Monday, March 25, 2013

Public Defense: Getting Better, but Still not Good Enough

Fifty years after Gideon v. Wainwright, there's still a lot of room to improve public defense. Acknowledging that fact, Travis County judges recently made a proposal for the creation an independent office that would oversee the appointment of attorneys for indigent defendants.

Under the current system, judges decide which attorneys are qualified to handle indigent defense, what level of case they're equipped to handle, and how much they and their experts are paid—a process inconsistent with the independence required by the ABA's guiding principles. 

Both lawyers and judges worry about the inconsistency the current system creates. Different judges may offer different compensation for the same workload; when a judge is known for refusing to offer extra compensation for extraordinary work, there's an incentive for attorneys to push their clients into plea bargains. Attorneys and judges have complain that the system is disorganized and lacks oversight.

However, some attorneys have voiced concerns about the additional layers of bureaucracy the proposed office would add, as well as the $500,00 annual price tag. The proposal also wouldn't so anything to address the disparity in funding for defense and prosecution: Travis County spent $9.3 million for indigent defense in 2011, whereas the 2013 budget includes over $34 million for the prosecution of felonies and misdemeanors.

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