A Houston Chronicle investigation into how some private attorneys earn enormous sums to represent thousands of indigent people accused of crimes in Harris County – at a cost of $60 million to taxpayers last year – is prompting widespread calls for reform, as well as a county audit of the program.
The 10 highest-paid private attorneys each pocketed more than $450,000 last year, with one pulling in $1 million. Dozens of attorneys – not all among the highest-paid – took on far more cases than county-employed public defenders are allowed. Their caseloads also exceeded state-recommended limits.
“Obviously, these numbers are huge,” said Jed Silverman, president of the Harris County Criminal Lawyers Association. “It’s wrong, it’s offensive to your average person off the street, and it calls into question whether or not these accused people are getting effective assistance of counsel.”
Here’s a look at what officials are doing to address the issue, and other proposed solutions.
Late last month, the Harris County Auditor told county leaders that his office “started a review of court-appointed attorneys’ fees.” Errika Perkins, who also works in the office, told the Chronicle that officials hope to examine everything from the attorneys’ billing practices to whether they’re visiting clients in jail.
“Our goal is to be able to analyze the different hours attorneys spent on different aspects of the case,” Perkins said, adding that she expects the audit will take at least a couple of months before results can be publicly released.
Two of the county’s Democratic commissioners, Rodney Ellis and Leslie Briones, separately are pushing for an expansion of the public defender’s office, which employed about 130 lawyers to represent indigent clients last year.
But Silverman and others say those changes won’t be enough.
“Everybody involved has to double down” to fix the problem, said State Sen. John Whitmire, who also is running for mayor of Houston. “There’s no justice for victims, defendants, or society … the whole damn thing’s broken.”
For their part, judges and county staff say they’re trying to improve the situation by increasing attorney pay and mentorship opportunities to entice more attorneys to take cases. Harris County courts have faced so much turmoil in recent years due to the COVID-19 pandemic and Hurricane Harvey that many attorneys stopped taking appointments, forcing judges to overload some of the ones that remain.
See here for the background. First, I’m glad to see that there is publicly-expressed support for increasing the budget of the Harris County Public Defender Office, which makes all kinds of sense. The story suggests that the max case load the PDO could handle is about half of the indigent cases, which would require slightly more than doubling their current budget. The story mentions other things that the county is doing now, but it’s not clear to me what things that it should be doing that it isn’t or hasn’t brought up. I don’t know what the particulars are that Silverman and Whitmire – who obviously would have some skin in the game as Houston Mayor, even though this is a county matter – have in mind. Be that as it may, I believe this situation will look very different in a couple of years. That should be the goal, anyway.