Friday, November 29, 2019

Report cast dismal light on indigent defense in Amarillo

On the November episode of the Reasonably Suspicious podcast, my co-host Mandy Marzullo and I discussed a new, commissioned report by the Sixth Amendment Center (6AC) analyzing indigent defense systems in Potter and Armstrong Counties. Potter County contains most of Amarillo, while Armstrong is a nearby, very rural county with very few lawyers, an 8-bed jail, and no municipal police departments. I've excerpted our segment here, and below pulled some highlights from the (somewhat overwritten) 200+ page report.

Here are a few key items from the report, which frankly paints an awfully grim picture:

Bailing out the boat with a thimble
In Texas, decisions directly affecting whether indigent defendants receive counsel are made at the county level. The Texas Indigent Defense Commission cannot and does not enforce minimum indigent-defense standards in Texas, said the executive summary:
The state legislature enacted the Texas Fair Defense Act in 2002, creating what is today the Texas Indigent Defense Commission (TIDC). TIDC disseminates limited state funding through grants to counties, but TIDC does not provide direct representation to indigent defendants and it does not have the power to force counties or judges to comply with any law, rule, standard, or policy relating to the provision of indigent defense services. Even if TIDC did have the authority to enforce the State of Texas’ Sixth and Fourteenth Amendment right to counsel obligations, TIDC has extremely limited ability to do so. TIDC operates with just 11 full-time equivalent employees who are responsible for ensuring that each and every person facing the potential loss of liberty has an effective lawyer at every critical stage of a criminal prosecution in each of Texas’ well over 900 trial courts spread across 254 counties. (Emphasis added.)
To be fair, TIDC understands this, it's just a difficult dynamic to overcome. Their main leverage for change comes from the threat of withholding grant money. That's not a lot compared to what counties spend, so there's little incentive to change practices. That their biggest-impact victories have involved transparency, not overt regulation. But Grits finds many state leaders don't fully comprehend the extent to which the agency is bailing out the boat with a thimble.

Potter County still reeling from ransomware attack 
In April, Potter County was attacked by a malicious virus and refused to pay its creators ransom, freezing up all their computers and taking them months to develop paper-based systems while they recoup. As of this writing, "it is unclear whether the courts’ lost records can ever be recovered. The district courts had not been storing backups of their data, and they also had not been paying their software vendor to back-up their files." This is a big deal that's not been widely reported outside of Amarillo.

Consequences of a misdemeanor conviction
"More than 74% of all misdemeanor defendants in Potter County are estimated to be pro se (not having a lawyer," said the 6AC. Here's how the report described the consequences of misdemeanor pretrial incarceration.
Although a misdemeanor conviction carries less incarceration time than a felony, the collateral consequences can be just as severe. Going to jail for even a few days may result in a person losing professional licenses, being excluded from public housing and student loan eligibility, or even being deported. A misdemeanor conviction and jail term may contribute to the break-up of the family, the loss of a job, or other consequences that may increase the need for both government-sponsored social services and future court hearings (e.g., matters involving parental rights) at taxpayers’ expense.
Some attorneys carry WAY too many cases
The report cited two attorneys in particular who carry caseloads far in excess of TIDC guidelines for how many criminal cases attorneys should handle:
  • One attorney had 231 felony cases paid in FY2018, or a felony caseload nearing twice that of the 128 felony cases allowed by the summarized Texas guidelines. But this same attorney was also paid in 18 juvenile cases and 52 misdemeanors. The lawyer reported devoting 91% of his total practice time across all counties to indigent adult criminal defense appointments and 2% to indigent juvenile defense appointments. Thus, this attorney carried an indigent defense workload at 230% of the Texas caseload guidelines after adjusting for his reported practice time.
  • A different attorney was paid for a caseload at 152% of the Texas caseload guidelines, but he spent only 18% of his time on that caseload. After accounting for the limited time available to his indigent clients, this attorney’s adjusted workload was 844% of the Texas caseload guidelines. Stated differently, this lawyer was carrying an indigent defense caseload in FY2018 that required more than eight full time attorneys under the Texas caseload guidelines.
Attorneys don't visit their clients in jail
Ever, apparently:
Attorneys appointed in both Armstrong and Potter counties widely acknowledge – and there is near universal agreement by judges, prosecutors, jailers, and community leaders – that they do not visit their in-custody clients in jail. Likewise, many attorneys do not meet with out of custody clients either. 
Instead, most appointed attorneys meet with the defendants they are appointed to represent, both in-custody and out of custody, only at the courthouse before or after scheduled court proceedings.   
Almost nobody gets money for investigators
Not surprising, but worth noting:
According to judges in Armstrong and Potter counties, court appointed lawyers “never” use investigators in misdemeanor cases and rarely do so in felony cases. One lawyer who has been on the court appointed counsel list for 10 years says he has used an investigator in only four cases. A different lawyer says she has “never” used an investigator in her 10 years on the Potter County list. As the table on page 139 indicates, in five years Armstrong County appointed attorneys have only used $350 worth of investigative services and $0 expert assistance in the defense of their indigent clients. Over five years, appointed attorneys have only used $429 in investigative services and $1,400 in expert assistance in misdemeanor cases in Potter County.
No oversight for attorney quality or caseloads
By design, because the judges say it would be a conflict of interest for them to "supervise" the attorneys they appoint:
there is no oversight of the attorneys appointed to represent indigent defendants in the two counties. The qualifications, training, and supervision required for appointed private attorneys in Armstrong County and Potter County are inadequate to ensure effective assistance of counsel to indigent defendants, and a significant number of those attorneys accept more appointed cases across Texas’ trial courts than national standards and the Texas Guidelines for Indigent Defense Caseloads say is acceptable. 
Nobody paying attention at critical junctures in the system
For example, "the judges of Armstrong County and Potter County do not keep track of defendants between magistration and institution of prosecution." So people get stranded in jail waiting for something to happen.

Judges tolerate ineffective assistance
Grits was surprised, but also not surprised, if you know what I mean, to see the frank declaration that some "appointed private attorneys [in Potter and Armstrong Counties] do not provide effective assistance of counsel."

Flat fee gives lawyers incentive to work less on cases
This is a problem everywhere flat fees are used, which is nearly every Texas county, and is one of the best arguments for a public-defender office from both an incentives and efficiency perspective:
Constructive denial of counsel in Armstrong and Potter counties is rooted in insufficient resources and low attorney compensation, as explained in chapter 8 (pages 144-154). Court-appointed attorneys in Armstrong and Potter counties are paid a single flat fee, in most cases, without regard to how much or how little time the attorney must devote to that case (e.g., $400-$500 for a misdemeanor or state jail felony). Although the indigent defense plan in Armstrong and Potter counties calls for “reasonable” attorney compensation as determined by the “time and effort expended” by the attorney, payment of a presumptive flat fee per case does just the opposite. Because attorneys are presumptively paid exactly the same amount no matter how few or how many hours they devote to a defendant’s case, it is in the attorney’s own financial interest to spend as little time as possible on each individual defendant’s case.
Stop intimidating defendants into declining counsel
Apparently, uniformed deputies or bailiffs are the ones who inform defendants of their right to request a lawyer if they are indigent, but those folks actively try to dissuade people from doing so. As a result, the 6AC recommended the counties:
prohibit all communication between prosecutors & prosecution staff and unrepresented defendants, unless and until defendants have been informed of their right to appointed counsel by a judicial officer, a judge has conducted the legally required colloquy, and a defendant has executed a written waiver of the right to counsel. Law enforcement personnel should be prohibited from giving defendants advice about their right to counsel choices.
Describing the arraignment process to unrepresented defendants, sheriff's deputies tell them they're going to "plea court." At arraignment:
all unrepresented misdemeanor defendants either plead guilty at arraignment, secure by hiring or appointment an attorney to represent them, or return unrepresented to court in two weeks for docket call. At that docket call, the exact same process that occurs at arraignment is repeated; again, giving unrepresented defendants the choice of negotiating a guilty plea with the prosecutor, securing by hiring or appointment an attorney to represent them, or returning unrepresented to court in another four weeks for trial.
Indeed, sometimes poor people requesting counsel are told to ask the prosecutor! "Potter County jail personnel advise felony defendants to contact the District Attorney’s office if they want to request appointed counsel after bonding out of jail, and otherwise the jail personnel say that bondsmen will tell a defendant how to request appointed counsel."

Counties should stop illegally billing indigent defendants for lawyers
The report declared this practice was instituted in Potter County after the 2008 financial crisis. On the podcast, Mandy said this is happening all over the state:
Indigent defendants are routinely required to repay Armstrong County and Potter County for the cost of the Sixth Amendment representation provided to them, despite having been determined by a court to be indigent and without any hearing (or evidence) to show that they have the financial ability to pay these costs, in violation of state law.
Remarkably, "Some appointed attorneys are unaware that every indigent defendant is entitled to an evidentiary hearing on ability to pay before the court can order the defendant to repay the county for the costs of indigent defense services." Regardless of whether the lawyers know this or not, "No such hearing is ever conducted."

The 6AC's strongest recommendation was that local judges "cease" doing that because it's illegal.

Other recommendations a bit lame
The first recommendation was to call on the legislature to create a study committee. (Yawn. Been there, done that, still have the t-shirt.) The second was only slightly less useless:
The trial court judges responsible under Texas law for providing and overseeing the Sixth Amendment right to counsel of indigent defendants in Armstrong County and Potter County should establish a non-partisan independent commission to oversee all aspects of indigent defense services, in order to eliminate the dangers of possible undue interference by the judicial and political branches of county government.
Those two suggestions, plus the bits about not intimidating defendants or billing indigent defendants for their lawyers, were the only formal recommendations in the report.

MORE: From the Texas Observer.


Gadfly said...

I dropped a link here a couple of weeks ago. Texas Observer wrote about this.

Gritsforbreakfast said...

Thanks Gadfly, I added the link at the end of the post.

Oil Lease said...

I first became of aware of "infamous" Potter county 50 years ago. Nothing's changed it would appear.

He's Innocent said...

It's my personal experience, and those of the folks I know who've been through the Texas criminal justice regime that these details are common to every jurisdiction/county. It seems the only difference being the degree of severity.

Meh, who gives a flip about a defendant's rights? If they were arrested then surely they are guilty, right? RIGHT?? (sarcasm)

George said...

@ He's Innocent

Yep, until they find their own ass in a pickle --- then the excuses start rolling in and usually some way is found to mitigate the severity of their "punishment".