Reentry and Integration Division
County may start its own public defender office
July 12, 2010 8:25 pm
Houston Chronicle (TX)
Beth Kuhles wrote:
With Montgomery County spending $4 million a year on indigent defense, the county may consider creating a public defender’s office in the upcoming budget.
Montgomery County Commissioners Court asked Judge Cara Wood of the 284th District Court to draft a plan for a public defender’s office for the upcoming budget session. The county also is pursuing a state grant to create private defender services for indigent offenders with mental health issues.
“We are charged with the responsibility of providing a defense for clients who are unable to afford the service,” said Wood. “Mental health issues add a layer of complexity to that. We want to help deal with that particular group and help reduce recidivism.”
Wood said national studies have found that 35 percent of the jail population have significant mental health issues. She said the county identified about 1,200 defendants with mental health issues in the jail, of which half are unable to afford a legal defense.
The county is pursuing a five-year, $500,000 grant through the state Task Force on Indigent Defense that would contract legal services through a non-profit group to serve indigent, mentally-ill defendants. The county would be responsible for 20 percent of the cost of the program the first year, with an additional 20 percent in local costs added in each of the subsequent four years.
Montgomery County is in the process of adding several key mental health resources in the county. The county is building a secure psychiatric facility to house mentally ill defendants committed by state courts. Through a contract with the Texas Department of State Health Services, the 100 bed facility will house criminal offenders from the Houston area, including those incompetent to stand trial or those guilty by reason of insanity.
The county also provided federal funding to Tri County Mental Health Mental Retardation for a short term residential treatment program for those in mental health crisis. The 16-bed facility will serve residents of Montgomery, Walker and Liberty County who might otherwise wind up in a state hospital, a local emergency room or jail.
The county also provided federal funds for a 14-unit apartment complex in Montgomery to house stable residents with mental health issues.
Finally, the county has proposed a mental health court to divert minor offenders with mental illness from jail. The state Task Force on Indigent Defense asked the county to revise its application to seek more funding to create a private, non-profit services for indigent mentally ill defendants, Wood said.
With escalating cost for that program anticipated over five years, the county plans to weigh the costs of creating its own public defender office.
Since 2001, with the passage of the Fair Defense Act, the number of counties with public defender offices has more than doubled. Before 2001, there were seven county public defenders offices in the state. Now there are 15 offices covering 90 counties.
“One of the primary reasons for the growth of public defender offices is one of accountability and control over quality,” said Jim Bethke, director of the state Task Force on Indigent Defense.
The Fair Defense Act required counsel to be appointed for indigent defendants within a day for counties with a population greater than 250,000 and within three days for counties with populations under 250,000. In addition,the law required that attorney selection process for the program be fair, neutral and non-discriminatory.
“It is much harder to manage 100 attorneys on a list,” said Bethke. “There is no systematic way to measure what they are doing.”
Currently, Montgomery County provides indigent defense through a list of attorneys in the county. The county has budgeted $4 million for that services in the upcoming 2011 fiscal budget, said County Auditor Phyllis Martin.
Public Defender Offices in Texas
There are 15 counties in Texas that provide a public defender’s office, whether in-house, specialized for juvenile, mental health or appellate, or contracted to outside agencies. Those offices cover 90 counties in the state. Following is a list of the county public defender offices.
• El Paso
• Fort Bend
Source: Task for Indigent Defense