Wednesday, October 17, 2018

Ignore self-interested complaints by defense bar over Travis County public defender creation

Your correspondent and Just Liberty signed onto this letter supporting creation of a public defender office in Travis County. Give it a read.

Embarrassingly, the local criminal defense bar in Austin opposes this move. But quite honestly, they had their chance with the "managed assigned counsel" system they foisted onto the county. That system has been an abject failure and the commissioners court should stop listening to the people promoting it.

Geoffrey Burkhart, the new head of the Indigent Defense Commission, explained to commissioners court members how a fundamental conflict of interest faced by Travis County defense attorneys is producing bad outcomes. Reported the Austin Monitor:
Defense attorneys can earn the same amount of money whether their defendant accepts a plea bargain or if the case is dismissed, with the first often taking only a fraction of the time as the latter. Effectively, if a plea bargain is quickly accepted, a defense lawyer’s hourly wage increases dramatically. If too many cases are piling up for attorneys, there is even greater incentive to swiftly reach a plea deal. 
As a remedy, TIDC suggests a public defender office to take over 30 percent of Travis County cases – enough to keep attorneys and other employees busy but not so much as to pressure them to rush cases. For regional reference, the public defender office in Dallas takes about 50 percent of cases, while that in Harris County handles just under 9 percent of cases.
That's so obviously the right move, it's distressing that local criminal defense lawyers would publicly cling to the failed managed-assigned-counsel system, which produces MUCH worse outcomes for defendants than those wealthy enough to retain private counsel.

Travis County's "managed assigned counsel" system was the local criminal defense bar's alternative to a public defender office the last time one was proposed, and their expensive, cumbersome, and overly bureaucratic suggestion failed. County commissioners should not now include those voices in the planning process for the new public defender office. They had their chance, and the continued naysaying and whiny protests are unhelpful and, at this point, superfluous.

In light of that history, now's the time to create a public defender office, not to debate one.


Anonymous said...

Video of the Commissioners Court hearing here:

Scroll to Item #7, click on it, and the video will forward to the public defender discussion. Lasts an hour.

Anonymous said...

Why not create a public defender office and also increase payments for CAPDS attorneys? The rates Travis County pays to assigned counsel are shameful. We don't know yet what would happen to quality if we paid reasonable hourly rates and provided adequate support to assigned counsel. The Public Defender proposal on the table costs almost $1000 per case. Travis County currently pays around $350 per case. This discussion is as much about money as it is about structure.

Gritsforbreakfast said...

@1:28, if the defense bar's recommendation were to create a PD AND restructure/increase payments to reward work and not plea deals, I'd say yes and support such approach.

But when, from out of the box, the defense bar opposes a PD and demands more money without more accountability - after all we've been through with these buffoons promoting CAPDS as some national model, when really it's a national disgrace - my attitude is F'em. The system will have to be changed without their consent. These are matters of public interest, it's not just about maximizing a few lawyers' income, even if it is to them.

BarkGrowlBite said...

I have always advocated a public defender's office for indigent offenders. And there is a misconception about what constitutes indigent. A defendant can have a job and be earning an income, but if he has a wife and four kids he could still be indigent.

A public defender's office, to be truly effective, must be equal to the district attorney's office in the number of attorneys, investigators and support personnel. I doubt whether you'll see that happen.