On February 23, 2011, Texas Supreme Court Chief Justice Wallace B. Jefferson gave his state of the judiciary before the 82nd state legislature. Texas has two high courts – the Supreme Court for civil and juvenile matters, and the Court of Criminal Appeals for criminal matters. Though Justice Jefferson heads the civil high court, he nonetheless felt compelled to speak about indigent defense needs in the state. Bemoaning the fact that Texas ranks “among the lowest of the 50 states” in right to counsel per capita expenditures, he urged the legislature not to go forward with projected cuts to the indigent defense budget. The right to counsel is primarily a county responsibility in Texas, with the state making limited contributions through the Texas Task Force on Indigent Defense, which provides state funding, requires local planning for indigent defense and reporting of expenditures, and provides an array of resources for counties to improve these services. A cut to their budget “would drain the system of resources we need to assure indigent criminal defendants get competent lawyers who make the system fair.”
Wesley Shackelford serves as Deputy Director/Special Counsel to the Task Force on Indigent Defense (Task Force). He develops standards and policies for the provision of indigent defense services and acts as team lead on fiscal and policy monitoring programs. Wesley also provides legal advice on the issue to judges, counties, and the Task Force.
As noted in our Gideon Alert on January 26, the National Association of Counties recommended the federal government fund pilot public defender programs to serve multi-county jurisdictions in rural areas. The San Angelo Standard-Times reports that Tom Green County, Texas is considering such a regional model using grant funds from the state’s Task Force on Indigent Defense. NLADA applauds the county’s leadership for considering creative solutions to their local right to counsel dilemma.
Like so many counties across the nation, Montgomery County, Texas, is looking to cut its expenses. According to the Conroe Courier, a member of the local judiciary suggests looking to indigent defense to cut costs. The county currently operates under an assigned counsel model for adult criminal cases, with judges approving attorney vouchers. Juvenile cases are handled under contract with three private attorneys at a $175,000 flat annual fee.
The Houston Chronicle started off 2011 by calling for the abolition of the death penalty in Texas in a January 1st editorial. The position was taken, in part, because of the very real likelihood that Texas has executed two innocent people. The September 2009 edition of the New Yorker has an excellent expose on the Cameron Todd Willingham case and the work of The Innocence Project on his behalf. The Innocence Project also has further information on the case of Claude Jones. The Chronicle notes that a drop in the number of death sentences has occurred since the Texas legislature passed a life-without-parole statute in 2005.
Gideon Alert: Policies of prosecutor and judges close doors of Val Verde County (Del Rio, Texas) public defender
On October 10, 2010, the San Antonio News ran a feature article on the closing of Texas’ first regional public defender office. The office served Val Verde, Kinney, Terrell, and Edwards counties, and had opened in 2006 as a division of Texas Rio Grande Legal Aide, Inc. (TRLA).
Gideon Alert: AG Holder & North Carolina; NY Governor Patterson's proposal for reform; American Constitution Society panel; and opinion pieces
Over the past three days, a flurry of activity occurred on the indigent defense crisis at both the federal and state level.
Former Federal Bureau of Investigations Director William Sessions and Texas Court of Criminal Appeals Judge Charlie Baird strongly back the need for judges to be out of the business of overseeing indigent defense in an opinion piece in the Houston Chronicle (June 9, 2010).&n
As of May 2010, Harris County remains the most populous county in the United States that does not have a staffed public defender office. NLADA writes to commend the Harris County Board of Commissioners on their desire to enhance the current provision of services for indigent defendants in a manner that provides quality representation and fiscal predictability, as expressed in the 2011 Harris County Discretionary Grant Application Narrative. However, the structure of the proposed pilot office does not adequately address certain systemic deficiencies in public defense services that presently exist in Harris County and will fail to fully achieve the commission's laudable aims, as this letter details.
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An article in the Dallas Morning News on May 12, 2010 discusses an impasse in the Dallas courts between the executive and judicial branches of government over how to make the courts more efficient. At iss