Tuesday, July 22, 2008

State indigent defense task force: Dallas public defender caseloads too high

John Wiley Price and the Dallas County Commissioners Court don't appear fazed by the news, but the Texas Task Force on Indigent Defense today issued a report (pdf) analyzing the Dallas public defender office appellate division and caseloads at the state's largest PD office.

Countering Price's critique, the TFID found the appellate division cost the county $72 per hour of billable work compared to the $100 paid to private attorneys. Local officials countered that they don't pay private attorneys for holidays and said PDs bill more hours per case than private lawyers. Quien sabe?

According to the TFID, the Dallas appellate division handles 60 cases per year per attorney,while the Bexar County appellate division handles 35 per attorney. The number of cases assigned to the Dallas appellate division has been increasing every year, said the report.

TFID also countered recent criticisms of the office by the Dallas County Commissioners Court - in particular Commissioner John Wiley Price - that PD office attorneys are lazy and their caseloads are too low. Reported the News ("State report supports Dallas County public defender division," July 22):

The task force’s report also evaluated the public defenders’ caseloads and concluded they would be cost effective even if they handled fewer cases than what county commissioners are requiring.

Mr. Price has said some lawyers in the office are not pulling their weight. Brad Lollar, the former chief public defender, was forced to resign last month because commissioners were unhappy with his management of the office.

Commissioners want public defenders to handle at least 100 misdemeanor cases a month and 40 felony cases per month, the report said. That is three or more times higher than “nationally recommended standards” and substantially higher than caseloads handled by other Texas public defenders, the report said.

“Overloading public defenders can pose a serious threat to the indigent’s right to competent counsel,” the report said.

In Dallas County, public defenders could handle as little as 50 misdemeanor cases a month and 26 felony cases a month and still be cost effective, the report says. That’s because county figures show that the average cost per case for public defenders is lower than for private lawyers.

Mr. Price said he hasn’t read the task force’s report but that his analysis shows that 50 misdemeanor cases a month won’t cut it. Court-appointed lawyers handle more than that, he said.

The TFID's report gives the soundest basis I've seen for assessing the credence of claims that the PD office in Dallas provides poor service or costs more than private practitioners. The more pressing question is whether the commissioners court will listen to the Task Force on Indigent Defense ... or to anybody.

See related Grits posts:


editor said...

This will just decrease the desirability of becoming a public defender which will decrease the quality of services, which will decrease effectiveness, which will decrease . . .


Anonymous said...

One would think either JWP is the only commissioner who has an opinion on the subject or else the DMN is demonstrating an incredible lack of imagination an/or thoroughness only seeking out his opinion. Or do the other commissioners just go along with him to keep the peace...relative as that word in the context of the commissioners court.

And where is the county's own cost effectiveness study? Dragging their feet, are they?

The DMN article also states LPR was made Chief Public Defender. The agenda item says she was only to be made 'acting' CPD. Anyone know what the commissioners actually did since we can't expect any clarity from the DMN?

I have to agree with stir crazy. Who'd want to go to work for the Dallas PD's office in this climate of ever-increasing caseloads?

Anonymous said...

I believe public defenders are the best way to go in regards to "quality of service" I just wish everyone would quit trying to make them cheaper. They just are not. When you create a county PD office you pay for overhead, furniture, and benefits. No one ever "counts" that when they are coming up with case by case costs. That's why I don't think that should be the performance measure. Are they giving clients better representation? In the appellate world ... are they winning cases? Are they getting more dismissals where warranted? It has always been a complaint (weather it be true or not) that court appointed attorneys just "go through the motions" whereas public defenders "really care" Let's look at some performance indicators that measure that. Client satisfaction maybe. I am sure there are plenty. I know it has to be about the money, but why should it be all about the money. SB 7 was not passed to create cheaper indigent defense, it was passed to create BETTER indigent defense. Let's try and figure out if the PD is delievering that and move on from there.

Anonymous said...

I agree, 8:04, that there ought to be a lot more consideration given to factors other than the bottom line. Whether one is a PD or assigned counsel, the attorney ought to care about doing a good job and getting the best results possible for his/her client under the circumstances. One of the advantages of a PD's office is that one can develop an expertise in an area (appellate, family, juvenile delinquency,criminal, mental health, CPS, etc..) that perhaps the "jack of all trades" general practitioner taking court appointments doesn't develop to the same depth. That's not a condemnation of all assigned counsel. I know plenty who do extremely good work on court appointed cases, although those do tend to concentrate on particular areas.

Even though SB 7 was created to achieve better indigent defense, I think it really didn't go far enough. It didn't satisfactorily address issues of compensation, support or caseloads. It didn't set standards for indigence. And changes to TCCP 26.044 haven't gone far enough either.

Anonymous said...

The extra costs not calculated in the PD cost per case (office space, supplies, etc) is a legitimate critique of the TFID report. But - being a PD and knowing what kind of office supplies/equipment we actually get - I doubt it skews the numbers as much as the commissioners' court argues.

And stir crazy: you're not kidding about this whole mess affecting would be public defenders. I know if I was a young idealistic attorney looking to help people...I wouldn't apply with Dallas county right now.

Anonymous said...

I guess I should read these reports before commenting. That IS the report commissioned by Dallas County. Sorry about the "(D)ragging their feet" remark. Maybe JWP ought to read it as well before shooting off his mouth. Of course, this is SOP for the reports commissioned by the commissioners. The report done by the Spangenburg Group in 2004 made a number of recommendations, most of which were ignored.

I find it interesting no attempt was made to determine the cost effectiveness of any divisions other than appellate, misdemeanor and felony.

Anonymous said...

10:04, I hear what you are saying regarding supplies etc., and I know there is real truth there. But the county pays rent, benefits, salary etc. and that adds up. And maybe it adds up to more than they were paying before ... but what are you getting for your buck? Are the indigent defendants getting better representation? That is not just the spirit of the law, it is the letter of the law. If you are then you are doing your job, if you aren't than you are doing the indigent and the tax payer a disservice. So ask the right questions and quit making it all about the money.

lawlady98 said...

You guys are just assuming that overhead costs are not included in the cost per case analysis. Total budget divided by number of cases disposed could give you that figure. I wholeheartedly agree that money should not be the bottom line, but it is, as far as commissioner's court goes. From what I can tell, one of the problems in Dallas is that the PD was doing a good job, so the commissioner's court thought, well, they're doing a good job at x number of cases per attorney and costing us x dollars; if we up it to even more cases per attorney, it will cost even less per case! But, of course, legal work is not the same thing as producing widgets, and as so many posters have pointed out, a legitimate review needs to look at performance measures as well.
As with anything, there are good PDs and bad PDs. As a system, however, I believe that a public defenders office is superior to the appointed cousnel system because it provides oversight and accountability that simply does not exist with appointed counsel. How are we to know whether an appointed attorney is doing a good job? Who to ask-the client, who often hates the attorney even when the attorney does do a good job? And, who does the asking? With a PD system, you at least have a chief PD, who answers to commissioner's court, and who can directly address problems as they arise. And, as far as cost is concerned, the PD system offers another advantage over appointed counsel, in that it provides for budgetary predictability. (And, you don't have attorneys vouchers being approved to be paid by the same judges who appointed them to the representation--a system that invites the appearance of impropriety and one that places both the judiciary and appointed counsel in untenable positions). The bottom line figure may be that the PD's office is a little more expensive, but the benefits so greatly outweigh the extra expense that it is absolutely justifiable.

Anonymous said...

12:00 - I'm not "making it all about the money" - the commissioners court is. All I care about is representing my clients and I can't do that to the best of my abilities running a docket 3 times the size recommended by the American Bar Association and the TFID. But reality is reality and the only way to combat the commissioners' arguments is head on. If they want to argue money, then we'll argue money. The commissioners don't care about quality representation until they get sued for providing sub-par representation. They care about what it's politically expedient to care about. Right now, that's money and we're an easy target b/c we represent people most people abhor.

Anonymous said...

Perhaps the money for the PD's office disappeared down a black hole. Whoops, sorry Mr. Price!

Anonymous said...

I agree that total budget divided by number of cases disposed would give you the proper cost per case figure. It would be a more accurate number if dismissals were counted as dispositions, but apparently (as I've heard) they are not. Am I correct in this?