Ellis, Criminal Justice Advocates Call for Increased Funding for Indigent Criminal Defense
Legislation would improve indigent defense affordability for counties, improve access to counsel
(Austin)//Senator Rodney Ellis (D-Houston) and advocates for criminal justice reform called on the state of Texas to take the next step to improve indigent criminal defense in Texas. The group called for passage of SB 1218, which would increase state funding for indigent criminal defense to relieve the burden on counties, improve access to counsel for indigent Texans, and improve accountability for use of state money.
"Access to justice should not depend on how much money someone has in their bank account," said Ellis. "This legislation is a small but smart investment in ensuring Texas has a truly just criminal justice system."
SB 1218 would:
- double state investment in indigent criminal defense, from $12 million a year to $23 million a year;
- improve defendants' access to cash bond, which enables more defendants to work and retain their own attorney;
- reduce billable hours charged to the county by eliminating inefficiencies such as requiring attorneys to hand copy reports instead of photocopying;
- establish an objective standard of indigence;
- require all counsel to be appointed within one working day of request instead of three working days;
- requires counties to adopt a uniform set of rules for all courts within the county;
- establish common-sense minimum qualification requirements for participating attorneys;
- Require county officials to certify that their indigent defense plan is being implemented in order to be eligible for state grants;
- require the Task Force on Indigent Defense at the Office of Court Administration begin monitoring implementation of county plans.
Texas currently ranks 43rd in the nation in per capita spending on indigent defense, and 44th in the percentage contributed by the state. Texas ranks 1st in the nation in per capita spending on prisons. In 2004, Texas spent $139 million on indigent criminal defense -- $12,303,439 by the state, $127,670,631 by the counties. In contrast, Florida spent $180 million -- $144,800,000 by the state and only $35,875,000 by the counties. In FY 2004, the state of Texas spent more on brush control ($14,464,794) and got more back through the Unclaimed Refund on Motorboat Fuel Tax ($13,977,784)
than it spent on indigent criminal defense.
"The state should not simply pass the cost of ensuring poor Texans receive a fair defense down to the counties," said Ellis. "Justice is a major state interest, so the state should take on more of the burden."
In 2001, Ellis passed SB 7, the Texas Fair Defense Act, to improve indigent criminal defense in Texas. The legislation focused 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. SB 7 gave courts three options of appointment - a rotation or Awheel@ 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 ensured 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 contrasted the call for a judicial pay raise with the silence on increasing funding for indigent criminal defense.
"We're talking about jacking up fees to give judges making over $100,000 a year a pay raise, yet no one is saying we should raise funding for indigent criminal defense" said Ellis. "If we are going to pour millions of additional state dollars into the court room, we ought to do it in a way that improves justice for poor Texans."