During the 83rd Regular Session of the Texas Legislature, Gov. Rick Perry vetoed 26 bills, signed 1,361 bills, and allowed 13 bills to become law without his signature. Of the 1,361 signed bills, four bills are of particular interest for indigent defense: S.B. 1, S.B. 1044, H.B. 1318, and H.B. 1245.
Per the Texas Indigent Defense Commission’s Legislative Appropriation Request, the Legislature restored access to all dedicated funds for indigent defense by reinstating estimated appropriation authority and by re-establishing unexpended balance authority between biennia. These changes are estimated to generate an additional $16.7 million above what was appropriated by the 82nd Legislature. With this additional revenue, the Commission’s appropriation for the biennium is just under $79 million for indigent defense.
The Commission also requested an additional $135.5 million in state funding out of general revenue to offset the funding gap and share more equally with county government the costs associated with providing a fair defense. Although this request was given meaningful consideration, it was not granted. The Commission will continue its efforts during the interim to articulate the need and benefits of the state contributing more to indigent defense costs in Texas.
There were three key bills that were signed by the governor on June 14 that impact indigent defense. H.B. 1318 by Rep. Sylvester Turner is the most significant of these and includes three distinct parts. One part relates to the caseloads handled by attorneys providing representation to indigent defendants. The bill requires the Texas Indigent Defense Commission to conduct and publish a study by Jan. 1, 2015, “for the purpose of determining guidelines for establishing a maximum allowable caseload for a criminal defense attorney…” The bill also requires each county to submit to the Commission with its indigent defense plans beginning Nov. 1, 2013, the plans of operation for the creation of a public defender’s office or managed assigned counsel program, as well as a copy of any contract for indigent defense services maintained by the county. H.B. 1318 also requires attorneys on the appointment list to submit to the county annually by Oct. 15 information for the preceding fiscal year that describes the percentage of the attorney’s practice time that was dedicated to appointed criminal and juvenile delinquency work in the county. The first due date is Oct. 15, 2014. In turn, the bill requires the county to submit to the Commission annually the information provided to the county by those attorneys described above, along with information that describes for the preceding fiscal year the number of appointments made to each attorney accepting appointments in the county, beginning Nov. 1, 2014. The Commission will partner with a variety of stakeholders, including counties, courts, and the criminal defense bar, to implement this bill in a way that is as seamless as possible while providing meaningful information to policymakers.
H.B. 1245 by Rep. Sylvester Turner will permit criminal defense attorney investigators, experts, and mitigation specialists to receive training using judicial and court personnel training funds administered by the court of criminal appeals. The bill goes into effect Sept. 1, 2014, and the Legislature included an appropriation to the Court of Criminal Appeals contingent on the bill’s passage of $115,200 in FY2015.
S.B. 1044 by Sen. Jose Rodriguez will permit public defender’s offices and the Office of Capital Writs to access criminal history record information from the Department of Public Safety at no charge. Currently if such offices access the information they must pay $1 per electronic inquiry, $10 per paper inquiry based on name, and $15 per inquiry based on fingerprints.
Full summaries of these bills are available on the Commission’s legislative information webpage, http://www.txcourts.gov/tidc/legislative83.asp.
In addition to the three indigent defense related bills above, the Legislature also passed two bills that were the subject of recommendations from the Timothy Cole Advisory Panel on Wrongful Convictions. S.B. 1611 by Sen. Rodney Ellis deals with discovery in criminal cases and is also known as the Michael Morton Act since it is designed to reduce the likelihood of wrongful convictions. The bill will require prosecutors to produce for and permit photocopying by the defense of witness statements, offense reports, and other relevant evidence. The bill should also increase efficiency and save resources for appointed counsel for indigent defendants since they will have immediate access to this information and will not need to spend time searching for it. The bill becomes effective Jan. 1, 2014. S.B. 344 by Sen. John Whitmire relates to so-called “junk science” cases by permitting a convicted individual to file an application for a writ of habeas corpus to challenge a conviction based on scientific evidence that is now outdated or discredited by advances since the trial.
– Information provided by Jim Bethke, Director, Texas Indigent Defense Commission