After being one of the last major cities without one, the Harris County Public Defender's office was created for the purpose of representing mentally ill defendants facing misdemeanor charges, and appeals cases for the indigent. Civil rights leaders hailed it as long overdue, giving people a fair defense in the court system. Harris County Judge Ed Emmett says early on, there aren't many people complaining.
"In government, if you don't have people complaining about something, then that that's usually a good thing. It is just getting off the ground though, and I think the people who really wanted it and pushed it, would be in here regularly, if they thought it wasn't going the way they thought it should."
The county launched the office with a $4 million dollar state grant, but with plans to eventually fund it for about $7 million dollars a year. Alex Bunin was hired to head the office, after serving as federal public defender in New York. He began his legal career here in Houston. Judge Emmett says the office will help free up the county jail for people who deserve to be incarcerated.
"I know the district attorney has been real keen on getting some people out of the criminal justice system that really shouldn't be here. It's clogging the system for very minor offenses, and a lot of those people are the same ones who can't afford an attorney, so they end up in the Harris County Jail when they really shouldn't. So, the combination of what she's doing and the public defender, I think will put us in pretty good stead."
The public defender's office should expand its caseload to include juvenile and felony cases within two years.