Proper Indigent Defense

Harris County Commissioners Court approved plans to apply for state grant money to launch a public defender’s office. It will assign lawyers to defend the indigent on appeals of felony cases, and officials hope it helps reduce jail overcrowding. Pat Hernandez has more.


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Judges now appoint representation for indigent defendants from a randomly generated list of attorneys. The proposed public defender’s office would not replace the current system, but would be a hybrid.

Harris County Judge Ed Emmett:

“The system we have has some serious flaws and it costs a certain amount of money. A straight up, total public defender’s office, also has some flaws, and it costs a certain amount of money, and now we’re trying to come up with the best of both worlds. But at the end of the day, even if it costs a little more,if the bottom line is more fair justice, then that’s what we should be about.”

Emmett says it is also aimed at reducing jail overcrowding.

“Obviously that’s a big concern of ours, but I think the bigger concern is the question of justice, because you end up spending a lot more money. If you provide inadequate defense, and you get the appeals, and you get over turned, and it comes back, and keep trying the same person time after time because of inadequate defense. That makes no sense.”

Harris County will now apply for a 4.4-million dollar matching state grant for the office. Commissioner El Franco Lee chairs the Harris County Criminal Justice Coordinating Council. It’s been working on a public defender’s office for some time.

“Hopefully it will mean efficiency and it will mean that a young person who happens to be an indigent defendant, will get equitable and consistent representation in the court system. What happens now? It’s a log jam. You get a lot of cases, you get appointments, and you get a lot of hodge-podge of results. Hopefully this will give you a result that is consistent, fair, and with the amount of money that’s being spent on indigent defense.”

The public defender’s office will have a team of lawyers that can used on cases based on their specialties. It will also allow attorneys to have investigators track down witnesses in a case, instead of petitioning a judge for the money to fund an investigation. Reverend Robert Jefferson with Houston Ministers Against Crime says indigent defenders will benefit.

“The public defender, all he got to do is defend folk. There’s other guys come in and make a deal, and a guy goes to jail and his record is ruined, and that’s not doing justice to our people.”

21 of the state’s 254 counties have a public defender’s office for non-capital cases.

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