Spending even more on court-appointed attorneys

But maybe there’s an end in sight.

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.

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4 Responses to Spending even more on court-appointed attorneys

  1. From a purely financial perspective (nothing else), the longer a criminal case drags out, the more money a defense attorney can potentially invoice the County for court appearances, client consultations, and related case work. It pays to continuously reset cases, advise against plea-bargain deals, and keep cases in pre-trial status for as long as possible. To that end, some defense attorneys may see the current criminal case backlog as a financial boon, not a problem to be solved. If we want private defense attorneys to help move cases along and reduce the criminal backlog, Harris County needs to change the defense attorney fee structure to incentivize, not discourage, actual case adjudication.

    As far as the Public Defenders Office goes, there is no financial incentive for them to resolve cases quickly either. To the contrary, the higher their caseload, the more money the PDO can request from Commissioners Court to provide representation. Throughout the criminal justice system, the financial incentives encourage attorneys to drag cases out, not help adjudicate them in a timely manner.

  2. mollusk says:

    There’s more than enough work for attorneys who take court appointments. As with anything there may be exceptions, but my experience is that the vast majority of lawyers are pretty serious about their ethical duty to do the best job they can for their clients regardless of who is paying the bill.

    Sorry if that reality doesn’t happen to fit with the conservative narrative du jour.

  3. Mollusk, why do we have an attorney payment structure which can pit ethics against financial gain? Right now, the longer a case drags out, the more a defense attorney can potentially charge the County. That’s a fact. I would like to think that ethics always trumps the almighty dollar, but Commissioners Court paid out a record $60 million to defense attorneys last year. This year, it’s going to be $95 million. The reality is, there’s an awful lot of billing going on, and cases are flowing through our criminal justice system at a glacial pace (even post Covid). To help offset the potential ethical conflict, I just think it makes sense for the County to adjust its’ attorney fee structure to incentivize actual case adjudication. To help get cases flowing again and lower our jail population, it’s worth a try.

  4. mollusk says:

    Why? uh… the Constitution guarantees criminal defendants the right to counsel, and our Commissioners Court didn’t create a (still underfunded) public defender’s office until 2011.

    Harvey took down pretty much the entire courthouse complex and essentially destroyed the criminal building from the top floor down, which took years to rebuild and repair. Until last year the criminal courts were sharing courtrooms with the civil courts, slowing everybody down – not to mention covid shutting down the whole shooting match for a while. Now that each court has unfettered use of a dedicated courtroom things are moving quicker, and more cases being disposed of = more time being put in by all the participants. The metaphorical possum is still squeezing through the snake and likely will be for some time, but once it does things will level back out to the normal lower level.

    I’m on the civil side, which certainly has the “financial incentive” to move things along, even when being paid by the hour (yes, clients complain about their bills and want things resolved sooner rather than later. You do that and they send you more business – you don’t and they go elsewhere). Still, I have a couple cases from 2017 and 2018 that are still in the court system, which is a real pain in the neck not only for their own delay but also because they bog down newer matters. OTOH, matters I have in arbitration had little if any slowdown because routine things have generally been handled virtually since long before Zoom was a thing, and live hearings don’t take place in the courthouse.

    Another issue is that the system itself hasn’t kept pace with population growth – we’ve had ONE new criminal district court created since 1985 (and one civil court redesignated to handling domestic violence, which has some overlap with the criminal system). Meanwhile, during that time our population doubled.

    Finally, the judges (who answer both to Commissioner’s Court for much of their budget and to the voters overall) approve all the appointed attorney payment applications and have a vested interest in not having towering dockets.

    All that said, more funding to the public defender’s office would be a good thing. And again, my EXPERIENCE (as opposed to biased preconceptions, memes, and political talking points) is that the vast majority of lawyers are pretty serious about their ethical duties.

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