Public Defender Division Would Mean More Money

Harris County is the recipient of more money for indigent criminal defense services. The man who co-authored legislation that lead to the creation of the Texas taskforce on indigent defense says Harris County could see even more funding in the future. Pat Hernandez has the story.

Over 1.7-million dollars is coming to Harris County for indigent criminal defense services. It is the largest amount of money awarded. It is based on a formula that considers population. The Texas Task Force on indigent defense works with local governments to help them set up a cost effective indigent defense delivery system that complies with state and constitutional law. Jim Bethke is task force director.

“Harris County does receive the largest formula grant in the state, partly because they are the largest jurisdiction in the state and have the highest expenses. Every county, all 254 counties are eligible for formula grants from the state, provided they have submitted their local indigent defense plans, they’ve submitted their expenditure reports and their plans meet the requirements of the fair defense act.”

Patrick McCann is a criminal defense attorney in Houston.

“I think it’s a good thing, anytime you can help even the playing field, considering the difference in what we spend on imprisoning the poor, versus what we spend on defending them.”

Houston State Senator Rodney Ellis authored the Fair Defense Act. He says funding for indigent criminal defense has increased from 19-million dollars in 2002 to over 50-million in this bi-ennium.

“And that increase is due in large part, to the different funds generated from criminal convictions fees. One thing that’s lacking though, I think, is more direct oversight, or requirements on how that money should be spent. I would prefer that it go into a public defender system but, that has not happened yet, but I am pleased to say that I know Harris County has put together a very methodical process, and they’re looking at it. There are incentives on the state level, and that fund that has been created for indigent defense that I had a hand in sponsoring back in ’03, two thirds of the formula funded from the state, is based on population. The other third is discretionary funding, and some of that discretionary funding would be available for Harris County as well, if they were to do some creative things in the indigent defense area, like a public defender office. I hope that after they go through this delivery process that they’ve been going through that they will look very closely at that.”

Harris County is the largest urban county in the country that does not have a public defender system.

Pat Hernandez, KUHF…Houston Public Radio News.