Tuesday, September 29, 2009

Harris County Commissioners Court approves public defender office

Via press releae from state Sen. Rodney Ellis' office:

(Houston , TX )// Harris County Commissioners approved the creation of a public defenders office at today's mid-year review hearing. The decision came after both the District Courts Administrator and the County Courts Manager recommended its creation. The plan to create a public defender office with divisions in appellate, felony trial, juvenile, and mental health will now be sent to the Criminal Justice Coordinating Council for implementation.

"I want to commend Judge Emmett and the commissioners for unanimously voting to do the right thing for Harris County . Until today, Harris County was the only urban area of its size without a public defender office. Today, we can say that we're taking a significant step towards following best practice models that are both economical and smart on crime," said Senator Ellis. "I look forward to working closely with the Council to implement a plan that is efficient and ensures that indigent defendants are receiving quality representation." Ellis began urging for the creation of the office in early 2008.

The commissioners court unanimously voted to study the feasibility of a public defender office back in April 2008.

UPDATE (Sept. 30): From the Houston Chron:

Prodded by two dozen Houston ministers and civil rights activists, Harris County commissioners voted Tuesday to develop a hybrid public defender office under consideration for more than a year.

But the critical details of the office, including its potential use in courts overseen by 40 criminal judges, the operating budget, the hiring of a director and the number of attorneys to staff it must be decided by next February for it to be funded in the county's 2010 budget.

“It's going to take however long its going to take,“ Commissioner El Franco Lee said. “It's now in the hands of judges, and bureaucrats and accountants who will tell us what that costs, can we afford it, and when we can afford if we can't afford it now.”

Officials are hoping a public defender office will help reduce the backlog of jail inmates awaiting trial in the overcrowded county jail system — currently holding 11,430 inmates in jails from Houston to Louisiana — and divert others with mental problems from incarceration.

“At the end of the day this really isn't just about money, it's about justice. We have to ensure the public that defendants are getting an adequate defense,” County Judge Ed Emmett said afterward. “The court's unanimous vote to move forward is a clear indication of an intent to establish a pubic defender's office in next year's budget.”

The 5-0 vote came during the court's annual mid-year budget review. The court referred the implementation of the plan to the newly formed Criminal Justice Coordinating Council. The council, chaired by Lee and drawn exclusively from elected officials, was created by the court this summer to help alleviate chronic jail overcrowding and streamline the county's criminal justice system.


Anonymous said...

"economical and smart on crime." AKA, public defenders are cheap (overworked, underpaid) and smart on crime (dont have time to put up a good fight, so just shuffle people through the system). Perfect. Just what our indigent citizens need. Someone else working against them who gets a paycheck from the same State that pays the prosecutors.

Anonymous said...

Holy crap, I never would have thought.


Pissed off PD said...

I am a Public Defender and am incredibly offended by your comments about our abilities and our work ethic. I've worked in the Dallas County PD's office for over 10 years and I can promise you that I have never "shuffled" a person "through the system" for the sake of expedience or a paycheck. I treat every client as if he is my only client and properly investigate each and every case in order to put up a "good fight."

Don't confuse us with the pay-per-plea court appt'd attorney who will not let anything, like Constitutional rights, stand in the way of getting the plea done and getting the check from the county.

Anonymous said...

Yes, quit being a jerk.

Public defenders are public servants just like prosecutors, police and judicial authorities.

They advocate for their clients and make sure that they are not getting a "raw deal." They also act a check and balance ensuring that their client's rights were not violated.

I have met many lawyers (on the dark side and the light side) that I respect professionally and admired.

Common sense cop....

Anonymous said...

There are always going to be good lawyers and bad lawyers. The advantage of a public defender office is the institutional strength and resources it can offer - e.g. reducing the need to reinvent the wheel on a legal issue if your colleague has already researched and argued it, and an entity that can protect the individual lawyer who is trapped in a stand-off with a bullying judge (much easier to stand up for the client when a county agency has your back). Not to mention the creation of an entity that can have a seat at the table when court administration and funding matters are being discussed and represent the interests of clients and of the defense bar generally.

The real pitfall, it seems to me, is the recruiting of the person who will run the office - you can get fantastic individuals who carry out their defense role zealously - or hacks who are simply friends of the local court administration and judges. (That's been the problem in at least one county that comes to mind.)

And to the person who complains that a Public Defender gets a paycheck from the state - where do you think court appointed counsel for the indigent get their money? Out of the sky?

NoMoreNoloContendere said...

Hey Pissed Off,
Letting a frigin Anonymous comment incredibly offended you while defending the profession, is asking for it. You might as well mis-spelled a word or two like I do. While you might be the exception to the game, history shows your office has let some people down.

I'm still having a hard time believing that you are not guilty of a lil nolo here & a nolo there. Only you'd know if your claim was BS or not. If you've been here 10 yrs. it won't be hard to find out.

I'd like to interveiw you one day for a piece re: PROJECT: Not Guilty
I'll leave a card for PISSED OFF & give you your fifteen minutes. Until then, I'm proud of you. If you are authentic, I'll make darn sure it doesn't go un-noticed. Now, have a good day.

*As usual, Anonymous Spell Checkers, you've got your work cut out, & S--K -T.

NoMoreNoloContendere said...

Hey 09:51,

While you (Anons.) might look the same, You stand out, above & beyond. You seem to know what you are talking about and it has everything to do with the original post.

Now, only if you had the cure for (BLS) Bad Lawyers Syndrome. Q. Do you or (Grits)think the new PD office will discourage the blanket use of the No Contest plea? Or is it going to simply replace Guilty? Thanks.

Anonymous said...

This is going to cause a lot of problems for defense lawyers who make their dollars mostly from the public coffers as appointed lawyers. Like anything else, a few are exceptional and many are horrible and are interested only in the check at the end of the case.

Despite what our president says, the economy is hurting and folks don't have a lot of big money to pay defense attorneys for themselves, their children and their grandkids like they did in previous decades. Many attorneys make it by taking court appointments, albeit on major cases instead of misdemeanors, but this is going to affect the bottom line of lots of lawyers out there.

Get ready for the blog-a-rama by defense attorneys howling about how bad this is for justice. Just remember, everytime they say justice, what they sometimes mean is this is going to be awful for business.

Anonymous said...

It will be interesting as to who steps up to the place to run this office. He probably wouldn't want the job, but either Connie Williams or Tyrone Moncrief would be great.

I bet the appointed hacks who are fearing their incomes are going out the window are already lining up to lobby for the big jobs in that office.

The fun begins...

Anonymous said...

Ask an inmate or defendant their opinion about their own court appointed lawyer.

Anonymous said...

Public Defenders are underpaid?

In Dallas County, most felony PDs, earn over $80,000. The starting salary for a fresh faced misdemeanor public defender, who has only the minimum experience required by law, is over $50,000. The job includes full health benefits, sick pay, vacation, retirement savings plan, etc.

As far as public defenders not doing quality work, would the OP care to back this accusation up? The State Bar regularly publishes its disciplinary actions. How many times is a public defender sanctioned? Of course, digging through these numbers would require time and effort. No, it’s much easier just to toss around clich├ęs rather than make a meaningful contribution to the public debate.

Cinigmatic said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Anonymous said...

Does anyone know where I can find the report of the Commissioners Court on this topic?