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Life of a Law Student, University of Houston Law Center

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Call for Harris County Public Defender’s Office

By: Luke Gilman | Other Posts by
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There seems to be a growing movement in Harris County to creating a local public defender’s office. As many Houstonians would be surprised to discover, despite, well… voting for the people they do, Harris County has no public defender office. While Houston has a federal public defender office, there is no state or county counterpart such as exists in the well known public defender’s office in Cook County Illinois (Chicago) (See Kevin Davis’ Defending the Damned) or Brooklyn Defender Services popularized by David Feige’s Indefensible. Despite an illustrious tradition of great criminal defense attorneys – perhaps even because of it, I suppose – Houston has seen fit to rely on court appointments to satisfy its constitutional obligation to provide legal representation to the poor.

I first heard this mentioned at an HCCLA meeting, by criminal defense attorneys who in economic terms stand something to lose by championing such a proposal, but nevertheless see the overarching benefits of a cohesive organization to provide an adequate defense to those who need it most.

As Lisa Falkenburg noted in her opinion piece An idea whose time has come? -

Patrick McCann, president of the Harris County Criminal Lawyers Association, the county’s largest defense bar, recently took a poll and the group’s attorneys came out 2-to-1 in support of some kind of public defender office.

I don’t have the benefit of long experience to know whether this is just hope springing eternal or this overdue notion actually has a shot at becoming reality; those I’ve spoken to about it who do have that long experience are… well, they’re not counting their chickens.

But there is some support, perhaps more than we think. State Senator Rodney Ellis and Innocence Project director Barry Scheck marshall the usual arguments in support-

From our crime lab to the prosecutor’s office to indigent defense, Houston and Harris County have deservingly received national ridicule for practices leading to the conviction of the innocent. It’s time we took the necessary steps to repair our broken system. An independent public defender office is the best place to start.

Public defender programs are widely considered the most cost-effective way to deliver quality indigent defense services, which is why the federal government and every major urban area in the country — except Harris County — uses a public defender system.

Will we have ears to hear? That’s the question.

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6 Responses

  1. I had a chance to read David Feige’s indefensible over the winter break. It was as they say in literary circles , ‘un-put-down-able’ and I started reading it in the airport in Houston and was done by the time I landed in Amsterdam. It’s that good.
    But it brought to my attention why exactly criminal defense lawyers are so passionate about their work and why I think that creating a Harris County Public Defender’s office is a good idea. Too often people presuppose that someone must have done something wrong otherwise they wouldn’t be indicted. In Houston, we need only mention the words ‘HPD Crime Lab’ to know that the integrity of the prosecutorial system in Harris county is in a poor state.
    People argue that the tax payer shouldn’t have to pay for someone’s criminal defense, but all that is, is elitist because nobody should have to be imprisoned just because they were poor and couldn’t afford adequate advocacy.
    I do hope Harris County gets a public defender’s office. I for one would seriously consider joining its ranks.

  2. BR says:

    It is high time the State of Texas invests in a Public Defender system modeled after the Federal Public Defender system.

  3. lukegilman says:

    Amen. The Chron’s Falkenberg is continuing to flog the idea on the DA campaign trail in Candidates get candid on this idea.

  4. [...] part of my work for the Center for Children, Law & Policy. This follows up on my previous post Call for Harris County Public Defender’s Office. Harris County currently uses a system of appointments by juvenile judges, a system called into [...]

  5. Salmon Chase says:

    “Every major urban area in the country…” ?

    What about Portland, Oregon, the 23rd largest metro area in the U.S.? They still have a system where indigent defense contracts are given out to a number of mid-sized non-profit firms…

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