Harris County to provide equal access to legal representation for everyone

For too long, individuals’ ability to pay has determined the quality of their legal defense and, consequently, determined whether they go free or spend years of their life behind bars. Access to quality legal representation is every person’s right, regardless of his or her resources.

At Commissioners Court on Tuesday, Harris County Precinct One Commissioner Rodney Ellis addressed the current underutilization of the Public Defender’s Office and the implementation of an office of managed assigned counsel in order to ensure that the county guarantees quality legal representation for everyone.

In June, Harris County felony judges appointed the Public Defender’s Office in only 3% of cases, even though the office has the capacity to handle 15-20% of cases. This constitutes a violation the Texas Fair Defense Act, which requires the court to give priority to a public defender’s office to represent an indigent defendant.

“At a time when being in jail can be a death sentence due to COVID-19, I am concerned that our courts are not letting defendants access the best representation possible,” said Commissioner Ellis. “Refusal to appoint the Public Defender’s Office not only undermines our justice system for those who are low-income, but it also violates state law. The integrity of our system requires using the public defender system wherever possible.”

In 2019, almost one-third of appointed attorneys handled more than the caseload recommended by the Texas Indigent Defense Commission. In those cases, that means defense counsel was spending only 11 minutes on each case. Felony defendants are less likely to exit the criminal justice system without a record or penalty if they are represented by assigned counsel (28%) compared to the Public Defender’s Office (37%).

If the court doesn’t appoint the Public Defender’s Office, it must make a finding of good cause for or have another reason under the Act, like using an attorney from a managed assigned counsel program. But that’s not happening.

“I urge the Harris County felony judges to appoint the Public Defender’s Office more frequently,” said Commissioner Ellis. “Last year we spent almost $34 million on appointed counsel for indigent defendants. We need to make sure we are spending that money in the smartest possible way and providing the best possible legal representation for those without resources.”