A public defender is a lawyer who is hired by a government agency to provide counsel to defendants who cannot afford one. Texas has 15 public defender offices, but Harris County is the largest urban area in the country without one. David Mitcham and members of the Harris County Criminal Lawyers Association went before Commissioner’s Court to voice their opposition to the plan.
“We see this as an unnecessary innovation in regard to this issue that the system here in Harris County is working pretty good. Any kind of analysis of what’s going on across the country in terms of these public defenders offices shows that it’s a hideous expense on the taxpayer.”
Mitcham says it doesn’t produce a better quality of defense for the accused. Colleague Carl Haggard says it would result in a public defender debacle costing taxpayers millions of dollars.
“Senator Rodney Ellis in the last few years, under the fair defense act, made sure that court appointed attorneys for the indigent are properly qualified, and the Harris County judges have done that. If you ask the Harris County judges if they want this, they don’t want it, we don’t need it, the system is not broken.”
Harris County Judge Ed Emmett & Commissioners Court voted to authorize further studies be conducted.
“Our management services office had a recommended creation of a committee that would begin to put together what a public defenders office would look like if we were to have one. At some point, we’ll have to go in and say ‘Okay, what’s it going to cost, what are the real benefits, and that analysis has to be done. But this is just moving the ball forward a little.”
Emmett was surprised at how intense the discussion of the plan was among members of the HCCLA.
“The lawyers got in a fight in the court today over whether it’s good or bad.”
Mark Hochglaube: “I think it has been a divisive issue for the Harris County Criminal Lawyers Association. Uh, yeah, I think it’s safe to say that.”
Attorney Mark Hochglaube: “It’s certainly an issue that we need to think about, to discuss, and it’s an issue that, yeah, many of us have very strong opinions about. How our group ultimately acts and is a part of the conversation is not clear at this point, I think we definitely want to be a constructive part of the conversation with Commissioners Court.”
A final vote is not expected until the court adopts the new budget next spring.
Pat Hernandez, KUHF…HOUSTON PUBLIC RADIO NEWS.