From the Office of State Senator Rodney Ellis

For Immediate Release
February 14, 2001
Contact: Jeremy Warren, (512) 463-0113

Bipartisan Coalition Unveils Texas Fair Defense Act
Comprehensive Legislation Will Overhaul Texas' Indigent Criminal Defense System

(Austin)//Senator Rodney Ellis (D-Houston), Senator Chris Harris (R-Arlington) and Senator Robert Duncan today announced the filing of Senate Bill 7, the Texas Fair Defense Act, comprehensive legislation to overhaul Texas' indigent criminal defense system. Senator Ken Armbrister (D-Victoria), Senator Gonzalo Barrientos (D-Austin), Senator David Cain (D-Dallas), Senator Eliot Shapleigh (D-El Paso), Senator Carlos Truan (D-Corpus Christi), Senator Royce West (D-Dallas) and Senator John Whitmire (D Houston) also co-authored the legislation.

"The harsh reality is that poor defendants get a poor defense in Texas," said Senator Ellis. "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."

"I recently presided over an execution while acting as Governor," said Senator Harris. "This experience has made me acutely aware of the necessity of ensuring that each and every person who is convicted of a crime has received competent legal representation and a fair and impartial trial."

"The integrity of our entire criminal justice system is at risk when adequate legal representation of indigent defendants is in question," said Senator Duncan. "This bill is a step to ensure that all persons, regardless of their economic status, are equally represented under the law."

Over the past two years, Texas' indigent criminal defense system has been criticized as unfair and inefficient. Some critics have claimed that the system places the state and counties in jeopardy of lawsuits by inmates claiming violations of their constitutional rights. The Texas Fair Defense Act addresses this criticism by focusing on four critical issues -- timely appointment of counsel, method of counsel appointment by the courts, reporting of information about indigent representation services, and minimum standards for counsel. The legislation also proposes the creation of an Appointed Counsel Assistance Program, to provide research and related assistance to appointed attorneys in serious felony and capital cases.

Senate Bill 7 ensures that an indigent criminal defendant is provided no later than five days after arrest. The legislation gives courts three options of appointment - a rotation or "wheel" system, a locally-controlled public defender system, or an alternate fair system designed by the judges in the county and approved by the county commissioners who fund it. The legislation ensures ultimate decision making with judges and counties while providing necessary state input and oversight. Senate Bill 7 also requires counties and judges to collect and report information on indigent criminal defense procedures and expenditures to the Office of Court Administration.

Senator Ellis has led the fight to reform Texas' indigent criminal defense system. The Texas Fair Defense Act is the product of nearly two years of collaboration between legislators, the State Bar, district judges, prosecutors, defense attorneys, and reform groups to provide indigent Texans with timely, adequate counsel at trial.

"By working together with all parties involved in the system, I believe we have come up with a very good reform plan that balances the rights of the accused and the interests of the state," said Ellis. "This legislation will create a more fair and effective criminal justice system."

"The movement to improve indigent representation is of significant importance to many groups in this state, including judges," said District Judge Philip Martinez of the 327th district court, Chair of the Committee on Appointment of Criminal Defense Counsel for the Judicial Section of the State Bar. "Judges have sought the active participation of the legislature to guarantee the quality and fairness of legal services to indigent persons accused of crimes. Judicial leaders have given input to the legislature on the issue. Senator Ellis has met with members of the Committee for Indigent Defendant Representation of the Judicial Section of the State Bar to discuss this issue and sought and received input from the Committee's members prior to developing his legislation. The judiciary stands ready to continue to work with the legislature on this issue to improve the legal system."

To further improve Texas' indigent criminal defense system, Senator Ellis will seek some level of state funding for indigent criminal defense. Currently, Texas is one of only four states that contribute no state funding to indigent defense. Many states, including Alabama, Missouri, Virginia, North Carolina, Arkansas and Florida, fully fund their indigent representation systems.

Texas ranks second to last in the nation in per-capita spending on indigent criminal defense, spending less than $5 per capita on counsel for the poor.

Last session, Senator Ellis passed SB 247, compromise legislation to reform Texas' indigent criminal defense system. The legislation unanimously passed both the House and Senate, but was vetoed by Governor 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," said Ellis.