From the Office of State Senator Rodney Ellis

For Immediate Release
April 21, 1999
Contact: Jeremy Warren, (512) 463-0113

Senate Criminal Justice Committee Passes Ellis bill to strengthen Texas' Indigent Criminal Defense Network

(Austin)// The Senate Criminal Justice Committee today passed SB 247, legislation that will strengthen the quality and integrity of the administration of justice in Texas.

By a 4-0 vote, the committee approved SB 427 by Senator Rodney Ellis (D-Houston), legislation that will strengthen the way Texas courts provide legal representation to indigent offenders. Texas prosecutors and county officials joined defense attorneys and civil liberty activists testifying in favor of the legislation.

"Poor defendants get a poor defense under our current system," said Ellis. "This legislation marks a major step forward in creating a fairer system of justice in Texas. If we are going to lead the world in executions on the back end of the system, then we should at least make sure that defendants are getting effective representation at the front end of the system."

Texas' system of criminal defense for indigent persons is one of the least effective in the nation. In 1963, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled in Gideon v. Wainright, that every person has a constitutional right to a criminal defense lawyer in all felony cases. Currently, Texas' indigent criminal defense delivery system places the state and counties in jeopardy of lawsuits by inmates claiming violations of their constitutional rights. Texas ranks near the bottom of the nation in per capita spending on indigent defense, spending less than a dollar per capita per year on counsel for the poor.

SB 247 provides minimal quality and monitoring standards to fulfill Texas' constitutional obligations under the Sixth Amendment, and provides counties with the flexibility to tailor their own appropriate systems to provide for the rights of indigent defendants. The legislation would ensure an indigent criminal defendant is provided counsel. It also allows county commissioners courts to adopt procedures and designate an authority to appoint counsel, allows counties to pool their resources to fund and create a regional public defender office, and requires counties to forward indigent criminal defense procedures and information to the Office of Court Administration.

"Our criminal justice system is interdependent. If one leg of the system is weaker than the others, justice is not done and each of us suffer," said Ellis. "This legislation will help guarantee that any outcome -- either guilt or innocence -- is just, sure, and respected."