Ellis, Advocates Lament Failure of Judicial Pay/Indigent Defense Boost
Senate Bill 368 dies after being held hostage to other issues
(Austin)//Senator Rodney Ellis (D-Houston), criminal justice reform and county advocates today lamented the death of the judicial pay/indigent defense boost in the final days of the 79th Legislative Session. The legislation, SB 368, died when Texas House leaders linked its passage to a contentious, controversial bill dealing with appointment of counsel in death penalty cases.
Despite furious attempts to revive the judicial pay/indigent defense legislation, the bill was officially killed on the final day when the Texas House refused to compromise on HB 268. That bill would have amended the Texas Fair Defense Act by weakening standards for appointment of counsel for indigent Texans in death penalty cases and would have significantly reduced the appellate process for those on Death Row. Late Sunday night, Representative Terry Keel (R-Austin) threatened to kill the judicial pay/indigent defense raise bill on a point of order unless the Senate agreed to his version of HB 268 -- with none of the Senate changes. When the Senate refused to knuckle under, Representative Keel killed the judicial pay/indigent defense bill and another bill, HB 2233 in retaliation.
"I was deeply saddened when we were unable to come to an agreement with the House on this vital legislation," said Ellis. "The fact is that the judicial pay and indigent defense increase bill was held hostage in an attempt to pass a bill that would have significantly weakened standards for the appointment of counsel in death penalty cases and sped up Texas' Death Row Express. The Senate was not going to negotiate staring down the barrel of a gun."
Senate Bill 368 raised $30 million in fees over five years to give Texas judges a pay raise. In March, Senator Ellis successfully amended SB 368 to increase state funding for indigent defense by $14.8 million in 2006 and $19.5 million in 2007. The increase would have more than doubled the amount of money the state currently puts into indigent defense.
"Senate Bill 368 was an important bill," said Ellis. "The judges wanted a pay raise and our counties deserved a bigger helping hand in paying for indigent defense. It is a shame that this legislation was killed in a petty power grab by some in the House. As with many other bills this session, nearly every attempt Senators made at compromise was rejected. The House held judicial pay and indigent defense hostage. When we refused to blink, they shot the hostage."
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 counties. Texas ranks 44th in the nation for state spending on indigent defense; contributing only 9 cents to every dollar spent by the counties.
Funding indigent defense has simply not been a priority for the state of Texas. Prior to 2001, the state of Texas provided zero funding to counties for indigent defense. 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.