TX Chief Justice speaks out on indigent defense and juvenile justice issues

BY David Carroll on Friday, February 25, 2011 at 3:48 PM

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.”

The problems of competent representation extend to juvenile delinquency issues as well.  Noting that over 80 percent of Texas’ adult prison population are school drop-outs, Chief Justice Jefferson questions whether charging kids with criminal offenses for low-level behavioral issues “exacerbates the problem.” “[C]riminal records close doors to opportunities that less punitive intervention would keep open. Let us endeavor to give them a chance at life, before setting them on a path into the adult criminal justice system.”

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