Published: April 01, 2009 11:52 pm
County receives report on indigent defense
By CHAD BLACKSHEAR
Hunt County officials have received the preliminary report of a feasibility study conducted by the Texas Task Force on Indigent Defense regarding alternative forms of indigent defense in the county.
County officials are expected to discuss the report in an upcoming Commissioners Court meeting.
County Judge John Horn requested that commissioners authorize the task force to conduct a feasibility study, the first part of an application for a four-year grant from the task force when the Commissioners Court met Jan. 26. Commissioners unanimously approved the grant.
Approximately 10 percent of the counties in the state are served by 150 public defender offices.
The report analyzes indigent defense expenses and appointed criminal cases in the county.
Currently, private attorneys are appointed to represent indigent criminal defendants from a list maintained by the judges. The current list consists of 18 attorneys.
According to the report, the county spent $981,824 on indigent defense for the 2008 fiscal year, which is a 136.95 percent increase from 2001, the year when the state began collecting the data. The county received a $43,574 from the task force in 2008.
The report states that 709 of the 913 felony cases filed in 2008, approximately 77 percent, went to attorneys appointed by the county. The state average is 62 percent. In 2008, the county paid a total of $406,723 in non-capital felony expenditures.
However, of the 3,090 misdemeanors filed, the county appointed an attorney in 462 cases, equating to 14.95 percent. From 2005 to 2008, the county appointed attorney rate ranged from 11.43 percent to 15.85 percent.
The report cites that a public defenders’ office would provide budget predictability and would be better equipped to absorb changes in the county’s indigent caseload, as cases can be spread across attorneys in the office or an additional attorney could be hired.
According to the report, the biggest disadvantage of implementing a public defenders’ office is a resistance to change, as many counties are reluctant to make sudden changes to their criminal justice systems for fear of adverse consequences.
The report concluded that a full-blown public defender’s office handling 80 percent of all indigent cases may be a cost effective method for the county. However, the county has the discretion to determine the scope and scale of a public defender’s office.
If the county were to fully implement the office, as in the report, it would require a staff of six attorneys, including the chief public defender, two support staff and have a budget of approximately $541,850.
If county officials opt to proceed in the grant process, the second part of the application will be due later this month.
If Hunt County is awarded a grant from the tax force, a public defender’s office would be created no sooner than the fall of 2010. The task force would pay 80 percent of the costs the first year, 60 percent the second, 40 percent the third, and 20 percent the fourth year.