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Yes, Your Honor, we do need a public defender’s office

I really don’t understand the argument against at this point.

More than 100 private attorneys were assigned by judges to represent inmates who could not afford a lawyer in felony cases in 2008. Sixty of them received more than $100,000.

Yet, no one in Harris County is centrally assigned to oversee those attorneys or monitor their caseloads or complaints. None of the lawyers are routinely required to document the hours or provide details on how much they worked on each case, according to the county auditor’s office and interviews with judges and attorneys.

At least 54 court-appointed attorneys handled more than a nationally recommended limit of 150 felony cases in 2008. Brown’s lawyers juggled more than 1,000 clients each year while representing the 30-year-old Houston native, who had a lengthy history of drug arrests, an analysis of Harris County case records by the Houston Chronicle shows.


More than half of the overcrowded Harris County jail’s 10,000 inmates are waiting to go to trial. As of July, as many as 500 accused people unable to post bail had waited a year or more in jail as their cases wound their way through the clogged Harris County courts — twice as long as the county’s own consultants say those cases should take to process, a Chronicle analysis of jail inmates found.

In the current system, the judges test and screen a pool of defense lawyers. But all 22 district judges have different requirements for appointees.

Two felony judges already run their own public defender operations, serving the dual role of judge on those cases as well as de facto employer of a handful of attorneys assigned annually to represent many of the poorest defendants in their courts. Denise Collins is listed as one of 11 judges who expressed an interest in using proposed public defenders for appeals; Michael McSpadden voted not to participate.

“I can’t imagine anyone doing a better job than I am with my four contract attorneys,” McSpadden said. “The people who think the public defender system is going to cure all ills in our system are crazy.”

In written responses, Collins said she has confidence in the experience of the three attorneys she already uses.

Yet both Collins and McSpadden use defense attorneys with heavy caseloads, and their courts are plagued by backlogs. Theirs are among nine of the 22 district courts with backlogs of more than a year for 100 or more felony cases.

I can understand the judges’ reluctance to change. The devil you know is almost always less scary than the devil you don’t. But look, you can’t seriously argue that what we’ve got now is working just fine. If you don’t like the idea of a public defender’s office, the onus is on you to come up with an alternate plan that will accomplish the goal of representing indigent defendants in a cheaper, more effective, and more expeditious manner. Much like with the health care debate, maintaining the status quo isn’t an option. Come up with a fix or get out of the way of those who have.

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