Wednesday, June 04, 2008

Dallas public defender office faces possible cuts thanks to underuse by judges

In the modern era, politicians must begin to choose between two historic mantras: "Tuff on crime" vs. "No new taxes." In Dallas this week, county commissioners announced a "no new taxes" stand that threatens to run head on into successful efforts to reduce overcrowding at the jail.

With more than 6,000 inmates, the Dallas County Jail houses more people than the prison systems in a dozen states, so you don't really get to operate it on the cheap, but you wouldn't know it to read this article from the Dallas News ("Dallas County Commissioners pledge no tax increases amid budget deficit," June 4), where Kevin Krause reported that the county may slash the public defender budget to cut costs:

Some ideas discussed Tuesday include self-imposed hiring freezes and cashing unclaimed tax refunds. The public defender’s office was at the center of proposed cuts. Generally, using public defenders is cheaper than paying court-appointed private defense lawyers, according to county statistics.

Many of the county and district judges have increased their use of public defenders in recent years, but some judges are not assigning enough cases to them, county officials said. As a result, costs per case are increasing.

If the judges continue not sufficiently using their public defenders, the positions will be cut, commissioners said.

Some judges have public defenders who cost more than court-appointed lawyers.

The public defender’s separate appeals division that began operating in 2007 at a cost of $629,675 annually appears headed for the chopping block due to lack of use by district judges. It was supposed to save money, but costs associated with that division increased 50 percent last year, county records show.

Part of the problem, officials said, was that the 2006 elections swept into office a new slate of criminal court judges who weren’t as aware of using public defenders for certain cases as a cost savings.

Commissioners asked Chief Public Defender Brad Lollar why his misdemeanor attorneys weren’t handling more of the easier cases. Mr. Lollar said quality of representation is more important to him than costs and it’s difficult to know which cases will end up going to trial and which ones will end in a plea bargain.

Slashing the public defender budget would be penny wise and pound foolish. A much better approach would simply be to convince local judges to use the agency more. Why appoint private counsel when the county already pays lawyers to handle the cases? What's more, the appointment process creates delays in the system while representation by a public defender can help process cases more quickly, reducing unnecessary (and expensive) jail time.

Dallas operates a hybrid public defender system that also relies partially on court appointed lawyers. You have to wonder what incentives Dallas judges act on when they fail to use the public defender office? Is the answer, as Krause wrote, simply that new judges elected in 2006 were unaware of the PD office, or is there some darker political influence? A good followup to Krause's story would be to figure out which attorneys are getting the most appointments, then cross reference their names to judges' campaign contributors. (Ditto for the county commissioners court.)

The Dallas jail only recently began to pass state inspections, and the Sheriff can barely keep it staffed adequately. Any new hitch that boosts the jail population - like extra delays caused by appointing counsel instead of using a PD - could bump up expenses far beyond the small savings Dallas might achieve by cutting PD jobs.

Why do readers think new Democratic judges in Dallas aren't using the public defender office as much as their GOP predecessors? Based purely on stereotypes, one might assume Democrats would be more sympathetic to a PD office, but their ascension to judicial power could wind up gutting the office. That's both an odd development and a bad idea.

UPDATE: Dallas not the only PD office facing funding cuts.


Anonymous said...

"figure out which attorneys are getting the most appointments, then cross reference their names to judges' campaign contributors"

Before doing this investigative work it would be wise to see what Dallas pays the court appointed attorneys. The reality may be that the pay is so low that the lawyers taking those cases are not the ones with enough money to make sizable contributions.

These judges also hear civil cases... and thats where you'll find the real money.

Gritsforbreakfast said...

Then why do you think they're not using the PD office?

Anonymous said...

Rather than comparing the Public Defender's office to appointed private attorneys, wouldn't it be more interesting to compare its budget to that of the District Attorney's office.

Sure the DA will have more cases because some defendants will have private attorneys, but that will be offset by the cost of investigating the facts... ie the cost of police investigation will not be a line item in the DA's budget, they only pay for investigation beyond that provided by the police.

In all fairness shouldn't the defense be entitled to at least the same level of resources as the prosecution? Currently this only happens in death penalty cases.

Anonymous said...

I'm gonna get off topic here but the mentionof the jail triggered a little rant that has been stirring in me for a while. Something has always bothered me about our concept of jail. I think we are doing it wrong.

The facility we use to punish people convicted of crimes should not be the same facility we use to hold people charged with a criminal offense.

This is totally bogus if you think about the fact that people who are charged are still supposed to be presumed innocent. We shouldn't be locking innocent people up with convicted criminals until they are actually convicted.

Jails should be bifurcated. The jail for people awaiting trial should be more like a dormitory or hotel. Of course you wouldn't accumulate any "time served" in this nicer version of jail, and you could be transferred to the penal jail upon request.

I really hate the fact that some innocent people who can't make bond will plead guilty just to be released with time served rather than fighting a bogus charge. We like to pretend these people are not coerced into the plea but holding them in punishment jail is definitely impacting their decision.

Anonymous said...

10:28 are you saying that Dallas County and District courts are courts of general jurisdiction? I could have sworn they had criminal courts there.

Anonymous said...

According to this web page for the
Dallas County Courts they have separte civil and criminal courts at both the county and district levels.

Anonymous said...

Good article Scott. Don't be fooled, there's an army of lawyers who get fat and rich off almost purely court appointments. Judges are under constant pressure: on the one side from the commissioners to use the PDs office to cut costs and on the other from the private defense bar who wants appointments (and who, as Scott points out, contribute to their campaigns).

Basically it comes down to this: the PDs office cannot be blamed for not handling enough cases because it's the judges who either appoint or don't appoint the PDs office. But blaming the PDs is much easier politically than blaming judges who are outside the commissioners control. Judges = bulletproof, PDs = sitting ducks.

By the way, Scott - your suggestion to see which lawyers get what appointments and how much money is involved is right on point. In fact, here's just such a link:

Anonymous said...

Dallas county has criminal only courts (i.e. Criminal District Courts 1, 2, 3, 4,...) and courts that (theoretically) can handle either civil or criminal cases (i.e. 194th, 195th, 204th...Judicial District Court). In practice, though, all the courts in the criminal courthouse only handle criminal cases.

Anonymous said...

Most of the newly elected judges are former private defense attorneys. They're certainly aware that the PD's office exists. Maybe they're appointing their friends with whom they've had longstanding relationships. They feel they know the quality of their work because they've known them for years. They might not know the assigned PD as well.

Anonymous said...

The Dallas PD’s Office is underutilized because the Dallas County Commissioners don’t have the political spine to require its use. The Commissioners created the PD’s Office, but, at the same time, they allow the county judges to spend their individual court budgets anyway they wish.

For example, one County Criminal Court judge thinks that trials are a waste of the court’s time. So, she doesn’t use any public defenders at all. They set too many cases for trial, she says. Another judge uses the PD’s office, but he likes to clear out by noon everyday. Therefore, he disposes of only half the cases as his colleagues. Still other judges are extremely hardworking, and they are always welcoming a trial and always moving cases. Their courts could accommodate double the usual number of public defenders, if they had the extra money in their budget.

While the band plays on, the Dallas County Commissioners have ordered the attorneys at the PD’s office to keep “statistics” on the number of cases that they dispose. Supposedly, this will justify the Office’s existence. Unless you are a criminal defense attorney, you might not see how stupid this is, so let me fill you in. A not guilty jury verdict for an innocent person who was facing life, which takes months of hard work, counts as “one disposed case.” Shoving a 20 year probation sentence down an innocent person’s throat, which takes only 5 minutes work, counts as “one disposed case.” Yet, in the eyes of the County Commissioners, who only look at the total number of disposed cases, the result is the same. Public defenders are punished by the Commissioners for trying cases in Dallas.

The Dallas County Commissioners don’t want a Public Defender’s Office that provides top quality representation. They want a PD’s Office that moves cases, period! Listen up. Building a fair justice system is hard work, with lots of heavy lifting. You can’t build anything by running your mouth.

One would like to think that the Dallas County Commissioners recognize the recent strides that Dallas has made in improving the quality of justice. Its county jail, which is the size of some smaller state prisons, now passes federal inspection for the first time in years. Amazingly, 17 innocent people have exonerated after spending the best years of their lives in prison. The Dallas District Attorney’s Office now openly embraces DNA testing of the wrongfully convicted. This is the way that things are supposed to work in America. However, just as Dallas County is on the verge of clearing the wreckage of the past, the Commissioners want to roll back the clock.

Dallas is a big city, one of the top 10 largest in the country. An 80 attorney PD Office is hardly unreasonable. I hope that our elected leaders will have the courage to realize this.

Anonymous said...

Dallas County's chief public defender resigns

Mr. Price said he has looked at the number of cases public defenders received, the kind of cases they were getting, and how long it took for them to contact a defendant. Some lawyers in the office were not pulling their weight, Mr. Price said.

"The Public Defender's Office is not a retirement home for lawyers who don't want to work," Mr. Price said. "You can't treat it as if it's a part-time job."