Welcome to Texas justice: You might beat the rap, but you won't beat the ride.
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.