Statewide portal for indigent defense data underway

Once considered among the worst states in providing legal defense for the poor, Texas is recognized as home of evidence-based best practices for indigent defense.  To ensure improvements continue, the Texas Indigent Defense Commission and Public Policy Research Institute at Texas A&M University will spend the next two years creating a statewide portal for all indigent defense-related data, thanks to a $400,000 grant from the U.S. Department of Justice.

TIDC-logo“Texas was at the bottom of the nation in per capita spending (for the indigent),” said Dottie Carmichael, PPRI’s lead researcher. “Now, Texas knows more and better information about how indigent defense services are being provided than a lot of other states.”

TAM-PrimaryMarkAStrides have certainly been made since the 2001 Texas Fair Defense Act, requiring counties to create an indigent defense plan and report some statistics to TIDC, which posts that information online. According to the TIDC, state expenses for indigent defense have increased by 150 percent in the last 13 years, and the number of cases paid by the state has risen by 80 percent.

Still, there is much room for improvement, said TIDC Executive Director James Bethke.

“Most counties still administer their programs through an antiquated process rife with conflicts of interests,” he said. “Ideally, the portal will help us be able to measure if a program is accountable and measure it’s performance.”

Edwin Colfax, TIDC’s grant manager, said they’ll work with several counties that are already collecting a plethora of data about caseloads, appointments and how cases are adjudicated. Counties currently use one of two types of systems, which were built using TIDC’s discretionary grants.

Bethke said the portal is meant to be a repository of information for interested parties to dissect, “to make the local stakeholders aware.” His agency is responsible for auditing indigent defense systems across Texas’ 254 counties, and can withhold funding – about 10-15 percent of a county’s indigent defense budget – if wrongdoing is found.

“Our stick is withholding funding. But the bigger stick is sunshine. If they fall behind on legal requirements, this information is public in our reports, and puts sunshine on issues,” he said.

Currently, TIDC is auditing Harris County, recently highlighted in the Texas Observer’s “How Harris County’s Indigent Defense Penalizes the Poor.” (Bethke said the audit was planned before the story ran, and is one of a dozen audits TIDC will conduct each year to determine if policies are being followed. The State Commission on Judicial Conduct and State Bar of Texas police judges and attorneys, respectively).

A little background: Some 23 counties have a designated public defender, who only takes indigent defense cases. To handle the majority of cases, though, counties depend on a system generally called “the wheel” that intends to randomly assign cases to willing attorneys. Statewide, there are about 6,000 lawyers who take indigent defense appointments, Bethke said.

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