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Public Defender Fears

Harris County will find out later this month if their plan for a public defenders office will receive state funding. The plan is supported by a majority of the district judges, but a local group wants to make sure that the indigent population is adequately served. Pat Hernandez has more.


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Picture is of members of the Greater Houston Coalition for JusticeThe Greater Houston Coalition for Justice, a group comprised of community activists, business leaders and attorneys, wants common sense to be used in the establishment of a public defenders office. Attorney Randall Kalinen, a
member of the coalition, is concerned that attorneys hired for the office could be overburdened with cases.

“The American Bar Association says that 150-felony cases, is the maximum load for a public defender attorney. My research has revealed from the Harris County Auditor’s office, that some attorneys in one year, were taking 500, 600, and 700 appointed cases in one year.”

Jim Bethke is director of the Texas Task Force on Indigent Defense, which is considering Harris County’s application to start a public defenders office.

“Not only are they seeking funding from the Task Force on Indigent Defense, but really for the past couple of years, they’ve sought guidance from a variety of criminal justice stakeholders on how to implement an effective public defender office, and these issues, I think, go to the concerns raised, and the efforts are reflected in the Harris County grant application, which addresses how the county will monitor its case load.”

Bethke says says the application being reviewed also addresses how it will supervise and review for quality and efficiency of representation, and provides for pay parity between the defense and prosecution. He adds the county has
had to revise the plan for the hybrid public defenders office.

“The ABA second principle of effective indigent defense systems, calls for a hybrid system to help monitor and  mange the caseload so, this is not at all uncommon, and it a very commendable practice.”

Former judge Caprice Cosper is director for the office of criminal justice coordination for Harris County. She says she anticipated some of the questions posed by the coalition.

“One of the guiding principles for establishing a public defenders office is that the resources and the number of attorneys, and the space allocation for their office be on parity with the district attorneys office, and we are striving to accomplish that.”

She says the 4.1 million dollar grant application is for the first year of operation.

“And that does not fully fund the public defenders office for the first year. The county will be bearing, obviously significantly cost in connection with that office.”

Cosper says once the application is approved, the public defenders office should begin operation by next February.

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