Harris County Considers 'Public Defender' Office
by: Laurie Johnson, April 7, 2008 5:04:00 pm
A public defender's office works similarly to a prosecutor's office. It's a county-funded department for the defense of anyone who is unable to pay for their own attorney.
"At the core of our democratic ideals is that each person should be treated equal before the law."
That's Brandon Dudley. He's chief of staff for State Senator Rodney Ellis. Ellis wants Harris County officials to examine the feasibility of creating a county-wide public defender system. Ellis was unable to comment because he's traveling in the Middle East. Dudley says Harris County is the only major metropolitan area that doesn't have a public defender office.
"All the fairness and justice ideals aside, I mean every study that's really been done out there is that comparably the public defender does save you money. Some commissioners will come out and say they don't want to be spending more money on something like this but in the end it's actually an efficiency in government argument as well."
Harris County uses a court-appointed system. Judges select which attorney covers a case. Judges also decide whether to grant that attorney's requests for funding to pay for things like investigators and experts.
Some critics of the court-appointed system say there's too much room for favoritism. They say judges can hand-pick their attorneys. And attorneys can lobby for the best cases or avoid the worst cases.
That's why the county is listening to Sen. Ellis' recommendation to launch the feasibility study. Harris County Judge Ed Emmett says the county has an obligation to enact the fairest justice system, whether or not it's the cheapest way.
"I think if there is any indication that citizens and people who are accused of crimes can get fairer treatment, fairer trials, more justice, then that would be the determining factor. Clearly if one process cost a whole lot more than the other then that will be weighed also."
Emmett says they have an obligation to fully examine requests made by state lawmakers like Rodney Ellis. But he says they still need to determine what kind of system really is the best. And he says it may end up being some sort of hybrid between the current court-appointed system and the public defender model.
Harris County Commissioners will launch the feasibility study this week.
Laurie Johnson. Houston Public Radio News.