Senate Votes Passage of Texas Fair Defense Act
AUSTIN - The Texas Fair Defense Act, a bipartisan effort to overhaul the method by which indigent criminal defendants are provided legal defense, won approval by the Senate today.
The Committee Substitute for Senate Bill (CSSB) 7 was authored by Houston Sen. Rodney Ellis. Another 16 members of the Senate, including the chairs of the Criminal Justice and Jurisprudence committees, co-authored the bill.
"The Texas Senate has taken an historic stand for fairness," Ellis said. "Over the past few years, the glare of the spotlight on our justice system has been harsh. The Texas Fair Defense Act balances the scales of justice to ensure that poor Texans are not sentenced to a poor defense."
CSSB 7 focuses on four key areas: timely appointment of counsel, method of counsel appointment by courts, reporting of information about indigent representation services and minimum standards for counsel.
The bill would also create a task force within the Judicial Council to recommend further improvements and direct funding to counties.
Texas counties spend approximately $90 million each year on criminal defense for the indigent, but Texas is one of four states that provide no state funding for indigent criminal defense. CSSB 7 would dedicate $19.7 million for a statewide fund to be used at the county level to provide defense for indigent criminal defendants.
Ellis said the bill does not do everything he would like, but added that it is an important start.
"I think it's a movement in the right direction," Ellis said. "I hope the glare of the spotlight stays on us because there are still things that we ought to do. But it's a big step."
The Texas Legislature passed similar legislation in 1999, but the bill was vetoed by then-Gov. George W. Bush.
The Senate passed 12 other bills in today's session, including CSSB 1210. The bill, authored by Dallas Sen. Royce West, would impose stricter regulations on state court clerks and attorneys who receive bonuses and future employment consideration from private law firms.
A measure that would establish a prescription drug assistance program for senior citizens was also approved by the Senate today. CSSB 556, authored by Lubbock Sen. Robert Duncan, would authorize pharmacies to allow Medicare recipients to buy pharmaceutical drugs at the lower Medicaid price.
In other Senate news, the Natural Resources Committee took up House Bill 453, a bill sponsored by Wichita Falls Sen. Tom Haywood that would create the Agriculture Policy Board to advocate and recommend strategies to enhance agriculture. The Business and Commerce Committee was scheduled to receive a report from its Subcommittee on Border Affairs on Senate Bill 837, a measure authored by El Paso Sen. Eliot Shapleigh that would direct the Border Health Institute to develop a 10-year strategic plan.
The Senate stands adjourned until 10 a.m. Wednesday.