Editorial: Public defender’s office deserves public support

Two years ago, when Harris County commissioners created a public defender’s office, it was a unanimous decision, a recognition that poor defendants were not getting a fair shake, and a much-needed response to the cronyism that prevailed, in which court-appointed attorneys favored by judges often carried lucrative, but excessive, caseloads. The office does not replace the existing appointment system. Judges may still choose to appoint private attorneys.

Not unexpectedly, many judges and lawyers have objected. And as the four-year pilot program expands, the attacks are increasing, especially on the juvenile division, which just opened last December.

Among the naysayers, the Harris County Republican Party recently restated its original opposition, in which it urged local officials to resist any tampering with “the privatized, outsourced indigent defense system that has served the cause of justice so efficiently and effectively in Harris County.”

In a recent column, Patricia Kilday Hart painted a vivid picture of just how inefficient and ineffective that system really is, and why it is imperative that we continue to support and fund this office (“Bottom line: A public defender needs no cronies,” Page B1, April 29).

Hart wrote about attorney Gary Polland, former Harris County Republican Party chairman, who last year, in addition to his paying clients, earned more than $372,000 representing 623 court-appointed clients, including 92 felony cases and 190 juvenile cases. Polland insisted that his long-time, vociferous opposition was not motivated by earnings, but by his ideological aversion to “unnecessary government bureaucracy.”

Last weekend, the Chronicle’s Brian Rogers reported that state District Judge John Phillips is demanding that the office, specifically the new juvenile division, be discontinued after its initial funding runs out, claiming that it costs two and a half times more than the old system – $649 per case, versus $264 for court-appointed attorneys (“Public defender’s office under attack on costs,” Page B1, May 5).

His figures were wrong, said Alex Bunin, the county’s chief public defender, in that they cited a preliminary, inaccurate estimate.

State Sen. Rodney Ellis, D-Houston, who authored the bill allowing Texas counties to create public defender offices, referred the Chronicle to substantiated reports and analyses showing that throughout the state, public defender’s offices are significantly more cost-efficient, and save taxpayer dollars in every type of case. “It’s not a partisan issue,” said Ellis. “It’s about justice, fundamental fairness and fiscal accountability. Any of us who hired a private attorney would be appalled if all our attorney did was meet with us for five minutes the first time we showed up to court. We ought to have equal outrage when it occurs with one of our fellow Houstonians.”

So we should. Our public defender’s office is working to address this outrage. It deserves our support.

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