Wednesday, June 15, 2011

Skewed priorities: Criminal courts raise plenty of revenue but Lege diverts it from indigent defense

Checking in at Carl Reynolds blog, CourtTex, we discover that, perhaps unsurprisingly, indigent defense funding and other legal services for the poor took a big hit in the 82nd Texas Legislature. A post on the subject opens:
It looks like the state budget will not cover fundamental legal needs identified by the leadership of the Judicial Branch.  During session I have refrained from using the blog for commentary on bills, except to explain the many bills that would raise criminal court costs. At this point - apparently too late - I am obliged to at least point out the irony of what has happened.

Basic Civil Legal Services, the fund supporting the bare-bones infrastructure for fundamental legal services, ended up $20 million short. The Indigent Defense Fund, supporting county efforts to provide constitutionally required defense in criminal cases, ended up $8.6 million short.  Both programs already dramatically underserve their target populations due to budgetary decisions, including the continued large-scale redirection of revenue generated from the Judicial Branch.
The Legislative Budget Board reports that the Judicial Branch generated $185 million more in revenue (through criminal court costs and civil filing fees, much more the former), than the Legislature appropriated for the Judicial Branch, last biennium. We [the Office of Court Administration] brought this information to the forefront in the appropriations process, and in an ideal world the response would have been to reallocate funds already generated to meet the critical needs identified by the leadership of the Judicial Branch. In the world we live in, holding our noses, we proposed several ways to raise the additional revenue those critical needs require, and it was only yesterday that we learned that the Legislature ultimately failed to adopt them - a $5 additional cost in criminal cases (added to $98 currently), and a $10 increase in civil filing fees (added to $5 or $10 current fees, depending on case type).
That's a striking notion: The judiciary, mostly through crimnal courts, raised $185 million more in revenue than its entire appropriation last biennium, but instead of using that extra revenue to pay lawyers for defendants who can't afford them, they tacked on even more fees and still under-funded indigent defense! If there were any doubts that legislators view criminal courts as revenue generators for other projects as opposed to a fundamental governmental obligation with concomitant responsibilities, that data should dispel them.

As county commissioners develop their budgets over the summer and struggle to fund rising indigent defense costs on their end, it would behoove local officials to keep in mind - and constantly remind voters and their legislators - that the courts generate plenty of money to help them with those costs, the Legislature just chose to divert the money, as usual, to other things.

A related CourTex post focuses on the rise of pro se (self-represented) defendants in civil court, estimating that 45% of divorces (around 61,000 cases last year) are now handled without attorneys. Since the economic crunch began, the amount of civil litigation has rapidly declined, probably because people cannot afford lawyers. The only category of civil litigation increasing since 2008: Evictions.

UPDATE: A commenter informs me that "SB2 in the special session added major funding back in. Both civil legal aid and indigent defense were addressed in the form of approved amendements in both chambers to SB 2 of the special session, which is awaiting a conference committee. Presumably, since the civil legal aid and indigent defense provisions are identical in both versions, it will be in the final bill." Of course, restoring funds to last biennium's levels doesn't cover all that's needed, as Reynolds pointed out, but it's better than a sharp stick in the eye.

'NUTHER UPDATE: From Angela Morris writing at the Texas Lawyer's TexParte Blog.


Anonymous said...

Grits, the post you cite is outdated since SB2 in the special session added major funding back in. Both civil legal aid and indigent defense were addressed in the form of approved amendements in both chambers to SB 2 of the special session, which is awaiting a conference committee. Presumably, since the civil legal aid and indigent defense provisions are identical in both versions, it will be in the final bill.

Gritsforbreakfast said...

Thanks 2:10, must have happened while I was gone. Though it should be said, even if they restored funding to last biennium's levels, a) that wasn't enough to cover rising costs from the Fair Defense Act mandates and b) it still doesn't change the fact that the Lege takes profits from criminal courts and fails to invest them in indigent defense, reentry, etc.. That figure of $185 million revenue MORE than appropriated is a pretty big number.

Anonymous said...

Yet another good reason to follow the law and not become a criminal!

Gritsforbreakfast said...

Right, 7:55, why don't you ask Texas' 46 DNA exonerees whether it's only those who commit crimes who need effective lawyers? Or perhaps you think those you label crooks should just be strung up without a trial? That's the kind of garbage people only ever say while hiding behind anonymity like their mommy's skirt. It's not a view any credible person would espouse under their own name.

DEWEY said...

Why not have a place for people that cannot afford lawyers? Oh, wait, we already have one. It's called TDCJID.

Angela Morris said...

I've followed this issue for Texas Lawyer and I wrote a story on the lege adding the civil-aid and indigent-defense funding back:

Gritsforbreakfast said...

Thanks Angela, I'll add the link to the update.

Anonymous said...

I really do not believe you are going to get much sympathy for this funding. Most people going to court for a crime are guilty and plead guilty.
I agree even the guilty require legal advise but getting inocent tax payers to pay for it will be a hard sell.

Gritsforbreakfast said...

8:36, I disagree it's a hard sell because the constituency for it is not the public but county commissioners courts, who must pay for rising indigent defense costs out of local property taxes if the state lowers reimbursements. I'm sure it was pressure from them, not average Joes, that spurred the Lege to re-up the funding.

Apey said...

These people are pleading guilty because they are guilty. There are too many laws!!! Period. Most laws are unnecessarily targeted at the poor and mentally ill/addict/alcoholics. If you want to be "tough" on "crime" you need money to back that up. Unfortunately, these wise elders who manage the state haven't the foresight to predict this deficit with basic addition and subtraction. Has basic math and econ been eliminated from curriculum due to budget cuts? Or perhaps it is irrelevant so it is being replaced with teaching creationism. That makes sense. The point is Texas does not tax its corporations or citizens enough money to pay to properly handle these arrests and convictions. It doesn't matter if the laws are constitutional or unconstitutional. They don't have enough money to keep making and enforcing all of these laws! You get what you pay for. The system is going to crash. Texas needs to raise taxes and use that money to educate its citizens. Yes, even the middle class and poor ones. They need to be taught basic intellectual reasoning skills, develop their cognitive functions so that they can properly comprehend the implications of what they advocate with their votes, attention-grabbing antics and most frightening--their silence. Instead of trying to come up with money to keep a dysfunctional system going--they need a complete system overhaul. One problem: it would require the rich of Texas to change. Unfortunately, it seems that those opportunists who become rich(er) in the state of Texas have common traits: inherent flaws in both moral consciousness and the ability to produce rational thoughts. They are going to F**k themselves over eventually though. Until then, hold on to your hats!! (I apologize for this outrageous rant, I'm angry these days, politics has got me down. Perhaps those snotty founding fathers fears were correct. Are we too stupid for a democracy?)