Thursday, June 02, 2011

Bexar contemplates public, private alternatives to "wheel" for indigent defense

A column from former St. Mary's Law School Dean Bill Piatt lays out possible options to stem rising indigent defense costs in a column in the SA Express News ("County needs more efficient indigent defense system," June 1), which opens:
Indigent defendants facing incarceration in Bexar County are entitled to have their defense paid by the county.

Recently, costs to taxpayers have grown dramatically. Between 2004 and 2010, indigent felony cases increased by 37 percent while defense costs increased by 46 percent. Indigent misdemeanor filings increased during this period by only 6 percent and the defense costs increased by 45 percent. Direct costs of indigent defense rose from $6.2 million in 2002 to $9.1 million in 2004, and to $13.3 million in 2010. Indirect costs added 33 percent.

Currently, attorneys are supposed to be appointed by judges at random off a computer generated “wheel.” The system doesn't always work that way. A judge having to make appointments at a docket is only given five names on the list, even if more attorneys are needed. Or, recognizing that a particular attorney in the courtroom at the time might be better able to serve the needs of the client and court, the judge will appoint that attorney even though he/she is not next on the “wheel” or perhaps not even on the “wheel.” There is nothing sinister about this. Judges need to protect the interests of the clients and the state and move cases along.

Last year, Commissioners Court appointed a seven-person Bexar County Task Force on Indigent Defense that met through April. We reviewed extensive data and considered the pros and cons of improvements to the wheel and alternatives. Suggestions to improve technology passed unanimously. Recommendations to explore two important alternatives to the “wheel,” a public defender system, and a private defender system, passed on a 5-2 vote.
Grits has discussed public defender systems at length, but here's Piatt's shorthand description of a possible private defender system:
A private defender system could be modeled after the highly successful San Mateo County, California Private Defender Program (PDP), in place since 1969. Participating attorneys, not the county, pay to maintain their own offices and practices. When a judge determines that an indigent needs an attorney, the judge appoints the PDP, which assigns the case to one of its private attorneys. If a conflict develops, the PDP assigns another attorney from its list. The chairman of the Texas Task Force on Indigent Defense has described this PDP as being perhaps the best indigent defense system in the country. Bexar County would not need to reinvent the wheel (pardon the pun). Manuals, forms and the like are in place not only in San Mateo County, but in West Texas in Lubbock County, as well.


  1. If Mr. Piatt truly thinks judges are doing nothing sinister when they go "off wheel" and appoint attorneys who just happen to hang around their courts, I have some oceanfront property in Arizona to sell to him ... old-fashioned cronyism is the most likely explanation behind a lot of those appointments ...

  2. "Participating attorneys, not the county, pay to maintain their own offices and practices. When a judge determines that an indigent needs an attorney, the judge appoints the PDP, which assigns the case to one of its private attorneys."

    In other words, they use wheel system just like Dallas County

  3. Lubbock County - center of the enlightened world!


  4. I am sure San Mateo County has a very good indigent defense system, but there is no one-size-fits-all solution for indigent defense. The differences between San Mateo and Bexar are drastic. The former is a predominately Caucasian, affluent, liberal community that covers portions of San Francisco. The latter is a large diverse city with much higher crime and poverty rates. Since most urban problems ultimately manifest themselves in the criminal justice system (e.g., mental health, juveniles), San Mateo is always going to appear more efficient because it has less of the issues that stress out big cities. Until there are some accurate metrics for measuring indigent defense systems, subjective opinions about what is best will have little basis. Anonymous 5:44 is correct. Except, for the use of an independent administrator, it is no different than the wheel system used by most Texas counties.

  5. Actually, A Bunin, San Mateo County, California does not cover parts of San Francisco. San Francisco is its own county. Suburban San Mateo County is relatively affluent, but has pockets of poverty in places like Daly City and East Palo Alto (Palo Alto being in Santa Clara County).

  6. Heres the deal- Bexar County is an extemely poor, parochial place to live- low housing costs give the illusion that it is an inexpensive place to live-it is not, when wages are taken into consideration-a number of defense attorneys- apostates, quite frankly, in my opnion-offered plans to privatize misdemaenor defnse work- the conflict(s) of interest are glaring- the Bexar County Commissioners Court prides themselves on not raising taxes, but raise every other type of fee imaginable, and has not seen fit to raise misdemeanor appointed fees for well over 10 years-it is more politically palatable to provide low quality defense-resulting in more convictions- because adult probation makes their money on those convicted and the fines associated with the conviction- one of the former County Court Judges pushing privatization also sits as a visiting couty court judge- double dipping and cronyism of the rankest kind- Dean Piatt is a relative newcomer to San Antonio- he was dean at the Law School beginning about 12 years ago, but knows next to nothing about the workings of the power elites in San Antonio, although he is a very nice person- criminal defense is considered to be a form of thievery among the power elite in San Antonio, and criminal defense-and associated appointment procedures- are treated accordingly-I sign anon because I do lots of criminal appointments- the idea of doing Divorces is nauseous beyond measure- and cannot afford to piss the judges off- many of my clients are mentally ill and belong in treatment but the attitude here is that it is better politics to be tough on crime and spend the county into penury than to try to work with the mentally and addicts and keep them in the community

  7. Piatt also made the recommendation that indigent defendants should be able to choose which lawyer they want to be appointed to represent them. I don't even want to waste 6 paragraphs explaining why that would be unfair. Piatt basically asked his law students for their recommendations and they came up with all these "brilliant" suggestions. The current wheel system in Bexar County works just fine. The problem I see is that in many cases, court appointed attorneys have to make several court appearances (and thus submit expensive pay vouchers) in order to get a reasonable plea deal or dismissal or to get to trial because the Bexar County District Attorneys' Office (with exceptions of course) doesn't get serious about working out their cases until the jury is out in the hall. I have seen attorneys submit vouchers for $4000 on drug cases! I believe part of the answer in saving Bexar County money lies with how Susan Reed (THE DA) micro manages her office, and makes unreasonable plea deals. I don't see that ever being brought up in the County Commissioner's Court hearing...

  8. Tuff on Crime in New Haven

    NEW HAVEN, Connecticut Fri Jun 3, 2011 (Reuters)

    A lab technician convicted of killing a Yale University student...was sentenced to 44 years in prison on Friday at an emotionally wrenching court hearing.

    The sentence, which carries no possibility of parole or early release for Raymond Clark, 26, was the result of a plea deal with prosecutors in the death of Annie Le, 24, who disappeared on September 8, 2009.

  9. Only Texas could be expected to cite San Mateo County as a shining light of indigent defense. Here in San Francisco and most of California, it is considered an aberration. The system in San Mateo has a fee structure that incentivizes plea deals early in the process for the attorneys, thereby putting the attorneys in conflict with their clients. It is not unlike what I saw in El Paso County when I used to take appointments there a decade ago. You get about $150 an hour to plea your client out at the arraignment, or some much lesser hourly rate, which differs for in court and out of court work, if the case goes past the arraignment. Either way, the vetting process for bills submitted by attorneys not pleading their clients early results in a tough, frequent disallowance of many line items. The Private Defender system ultimately is designed to reduce costs by short-circuiting due process by putting the various participants at odds with one another. Indigent defense is expensive as it should be in a political and cultural environment that demands tough treatment of anyone deemed to have violated the law while priding itself on constitutional requirements for due process. You can't have an inexpensive indigent defense system and a tough on crime, far reaching penal code that criminalizes more behavior every legislative year.