Harris County is on track to pay $95 million by the end of October to private attorneys for representing low-income people accused of crimes — about $35 million more than the county budgeted for its indigent defense system.
The unexpected increase from last year’s unprecedented $60 million bill has prompted county officials to review whether that elevated amount is the result of the cost of reducing a pandemic-induced backlog of criminal cases.
County officials said increased requests for interpreters and psychiatric evaluations may be an indicator the criminal justice system is recovering from delays in court proceedings caused by the pandemic, as well as Hurricane Harvey damage to the courthouse infrastructure.
“Our hope is that this is a sign that cases are moving,” Daniel Ramos, executive director of the county’s Office of Management and Budget, told Commissioners Court on Tuesday.
Ramos said he noticed in January a deficit of more than $9 million caused by increased court appointments and lawyers being late filing their expenses.
That number more than doubled during the second quarter, an increase Ramos said he believes was caused by the volume of cases requiring indigent representation.
Covering the growing cost of court-appointed lawyers would require an additional $27 million for the county’s felony courts and another $9 million for misdemeanor courts, Ramos said.
Alex Bunin, Harris County’s chief public defender, dismissed any link the packed jail may have to the increase in attorney costs. He noted that a change in culture in the courts has allowed defense attorneys to expense more as Democratic judges became the norm at the criminal courthouse.
Additionally, the fees for court-appointed defense attorneys increased in March, the effect of which Ramos said he had not studied.
“The judges support paying the lawyers more,” Bunin said.
Commissioners Court on Tuesday agreed to consider adding the additional spending to the county budget at a later meeting after a brief conversation on whether the indigent defense funds were being used wisely. An audit on court appointments is expected to wrap up soon. The review will include an examination of the attorneys’ billing practices, the number of court appearances and whether they are visiting clients in jail.
Critics have panned the court-appointed lawyer process as a waste of taxpayer dollars in the wake of a Houston Chronicle investigation that broke down details about the $60 million paid to outside defense attorneys last year. A third of criminal defense lawyers who submitted invoices earned more than $200,000 and reported caseloads higher than state guidelines recommend, according to the Chronicle’s findings. One attorney earned $1 million.
Expanding the Harris County Public Defender’s Office could improve defendant representation and save money, Precinct 1 Commissioner Rodney Ellis said.
“We should look into whether it’s an opportunity, a way to make sure the money is used more appropriately,” Ellis said.
See here and here for the background. I would hope that this is a sign that the backlog is shrinking because that would be a good thing on many levels. We’ll see what the data says. But whatever the case, I’m fine with paying more for these attorneys if what that means is better representation. I’m also very much in favor of expanding the public defender’s office, as that will act as a hedge against some of these cost increases; certainly, it will provide some amount of cost certainty. I look forward to Commissioners Court following up on that.