From the Office of State Senator Rodney Ellis

For Immediate Release
April 10, 2001
Contact: Jeremy Warren, (512) 463-8393

Senate Passes Texas Fair Defense Act

Landmark Legislation Will Overhaul Texas' Indigent Criminal Defense System

(Austin)//The Texas Senate today approved landmark legislation to overhaul the Texas criminal defense system and provide more fairness for indigent Texans.

The Senate unanimously passed SB 7, the Texas Fair Defense Act, legislation authored by Senator Rodney Ellis (D-Houston), Senator Chris Harris (R-Arlington) and Senator Robert Duncan (R-Lubbock).

"The Texas Senate has taken an historic stand for fairness," said Ellis. "Over the past few years, the glare of the spotlight on our justice system has been harsh. The Texas Fair Defense Act balances the scales of justice to ensure that poor Texans are not sentenced to a poor defense."

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 creates a task force within the Judicial Council to recommend further improvements and direct funding to assist counties in the improvements.

Senate Bill 7 ensures prompt appointment of an attorney for indigent criminal defendants in Texas. 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 a regional presiding administrative judge. 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 to the state on indigent criminal defense procedures and expenditures.

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 bipartisan collaboration between legislators, the State Bar, district judges, prosecutors, defense attorneys, and reform groups to provide indigent Texans with timely, adequate counsel at trial.