Sen. Ellis and Rep. Reynolds celebrate steps toward a Fort Bend public defender office

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(Austin, TX) // Today, Senator Rodney Ellis (D-Houston) and Rep. Ron Reynolds (D-Missouri City) released the following statements in response to yesterday’s vote by the Fort Bend County Commissioners Court to approve the county’s proposal for a public defender office:

“I applaud the Fort Bend County Commissioner’s Court for voting to expand their public defender office,” said Sen. Ellis. “I especially want to thank Commissioner Grady Prestage for spearheading this effort and working closely with his colleagues to ensure the promise that every person in Fort Bend County, rich or poor, stands equal before the law.”

Sen. Ellis continued: “Public defender offices represent a win-win situation for a county: a win for taxpayers because it is the most cost-effective way to deliver quality indigent defense services, and a win for our criminal justice system because it ensures low-income Texans, at the very least, receive some semblance of equal justice.”

“I would like to thank Judge Hebert, Commissioner Morrison, Commissioner Prestage, Commissioner Meyers, and Commissioner Patterson for their leadership on this initiative,” said Rep. Reynolds. “They have worked closely with numerous interested parties to come to a solution that benefits everyone. Senator Rodney Ellis also deserves many thanks and congratulations for his instrumental role in guiding this project to fruition. It is great to see Fort Bend County taking a definite stance in support of fair access to legal representation. The creation of a Fort Bend County Public Defender’s office is a remarkably positive development for our community.”

The Commissioner’s Court voted to apply for a discretionary grant from the Texas Indigent Defense Commission to create a dedicated public defender’s office.  In the proposed plan, Fort Bend County will be able to access $1.8 million in state funds over a four-year period to set up a public defender’s office that would handle 20 percent of the current cases referred to attorneys.

What Fort Bend County Does Now

Fort Bend County, other than for certain mental health cases, continues to utilize an antiquated, court appointed counsel system where a judge chooses your lawyer if you’re poor and even decides whether an attorney gets resources to investigate a case. A judge having that level of control over a defendant’s attorney creates an inherent conflict and risks interfering with an individual’s freedom to have independent representation.

Problems With The Court-Appointed Lawyer System

Lack of Independence

If the judge can hire and fire attorneys, that level of influence can seriously interfere with an attorney’s freedom to fully advocate for their client and defend their client’s rights. Even a judge with the best intentions is going to affect the independence of counsel under these circumstances and may unintentionally exert pressure that is detrimental to the best interests of justice.

Lack of Accountability  

A quality public defense delivery system includes supervision and regular review of defense counsel for quality and efficiency, according to established standards. Judges do not have the time and resources to supervise/monitor the performance of appointed attorneys, so they are not the appropriate people to review the work of defense lawyers – both because judges lack access to information about defense lawyers’ out-of-courtroom advocacy efforts and because, in court, judges are supposed to act as neutral umpires when presiding over a criminal case.

Why This Matters to Texans

Court-appointed indigent defense systems are ripe for injustice, more likely to waste taxpayer dollars, and jeopardizing public safety by placing innocent people at risk of being wrongfully convicted.

Your Tax Dollars At Work

The current, broken system is paid for by taxpayers. Study after study prove that public defender systems are the most cost effective way to deliver quality legal services. Wasting taxpayer money on inadequate legal representation implicates and impacts all of us.

Effective Public Safety

Our justice system should ensure the innocent are protected and the guilty are brought to justice. When we provide inadequate legal representation and risk convicting the innocent, we also risk leaving actual perpetrators free to commit more crimes. The end result is ineffective law enforcement that jeopardizes public safety.

Respect for the Criminal Justice System

When citizens do not trust the accuracy of the criminal justice system, faith in the rule of law is undermined.

Fair and Equal Justice and the Quality of our Democracy

The promise of adequate representation – the promise that every person, rich or poor, stands equal before the law – is at the fundamental core of the American democratic ideals of liberty and justice. When we undermine such a core principle of democracy, we erode the integrity and public faith in our justice system.

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