Ellis Increases Funding for Indigent Criminal Defense
Legislation would improve indigent defense affordability for counties, improve access to counsel
(Austin)//Senator Rodney Ellis (D-Houston) successfully added an amendment to Senate Bill 368 today which would improve access to counsel for indigent Texans. The amendment would increase state funding for indigent defense by $8.9 million in 2006, and $13.9 million every year thereafter, and help relieve the current financial burden on counties. This would more than double the amount of money the state currently puts into indigent defense.
"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."
Texas currently ranks 43rd in the nation in per capita spending on indigent defense ($6.71/per capita). A large reason Texas falls so far behind when it comes to protecting the rights of indigent defendants is the state offers little funding assistance to our counties. Texas ranks 44th in the nation for state spending on indigent defense; contributing only 9 cents (8.9%) to every dollar spent by the counties. In 2004, the state of Texas spent $12,303,439 on indigent defense, while counties spent $127,670,631. In contrast, 25 other states provide 100% funding for indigent defense, with many others funding at near 100%. The state of Florida, for example, 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. SB7 provided $12 million a year to help counties with indigent defense costs.