Press Release from State Senator Rodney Ellis

For Immediate Release
May 24, 2001
Contact: Jeremy Warren, (512) 463-0113

Landmark Texas Fair Defense Act Sent to the Governor
Senate Concurs to House Changes to Legislation to Overhaul Indigent Criminal Defense

(Austin)//The Texas Fair Defense Act is on its way to Governor Rick Perry's desk following approval today by the Texas Senate. The Senate concurred to changes offered by the House to SB 7, landmark legislation to overhaul Texas' indigent criminal defense system.

"Texas has taken an historic stand for fairness," said Ellis. "The Texas Fair Defense Act balances the scales of justice to ensure that poor Texans are not sentenced to a poor defense."

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 remains 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.

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.

"A lot of Texans were embarrassed by the problems in our criminal justice system revealed over the past two years," said Ellis. "The Texas Fair Defense act is not a magic potion that will cure all of those ills, but it is a significant first step toward creating a criminal justice system that Texans can be proud of."