Monday, January 22, 2018

TDCJ interference alleged at State Counsel for Offenders

A new report from a Texas state bar committee offered damning criticisms of the State Counsel for Offenders, alleging improper influence exerted by the Texas Department of Criminal Justice, its parent agency. Applying the American Bar Association standards for indigent defense to the office, the analysis concluded that chronic underfunding and a lack of managerial independence accounted for inadequate defense services on behalf of Texas prisoners.

See coverage from the Texas Observer and KWTX.

The agency has been subsumed within TDCJ and does not even have its own line item in the state budget, according to the report, standing in stark contrast to the Special Prosecution Unit, which is an independent agency that prosecutes cases at TDCJ. "SCFO lawyers trail their prosecutor counterparts in both salary and resources to litigate cases, such as funding to pay experts," the Observer summarized.

The bulk of the report is made up of a survey of current and former attorneys at the agency, published anonymously, and there are many statements that allege serious problems, but which would have to be investigated further to be corroborated. Chief among those are allegations of direct interference by the TDCJ board in SCFO affairs.

Wrote one attorney, "I was directed to withdraw from representing a client after the SCFO director returned from a TDCJ Board meeting in the summer of 2013. A number of other attorneys were also directed to change legal strategies in particular cases when the SCFO Director returned from the TDCJ Board meeting."

If that allegation is true, somebody probably should have complained to the state bar about an ethical violation. TDCJ shouldn't be the one in charge of inmates' lawyers if they're going to put their thumb on the scale in their cases.

Another example of interference involved the civil commitment program. One attorney said they'd encountered no interference in the appellate section, "However, the time it did occur troubled me as I (along with the rest of the civil commitment section) were told not to pursue a certain type of defense in civil commitment cases."

Seventy percent of survey respondents disagreed that SCFO attorneys "have sufficient independent discretion to adequately represent their clients."

Again, all this comes with a caveat: This study stems from a survey of current and former SCFO attorneys which, while instructive, hardly amounts to proof of allegations of misconduct. It's a red flag, not yet a full-blown indictment.

But without a doubt, some reporter, researcher, auditor, legislative committee, state-bar ethicist, or other independent fact finder needs to follow up. This report identified a ton of smoke. It'd be well worth the effort to investigate for an underlying fire.

1 comment:

Steven Michael Seys said...

Having experienced what the TDCJ board believes to be the definition of the 'J,' I assure you that this problem is known, and has been for some time, by the clients. Thanks to the representation I received from SCFO, my daughter, my only child, grew up in a home that was abusive to her. My 'rights' as a parent, according to the SCFO extended only to getting second hand reports of annual visits, and I was allowed no say in my own child's welfare.