For a public defender’s office

Criminal defense attorney Mark Bennett endorses the idea of a public defender’s office in Harris County.

Among other things, a public defender’s office can maintain standards in the area of investigations. Ad hoc lawyers are at the mercy of the district court judges in getting approval for investigators, including mitigation specialists. A court-appointed mitigation specialist in a non-capital case is, as far as I can tell, unheard-of in Harris County. Harris County judges are, according to defense lawyers with court-appointed practices, stingy with funds for investigators of all sorts. Worse, Harris County judges are known to cut investigators’ fees after they have done their work. Try getting a mitigation expert to return to work on a Harris County case after a Harris County judge has slashed her fee. A public defender’s office would, like the Harris County District Attorney’s Office, have a staff of dedicated investigators to use as needed without seeking the approval of the court. The office would also have a budget that it could use for outside investigators and experts if necessary, without the micromanagement to which court-appointed lawyers can be subjected.

With a couple of assistant public defenders assigned to each court, the DA’s office will lose its home-court advantage. This will improve the effectiveness of indigent defense. It will also improve its efficiency, since there are economies of scale and, in Pat McCann’s words, “economies of efficiency” in a PD’s office that don’t exist in an ad hoc system. Lawyers assigned to a court will learn to perform their jobs more efficiently so that they can help more defendants more with less wasted time. In-house investigators will cost the County less money than ad hoc investigators. Instead of paying the lawyers and requiring each to cover her own overhead, a PD’s office will consolidate the fixed overhead of the lawyers representing the indigent.

It’s good stuff, so check it out.

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