Monday, April 07, 2008

Proposed Harris County study will likely predict substantial savings from a public defender office

Considering how much money Harris County spends on its criminal justice system, I'm surprised their commissioners court appears to have barely ever considered the idea of a public defender office, which state Sen. Rodney Ellis has been pushing recently.

"The only thing I know about the public defenders system is what I see on Law and Order," Harris County Judge Ed Emmett told the Houston Chronicle last week ("Commissioners may okay study of public defender," April 5), anticipating the commissioners court's approval tomorrow of a study on creating a new public defender office. "I will maintain an open mind, for sure" At least that's encouraging.

Demonstrating a further lack of knowledge were Commissioner Steve Radack's comments: "Radack said he is convinced that defendants in Harris County receive fair representation from court-appointed lawyers and will look at only whether a public defender system would save money." "They can study it," he said, "but unless it saves taxpayers' money, then I'm not for it."

What's strange to me about that comment: Saving money is the main reason more Texas counties in recent years have gone with a public defender system. While examples abound of low-quality indigent lawyering (Houston is where the famous "sleeping lawyer" in a death penalty case was considered to be providing adequate counsel), the main reasons other large cities employ them are economies of scale, and a more rapid adjudication of cases which allows the county to reduce the jail population.

Even if Radack only means to compare the cost of a PD office side by side with the current indigent defense budget, public defenders are cheaper by a country mile. For example, Dallas County has a PD office (which supplements private appointments), but Tarrant County does not. In the first three years after passage of Texas' Fair Defense Act, Tarrant's costs increased 87%, mostly from increased attorney fees (as opposed to increased caseload). In Dallas, the comparable cost increase was 10.6% over the same period.

So to judge by other counties' experience, a PD would likely save money over the current system, even only considering baseline budgets. But if the analysis includes savings from reduced incarceration from faster processing times (remember, Harris County's jail is 1,000 inmates over capacity and rents 600 beds per month already from a private jail in Louisiana), there's little question savings will far outstrip new costs.

For that reason, I honestly don't understand where Commissioner Radack is coming from, and hope he becomes more educated during the process (along with Judge Emmett) about PD offices and their relationship with the rest of the justice system. If that's his main concern, he should support this idea.

In addition, other PDs in Texas have received supplemental startup funds from the Texas Task Force on Indigent Defense, which I'm certain would be chomping at the bit to finance a new PD office in Texas' largest county.

Commissioners Garcia and El Franco broadly support a PD office, so with two of five commissioners likely to approve, and two more undecided or undeclared, this suggestion definitely has legs, for now, despite Radack's objections.

RELATED: From the Texas Task Force on Indigent Defense, see Blueprint for Creating a Public Defender Office in Texas (pdf), which declares on p. 7: "Public defenders can provide comparable quality legal services at less cost than any other indigent defense delivery method. ... The fact that public defenders cost less to operate is a matter of the same basc economic factors that lead most attorneys to work in law firms rather than operate individual offices."

MORE: From Mark Bennett at Defending People, who brings news that commissioners approved the study, predicting that, if approved, "the PD’s Office is likely to start small, providing trial lawyers to two or three of Harris County’s 22 felony courts (I’ve heard that Susan Brown of the 185th District Court and Marc Carter of the 228th District Court are interested)."


Anonymous said...

For Judge Ed Emmett to state, "The only thing I know about the public defenders system is what I see on Law and Order," Harris County Judge Ed Emmett told the Houston Chronicle last week" is disgusting. If he does not know what a Public Defender is, he should resign and let someone who does know take over his bench. What a disgrace and Harris County is known as the most unfair judicial system in the State of Texas. I would be ashamed if I were Judge Emmett to make a statement such as he made to the Chronical.

Unfortunately, this is more common in the judicial system than people realize and some serious questions need to be asked a candidate who is running for especially a judgeship before electing him to hold a position that impacts someone's life, i.e., a fair trial, or the Harris County way. Whatever the Judge and the DA decide is going to happen and usually the defense lawyer is included in this conversation is what happens without even taking into consideration the fairness to the client. Harris County needs to take a vacuum and clean out their judical sytem and start over. With Mr. Rosenthal gone and the pressure on Sheriff Thomas, maybe there is a light at the end of the tunnel for Harris County. For this we pray. Amen!

Gritsforbreakfast said...

Anon, sorry to be unclear. In Texas counties, the "County Judge" is the equivalent the mayor of the county, with the "Commissioners Court" the equivalent of the city council in a municipal setting.

A judge on the bench would be either a "district judge" for felonies or a "county court at law judge" for misdemeanors. This is an executive branch post.

I'm still a bit surprised, though, because criminal justice accounts for so much of the county budget, you'd think he'd have looked into cost-reduction options before now.

Anonymous said...

If anyone should have a handle on Public Defender's offices it should be Commissioner Steve Radack, since his wife, who is the Chief Justice for the first Court of Appeals, is also a board member on the Texas Task Force on Indigent Defense.

Anonymous said...

If I were Steve Raddick and Judge Ed Emmett I would be ashamed of what I actually admitted I did not know.

I do not have a law degree but I do know what the functions of a Public Defender are and they by the Constitution are supposed to be furnished by everyone accused of a crime and asks for an attorney. There are some PD's who are better than paid for lawyers and actually put more caring into each case. They know they are going to get paid, but a lawyer in private practice may not get paid after the initial trial is over.

How very shameful for a Judge to admit he does know about the public defenders system and to compare that with "Law and Order" a fictious TV show, is one of the most disgusting things I have ever heard a Judge admit to.

Anonymous said...

I am pro Public Defenders! I know that an appointed attorney is provided for those who cannot obtain one on their own here in Harris County, but sometimes those attorneys are just there to say that an attorney was provided! They are required to do so much pro-bono work and that is what they do in the capacity of an attorney for those who can't afford one. I also agree that they sometimes send their clients down a swift road of no return, by not providing them with the best defense they could. Instead they just want the record to show that an attorney was provided. Maybe that is why Harris County jails are so full...poor representation by attorneys that are just fulfilling their pro-bono requirements!