Senators Announce Bill to Overhaul
Indigent Criminal Defense System
AUSTIN - Three senators announced the Texas Fair Defense Act, a bill with five other Republican and Democratic co-authors that would overhaul the indigent criminal defense system in Texas.
"The harsh reality is that poor defendants get a poor defense in Texas," said Houston Sen. Rodney Ellis, one of the bill's co-authors. "Over the past two years, we have gathered more and more evidence that the system needs to be reformed. The Texas Fair Defense Act is a moderate step toward ensuring fairness in our criminal justice system."
The Texas Fair Defense Act has been filed as Senate Bill (SB) 7.
"When George Bush was being sworn in (in January), I presided over an execution," said Arlington Sen. Chris Harris, a co-author of SB 7. "During that 32 minutes, I had a lot of time to think. I did a lot of soul searching."
As President Pro Tempore of the Senate, Harris fulfills the duties of the governor when both the governor and lieutenant governor are out of the state.
"I voted for every law and order bill that's come through the legislature in the time I've been here. And I will continue to do that. I have voted to uphold the death penalty every time it's come up," Harris said. "But I want to be sure that any defendant that we in this state are going to put to death ... was given adequate representation."
Lubbock Sen. Robert Duncan, another co-author of the bill, said SB 7 is important if Texas is to have a fair system of criminal justice.
"The integrity of our entire criminal justice system is at risk when adequate legal representation of indigent defendants is in question," Duncan said. "This bill is a step to ensure that all persons, regardless of economic status, are equally represented under the law."
Ellis said SB 7 focuses on four critical issues, timely appointment of counsel, the method of counsel appointment by courts, the reporting of information about indigent representation services, and minimum standards for counsel. The bill also proposes to create an Appointed Counsel Assistance Program to assist attorneys appointed to serious felony and capital cases.
Other co-authors of SB 7 are Victoria Sen. Ken Armbrister, Austin Sen. Gonzalo Barrientos, Dallas Sen. David Cain, Corpus Christi Sen. Carlos F. Truan and Houston Sen. John Whitmire. Armbrister chairs the Criminal Justice Committee which will hear the bill.
Texas ranks 49th in the United States in per-capita spending on indigent criminal defense and is one of only four states that contribute no public funding to indigent defense.
SB 7 is the product of almost two years' work between legislators, the State Bar, district judges, prosecutors, defense attorneys and reform groups, Ellis said.
Ellis authored similar legislation in 1999. That bill, SB 247, was unanimously passed by both chambers of the Texas Legislature before being vetoed by then-Gov. George W. Bush.
"The Texas Fair Defense Act has broad bipartisan support in both chambers of the legislature and is clearly one of the top priorities this session," Ellis said.
In other Senate news, Duncan announced a bill designed to make prescription drugs more affordable for senior citizens by allowing them to pay Medicaid-based prices.
SB 556 would direct pharmacies that participate in Medicaid Vendor Drug Program to fill Medicare recipients' prescriptions at the Medicaid cost plus a 5-cent administrative fee. Persons age 65 and older are automatically eligible for Medicare.
"Texas seniors are suffering because of the disproportionate amount of their income that is spent on prescription drugs," Duncan said. "This is a fair measure that will help those that need help the most."
Fort Worth Sen. Mike Moncrief joined Duncan in announcing SB 556. The bill has been referred to the Health and Human Services Committee Moncrief chairs. The American Association of Retired Persons and the Texas Silver-Haired Legislature also have given their support for the bill.
Earlier in the day, Flower Mound Sen. Jane Nelson announced SB 19, which focuses on improving the health and preventing obesity among children. The bill has been referred to the Education Committee.
In session, the Senate voted final passage of nine bills:
- Committee Substitute SB 36, sponsored by Laredo Sen. Judith Zaffirini, dealing with training for health and human services caseworkers;
- SB 37, also sponsored by Zaffirini, focusing on temporary licenses for nursing facilities;
- SB 38, also sponsored by Zaffirini, which would allow the Texas Department of Human Services, if requested, to review building or renovation plans of nursing facilities for compliance of health and safety standards;
- SB 82, sponsored by San Antonio Sen. Frank L. Madla, dealing with public junior college courses offered for joint high school and junior college credit;
- SB 84, sponsored by Plano Sen. Florence Shapiro, which would add volunteer centers to the list of organizations that are protected under the Charitable Immunities Act;
- SB 149, sponsored by Dallas Sen. John Carona, that clarifies which institutions of higher education are eligible to participate in the tuition equalization grant program;
- SB 209, sponsored by Amarillo Sen. Teel Bivins, which would allow the state Board of Education to appoint more members to the boards of special purpose school districts;
- SB 387, also sponsored by Bivins, which would allow World War II veterans who left high school early to receive diplomas from the schools from which they would have graduated; and
- SB 439, also sponsored by Madla, which clarifies the definition of matching funds for the purposes of applying for Texas Commission on Alcohol and Drug Abuse grants.
The Senate is adjourned until 11 a.m. Thursday, February 15.