Tuesday, November 30, 2010

Indigent defense remains underfunded

A story in the Fort Worth Star-Telegram published on Thanksgiving Day by Martha Deller lamented a systemic underfunding of indigent defense across the state in the face of growing demand. The article opened:
A shortage of qualified criminal defense attorneys has delayed felony trials in some parts of Texas and resulted in some low-income people accused of misdemeanor offenses going without counsel, according to the Texas Task Force on Indigent Defense.

Counties are also struggling to pay for indigent defense, the task force says. Last year, counties paid $186 million to serve 471,000 defendants. But the state funded only $29 million of that in grants administered by the task force, said Wesley Shackleford, deputy director of the task force.

To help address the problems, the task force is calling on the Legislature to make it easier for counties to establish public defender's offices or to manage programs that assign attorneys to represent criminal defendants who cannot afford their own counsel.

Task force officials also want legislators to budget more money to pay for indigent defense.

The recommendations come at a time that the percentage of indigent defendants keeps going up: 65 percent of felony cases and 35 percent of misdemeanor cases last year, Shackleford said. The percentages are even higher in large counties, Shackleford said.

In most counties, including Tarrant, judges use a computer-based rotation system to appoint private attorneys to represent indigent criminal defendants.

Many smaller Texas counties, however, lack enough qualified attorneys to meet the increasing demand, Shackleford said. That means that judges in small counties must sometimes recruit attorneys from 50 to 100 miles away to represent people accused of serious felonies such as murder and robbery. That can delay trials, he said.
Facing a massive budget shortfall, the chances that the Legislature will pony up more money for indigent defense at the county level seem pretty slim. And I don't know what can be done about small, rural counties without enough lawyers to take cases. That strikes me as similar to the problem retaining doctors in rural areas, and possibly is an argument for creating (possibly multi-county) public defender systems in those smaller jurisdictions.

RELATED: County indigent defense costs far outpacing inflation.


DLW said...

One of the reasons the rural Judges have trouble recruiting Lawyers to appoint is the pay scale.

Use Haskell County as an example. I don't believe there is a single Lawyer in the 4 County Judicial District that doesn't work for the Government. It is over an hour from Abilene and almost 2 hours from Wichita Falls.

Let's say a Lawyer from WF gets appointed on a typical 2d degree felony. He will have almost a 4 hour round trip every time he goes to Haskell on the case not counting the time he spends talking to his client, his client's family, the DA, and possible witnesses. If the case resolves itself in a plea, the Lawyer will be paid $350.

Few Lawyers can afford to lose money to "help out" Haskell County. Similar problems exist all over the State.

Prison Doc said...

I think the lawyers should definitely have to handle these cases for free as part of their societal obligation as a learned profession.

In my two decades as a trauma surgeon I had to write off hundreds of thousands of dollars in uncollectable fees from treating crime victims--and perpetrators. Even after county indigent healthcare was started we got no money for the services, but of course the liability and expenses continued.

Doctors and lawyers: seems like there should be some equality of contribution. It is time for the members of the bar to step up and contribute their fair share.

Note to hotheaded anonymous posters: this comment is [partially] tongue-in-cheek.

Anonymous said...

"Many smaller Texas counties, however, lack enough qualified attorneys to meet the increasing demand, Shackleford said."

So we have attorneys here in Hooterville, there just not qualified? Would someone define qualified.

Wesley Shackelford said...

Creating multi-county public defender offices to serve rural parts of the state is indeed a strategy the Task Force on Indigent Defense and local jurisdictions has followed. Bee, Live Oak and McMullen Counties formed a public defender in April 2009 to assure qualified counsel was readily available. Up to 16 counties east of Lubbock are also in the process of creating the Caprock Regional Public Defender using Task Force grant funds to provide sorely needed representation to defendants in a very sparsely populated part of the state. The innovative program involves a partnership with Texas Tech's School of Law that will supply both attorneys and third year law students to provide representation.

Gritsforbreakfast said...

Wesley, it was really too bad the multi-county PD based in Del Rio went under so suddenly. Can you shed any light on what happened there?

Anonymous said...

Criminal justice in general is underfunded compared to what attorneys can earn in civil practice. In poor economic times, most attorneys are hedging their bets. Divorce cases pay the bills.

Throwing more defense attorneys at the problem does nothing to ease the strain on courts and prosecutors to manage the large dockets. You just end up with a longer line outside the court chambers while everyone else struggles to keep up. One of the things that counties could do to alleviate some of this backlog is to switch to online filing and discovery, and allow prosecutors and defense attorneys to complete plea negotiations remotely versus taking up valuable in-court time or office prep time to hashing out pleas.

DEWEY said...

To "Prison Doc": I hope you don't consider this hot headed, but I live on a VERY small social security check. Fortunatly, I am a veteran, and get my health care at the V.A. hospital. But If I am accused of a crime, without indigent defense, I would have to pay a lawyer that charges almost twice per hour what I get in a month.