The ministers were represented by Reverend William Lawson, retired pastor of Wheeler Avenue Baptist Church. He supports formation of a public defender office in Harris County, but with conditions:
“My main concern is two; that it doesn’t have any concern for adults accused of felonies, and that it still ties the public defender to the judges. It needs to be an independent office with a board and free of the local county structure.”
Harris County is the largest jurisdiction in the country that does not have a public defender office.
“There is an indigent defense mechanism in effect already.”
That’s former district court judge Caprice Cosper, who now directs the Harris County Criminal Justice Coordinating Council. It is a committee of elected officials created by Commissioners Court to find solutions to jail overcrowding. Cosper says the current public defender system calls for judges to choose representation for the indigent from a randomly generated list of lawyers.
“Commissioners court has decided they would like to try a second method so that there would be a hybrid system, and they would be evaluating and comparing the two.”
Commissioner El Franco Lee, who sits on the committee, says he understands the concerns of the ministers.
“Hopefully, everybody will see how important it is to band together on what we’ve designed in this pilot, to get behind the pilot and influence the state, or bring request on the state to give us the funding, as they have other programs around the state.”
Harris County Judge Ed Emmett says the ministers have valid points but will wait for the committee’s final report.
“I do think that some people want to have an easy answer, and say ‘Oh, public defender, just like they have everywhere else.’ But frankly, a lot of those public defenders offices are pretty lousy and, my goal is to make sure that indigents have the best they can have, period. If that means we modify it, we modify it.”
The state task force on indigent defense considers Harris County’s application for a 4-million dollar grant to start a public defender office. If approved, it would be opened with lawyers representing indigent defendants full time in October.