Ellis, Advocates Call on Legislature to Link Judicial Pay Raise &Indigent Defense Boost
Group urges leaders to follow course established during the 79th regular session
(Austin)//Senator Rodney Ellis (D-Houston), criminal justice reform and county advocates today called on leaders in the House and Senate to link any judicial pay raise to an increase in indigent criminal defense funding.
In a reversal from the course established during the 79th regular session, the Senate State Affairs Committee last week passed legislation, SB 11 by Senator Robert Duncan (R-Lubbock), which dramatically increases judicial and prosecutor's pay without providing counties any new funding for indigent defense. Senate Bill 11 raises criminal case fees by $4 and civil case fees by $37 and will provide nearly $30 million over five years to finance the judicial pay increase.
"It is hard to defend significantly raising fees to boost our retirement and give judges and prosecutors a big pay raise, and then tell the counties that they're not going to get one cent more to pay for indigent defense," Ellis said. "If we can find the money to boost pay for 2/3rds of our system -- the judges and prosecutors -- we can find the money to finish the job and provide more resources for the defense."
Once again linking the judicial pay raise with indigent criminal defense will significantly reduce the burden currently shouldered by Texas counties. Early in the regular session, Senator Ellis successfully amended SB 368, the judicial pay raise bill, 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.
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. 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.
"It just makes sense to link these issues," Ellis said. "Increasing the funding for indigent defense will improve the quality of our justice system and allow counties to provide direct tax relief. Right now, counties are going to their taxpayers to pay for indigent criminal defense. If the state starts shouldering more of the burden, Texans will get a break."