can't interact in society.

“In addition to being expensive and presenting a liability issue for Kaufman County, it's simply inhumane,” Jordan said. “Many of these individuals also qualify for my office's services so that area of the law is of particular importance to me. Hopefully in another year I can report that we have found a way to balance public safety against the absolute need to take a more compassionate approach to the mentally ill who enter our criminal justice system.”
Writes Guest, a former East Texas prosecutor, "That is absolutely true. The mentally ill are constantly arrested and shuffled through the criminal justice system." I'm not sure that Kaufman County would be directly addressing mental health issues among indigent defendants if they hadn't created a public defender office. A system of appointed private attorneys simply doesn't empower the kind of big-picture advocacy role that an institutional public defender can play on issues like criminalizing the mentally ill.

I'm all for defense lawyers making a living, but I'm increasingly convinced that many defendants receive poor representation for the price that counties are willing to pay per head, and that public defender offices provide more consistent quality of counsel, provide an important institutional counterweight to the elected DA, and obviously cost less overall to operate than paying private lawyers case by case.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Now can we see how much is spent over all by the Public Defender's office as compared to the DA's office?

Be sure to include the Jail cost for defendents who are coerced into a plea because they cannot make bail.

Then you can also see how much is spent on community mental health as compared to the mentally ill in jail and prison from each county for a year.

Of course I agree that a lot of good is being done. The point is there is much more to be done.