Thursday, June 12, 2008

Dallas public defender saves county money compared to neighbors

The main reason I think Dallas County Commissioners must have some ulterior motive in hounding chief public defender Brad Lollar out of his position this week is that their stated reasons - lazy lawyers and high costs at the PD office - make little sense on their face. Lawyers in the Dallas PD office have been told their agency may be dramatically slashed in the coming budget or even eliminated.

Most counties in recent years would have been thrilled to see their indigent defense costs rise as slowly as in Dallas. Indeed, if Dallas county were to slash the public defender budget, there's little question their costs would increase to match higher recent costs experienced by counties without a PD.

In 2005 a consultant hired by neighboring Tarrant County (Fort Worth) contrasted their indigent defense costs in the wake of passage of Texas' Fair Defense Act in 2001 to their neighbors and the rest of the state, and officials would do well to recall that the Dallas defender office fared particularly well by comparison. Expenditures for court appointed counsel increased 40% statewide in the three years after the Fair Defense Act passed, compared to 13% in Dallas. In Tarrant, the increase was a whopping 87% over that period.

Dallas never absorbed those extra costs because the public defender office buffered county taxpayers from the blow. But if they decide to get rid of the PD office or scale it back dramatically, they need only to ask their neighbors in Tarrant how much indigent defense costs will increase down the line.

The right to counsel in criminal cases is a constitutional guarantee, not an optional expense for the county. If Dallas County Commissioners think the PD office is too pricy, I think they'll be shocked to discover the alternatives cost a lot more.

RELATED: In Georgia, a judge decries "irresponsible" cuts to Fulton County PD office. Some of the Dallas judges are ex-members of the PD office. I wonder what they think about what's happening? Several other states are struggling with rising indigent defense costs. People in the US seem to forget that if you want to operate the largest prison system on the planet, you have to pay to play.


Anonymous said...

The problem with firing lawyers from the PD's office (for the commissioners) is that once they are private attorneys again, if the Judges like them, they will STILL be sucking on the county's t**, only on a per case or hourly basis. This will result in higher costs for the county.

Anonymous said...

I think "sucking on the county's t**" is a bit strong. Whether the indigent are defended by assistant public defenders or assigned counsel, those lawyers are entitled to be paid for their efforts.

Of course, the acting director will only be firing lawyers as a formality. The office is run, not by the director, but by the commissioners who use the ability to fire the chief PD at will to dictate who is hired and who is fired when it suits them.

I think Mr. Lollar was scapegoated because positions approved (and recommended to the commissioners) by the Office of Budget and Evaluation didn't show immediate returns. If the judges reneged on their commitments to use public defenders, why are they not held accountable? Was Mr. Lollar perfect? Hell, no, but who is in this world?

The chief public defenders in Texas either need to be elected positions or appointed to terms from which they cant be removed. If they don't perform, then they're not reelected or reappointed.

It would be interesting to know who gave personnel files to JWP and what the legal ramifications of that are. Apparently, there is a hit list of those targeted for firing.

Anonymous said...

I agree that sucking the county's t*t is also an insult. Those of us who take court appointments get a bad rap because there are those who clearly abuse the system. I know a good number of court appointed attorneys who do very good jobs for their clients. If the county wants to save real money, then they need to set up the Chief PD as an elected position, and put the office on par with the DA's office including the number of attorneys. Otherwise, the crap that they are trying to pull now will continue.

Anonymous said...

No longer content with the Public Defenders Office saving the county money, the budget office and the commissioners seem intent on a savings/profit maximization scheme with the PD's office.