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Commissioners Court approves public defenders plan

The “hybrid” public defenders office that Commissioners Court had been considering was approved Tuesday by a 5-0 vote, though the details still need to be worked out in time for the February 2010 budget meeting.

“It’s going to take however long its going to take,“ Commissioner El Franco Lee said. “It’s now in the hands of judges, and bureaucrats and accountants who will tell us what that costs, can we afford it, and when we can afford if we can’t afford it now.”

Officials are hoping a public defender office will help reduce the backlog of jail inmates awaiting trial in the overcrowded county jail system — currently holding 11,430 inmates in jails from Houston to Louisiana — and divert others with mental problems from incarceration.

“At the end of the day this really isn’t just about money, it’s about justice. We have to ensure the public that defendants are getting an adequate defense,” County Judge Ed Emmett said afterward. “The court’s unanimous vote to move forward is a clear indication of an intent to establish a pubic defender’s office in next year’s budget.”

The 5-0 vote came during the court’s annual mid-year budget review. The court referred the implementation of the plan to the newly formed Criminal Justice Coordinating Council. The council, chaired by Lee and drawn exclusively from elected officials, was created by the court this summer to help alleviate chronic jail overcrowding and streamline the county’s criminal justice system.

Sheriff Adrian Garcia, a member of the council, said he would support a public defender office if the council did. District Attorney Patricia Lykos has said she would support a public defender office or court-appointed attorneys, as long as indigents receive effective legal representation.

It’s a good start, and hopefully by having dedicated employees for the task of indigent defense we really can start to make a dent in the jail population. If they can succeed in getting more people out on bail, and getting those who need treatment for mental illnesses steered in that direction, it should have a real effect. I’m encouraged by this and look forward to seeing the final product. A statement from State Sen. Rodney Ellis, who is one of the champions of this effort, is beneath the fold.

Harris County Commissioners approved the creation of a public defenders office at today’s mid-year review hearing. The decision came after both the District Courts Administrator and the County Courts Manager recommended its creation. The plan to create a public defender office with divisions in appellate, felony trial, juvenile, and mental health will now be sent to the Criminal Justice Coordinating Council for implementation.

“I want to commend Judge Emmett and the commissioners for unanimously voting to do the right thing for Harris County. Until today, Harris County was the only urban area of its size without a public defender office. Today, we can say that we’re taking a significant step towards following best practice models that are both economical and smart on crime,” said Senator Ellis. “I look forward to working closely with the Council to implement a plan that is efficient and ensures that indigent defendants are receiving quality representation.” Ellis began urging for the creation of the office in early 2008.

The commissioners court unanimously voted to study the feasibility of a public defender office back in April 2008.

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