Sen. Ellis calls for a public defender’s office

State Sen. Rodney Ellis makes the case for creating a public defender’s office in Harris County.

In Harper Lee’s classic novel, To Kill a Mockingbird, the protagonist Atticus Finch embodies what we hope attorneys, our gatekeepers to justice, to be — a stoic figure of immeasurable fairness and integrity who protects the rights of the innocent. Finch summarizes the American ideal of justice this way, ”The one place a man ought to get a square deal is the courtroom.”

The promise of adequate representation — the promise that our rights as persons are protected and that everyone accused of a crime, rich or poor, stands equal before the law — is at the root of American democratic ideals of liberty and justice.

Our founding fathers secured that promise in the Sixth Amendment of the Constitution, and the U.S. Supreme Court, most notably in Gideon v. Wainwright, has consistently affirmed and expanded that promise as essential to ensuring fairness in our justice system.

Unfortunately, as we approach the 45th anniversary of Gideon, any claim to fulfilling that promise in Harris County is as fictitious as Harper Lee’s novel. Too many impoverished citizens are processed through our courts with an incompetent or inexperienced lawyer, no lawyer at all or a lawyer who does not have the time, resources or inclination to provide effective representation.

Lisa Falkenberg wrote about this on Wednesday, so it looks like Ellis is putting on a full-court press for this idea. It’s definitely worthwhile, and I hope it gets taken up by the Lege next year. There’s plenty of good reasons for this, but I’ll focus on the one that ought to have the broadest appeal:

Not only will a public defender office improve the quality of legal representation, it also will save money by pooling resources and reducing duplication of services.

That’s what happened in Dallas County. According to the Texas Task Force on Indigent Defense (TFID), Dallas County’s split public defender/assigned counsel system shows substantial savings when cases are handled by the public defender office. The 25,000 cases assigned counsel in Dallas last year cost $493 per case. The 41,000 cases assigned to the Dallas County public defender office cost only $214.66 per case.

Other Texas counties that have moved forward with public defender offices have reported satisfaction with the services and cost reduction. Travis, Bexar, El Paso, Colorado, Webb, Wichita, Hidalgo, Cameron and Willacy counties, among others, have established public defender offices. Lubbock is starting an office for capital cases that will cover an 85-county area. Each of these counties is making sure defendants who cannot afford attorneys are able to get quality representation, and they’re saving money in the process.

So if you don’t care about such fuzzy-headed concepts as justice and equality, maybe you’ll like the idea of saving a few bucks. Hey, whatever works.

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