April 05, 2008
Commissioners Court to study public defenders office

This is encouraging.

Commissioners Court is expected Tuesday to approve a study of whether Harris County should create a public defenders office.

Commissioner Sylvia Garcia said that after the study is completed, she likely will press colleagues to create the office, an option the court has rejected for more than two decades.

"I am predisposed to support creating a public defender system," Garcia said. "It's long overdue in Harris County."

But Commissioner Steve Radack said, "They can study it, but unless it saves taxpayers' money, then I'm not for it."

Way to keep an open mind there, Steve. With an attitude like that, I suspect you'll find a way to question any report that shows a PDs office would in fact save money. But as Commissioner Garcia correctly notes, it's not just about strict accounting:

Garcia said she likely would push for a hybrid system in which some defendants would be represented by public defenders, some by court-appointed lawyers.

Dallas County has a hybrid system.

According to the Texas Task Force on Indigent Defense, the county's public defenders office was assigned 41,000 cases last year and handled them at a cost of $214 per case.

The 25,000 cases assigned counsel in Dallas last year cost $493 per case.

Radack said he is convinced that defendants in Harris County receive fair representation from court-appointed lawyers and will look at only whether a public defender system would save money.

But Garcia said the county should study the county's entire criminal justice system and look for ways to thin out adult jails while maintaining public safety.

The county, she said, may find that a public defenders office could cost more than a system that solely relies on court-appointed lawyers.

But a good public defender system may have unexpected cost benefits -- perhaps its lawyers would help more defendants post bail, relieving the county of jail costs, she said.

Garcia said she may be willing to spend additional money to create a good public defenders office if it would help prevent innocent defendants from being convicted.

"It might be part of what the Pledge of Allegiance says: It's justice for all," she said. "A good public defenders system can provide just that: justice for all."

I can't put it any better than that. And let's face it, not convicting innocent defendants isn't just a key part of what justice is about, it's also good economics, given how expensive it is to incarcerate inmates these days. Whatever penurious amount we're spending on the current system of court-appointed attorneys these days, I don't see how it can offset the cost of locking up someone for 20 years for a crime he didn't commit.

And in a related story, some good news for the county.

State inspectors found no violations during their weeklong inspection of the Harris County Jail system, officials said Friday.

"The facility, the entire complex, was found in compliance," said Adan Munoz, executive director of the Texas Commission on Jail Standards.

The complete report should be ready next week. Inspectors check all aspects of prisoner care and guard training, as well as cleanliness, fire safety and other building standards. The county was given 10 days notice prior to the inspection.

Previous inspections from 2004 to 2006 found that the county was out of compliance because of crowding and understaffing. The county hired more guards, expanded overtime and sent 600 inmates to a Louisiana prison last year to get back into compliance last May.

Well, that's something. At a substantial cost, I'm sure, but at least we're not breaking the law any more.

Posted by Charles Kuffner on April 05, 2008 to Crime and Punishment

A public defenders office created by Commissioners Court would be subject to budget review by CC. Since CC already sets policy through budget review of the County Attorney and District Attorney, CC would be budgeting for both sides of an argument: something CC would not take kindly to - budget-wise.

CC setting policy through budgets is enhanced because of the good-ol-boy system: The CD and DA are held by friends of the majority of CC (DA up for grabs right now).

If the CA and the DA truly represented the citizen (as the state intended through the election process), then a public defender setup would be redundant and inefficient. On the other hand, if the CA and the DA truly represented the citizen, then a CC-managed public defenders office could be used as a means for CC to rein in activities of the CA and DA.

To be effective, a public defenders setup would have to be completely independent of CC oversight, policies, budgets and friends. It has to be totally independent of CC.

The whole problem IMO is that the citizen is not aware of what the commissioners and county judge - the county policy makers - are really up to and how their influence establishes who becomes CA and DA.

Putting another patch on the scab doesn't make it heal.

Posted by: Charles Hixon on April 5, 2008 5:48 PM

But Commissioner Steve Radack said, "They can study it, but unless it saves taxpayers' money, then I'm not for it." You know what would save taxpayers money Steve? Here, Steve: take a look at my property tax.

Posted by: Charles Hixon on April 5, 2008 6:27 PM

I agree with everything Mr. Hixon said. Chalk up "a public defenders' office" as another one of the "good ideas whose time will never come (in Texas)," along with a state income tax, a sensible prison policy, and election-day registration (among many others).

Posted by: Jim D on April 6, 2008 9:28 AM

Craddick Is a Good Old Boy, Those commisioners are going to get with the program of change or they get to do like Chuck and John. Retire or get fired. There will be a Public Defenders Office and iit won't be a Hybrid. All that means is they want to keep some of the money going where they want it to go.

Posted by: Rufus on April 10, 2008 3:29 AM