Tuesday, November 08, 2016

How best to reduce county indigent defense spending

Like many others, the Victoria County Commissioners Court recently passed a resolution asking the Texas Legislature to begin paying indigent defense costs which historically have been the responsibility of counties. Right now, "Victoria County receives a formula-based reimbursement from Texas for indigent criminal legal defense costs that annually covers about 10 percent of Victoria County's costs," reported the Victoria Advocate.

County Judge Ben Zeller said he supported indigent defense but blamed the state for "passing the cost onto counties." That's a highly politicized interpretation. Historically, indigent defense in Texas has been solely a county responsibility and the state only began contributing a small portion following the passage of the Fair Defense Act in 2001. Now, Zeller and other county officials want to shift ever more of that expense to the state budget so they don't have to raise local taxes.

If the state were to take over county indigent defense, it would run north of nine figures. So, particularly in a tight budget year with many other competing priorities, that's not a likely scenario.

If the Lege did want to help counties with indigent defense costs - without assuming additional liabilities for which local government has historically been responsible - the smartest way to do it would be to reclassify certain low-level offenses to reduce indigent defense costs.

About 70k people per year are arrested statewide on marijuana charges, for example, and charged with a B misdemeanor. If the Lege would reduce that penalty category to a C misdemeanor, the maximum punishment would only be a fine and therefore counties would no longer have to pay indigent defense costs on those cases. Similarly, reducing low-level possession cases for heroin and cocaine from a state jail felony to a Class A misdemeanor would reduce indigent defense costs, since attorneys are paid less for misdemeanors than felonies.

Such policies would have the added benefit to taxpayers of reducing incarceration costs for Texas jails and prisons by locking up fewer low-risk, nonviolent offenders.

That's the best way for the Texas Legislature to provide relief to counties for local indigent defense costs without setting a precedent that they'll absorb those expenditures into the state budget


Anonymous said...

One taxing entity always likes to pass the cost of its services on to another. Often the burden ends up being shared unfairly the farther up the food chain it moves (one area subsidizes another, look at the system of school finance). In some states, a state-wide public defender system is utilized (to make costs more uniform). Every system of indigent defense has its drawbacks. The scheme chosen in 2001 may need improvement.

Gritsforbreakfast said...

Perhaps, but I'd rather provide relief by lessening overall pressure on the system, not just by having everybody try to pass the buck to the next guy until somebody gets stuck with the tab. Shifting the burden risks the problems you describe, but the tactic suggested in this post does not.

Anonymous said...

Isn't Victoria the place where the DA implemented a No Plea Bargain policy for its misdemeanor DWI cases? Surely that has had a significant impact on their indigent defense budget. Sounds like the County Judge may be barking up the wrong tree.