More than a dozen local civil rights and justice advocacy groups banded together Wednesday in an attempt to ensure that the proposed Harris County public defender office gets done right.
At a news conference, the organizations, which come together to form the Greater Houston Coalition for Justice, offered several recommendations aimed at establishing a well-run office that puts the needs of its indigent clients first.
"We wanted to be sure that as the Harris County government is considering the public defender's office," coalition spokesman and civil rights attorney Randall Kallinen tells Hair Balls, "that they have all the elements in place for a fair system which assures that justice will be done for all the indigent defendants."
Harris County commissioners have approved a basic plan to create a PD's office, which would open shop in February, that uses a mix of lawyers employed directly by the PD's office and private attorneys who are appointed by judges. Commissioners are reportedly waiting to hear whether the county's $4.1 million grant application will be accepted and whether the county will receive state money to fund the office.
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Among the suggestions laid forth by the civil rights groups are that public defenders are paid on the same scale as prosecutors, that the county hires enough public defenders to handle the enormous caseloads, and that the proposed 15-member public defender's governance board is independent and diverse.
"Most indigents who receive funding are Hispanic and African-American," says Kallinen, "so we certainly would hope that minorities are represented on the 15-member board."
Caseloads are also an important issue, says Kallinen. The American Bar Association states that criminal defense attorneys should not handle more than 150 cases a year. Kallinen says that in 2008, for instance, there were at least 40 court appointed defense attorneys who handled well more than the recommended 150.
"Anything can be called a public defender's office," says Kallinen, "so we want to be sure that the details are worked out. A PD's office is only as good as the details."