Times Record News
The Fair Defense Act of 2001 provided substantial improvement to the indigent defense system in Texas, but a vast majority of mandated expenses continue to fall on individual counties.
Data from the Texas Indigent Defense Commission (TIDC) shows that in the past 15 years, indigent defense spending in Wichita County – the money to hire lawyers for criminal suspects who can’t afford to hire their own – increased by 202 percent from $0.8 million in 2001, to $2.3 million in 2015. Statewide costs for indigent defense also rose 160 percent, but counties only receive a fraction of these dedicated funds. The first effort to bridge this spending gap since the act began in 2001 came from the 84th Legislature, which approved $7.5 million to be allocated over the following two years to aid indigent defense.
Total spending for 2015 for indigent defense in Texas was $238 million, with counties picking up an average 88 percent of the cost. In Wichita County, the state pays about 10 percent, and the county covers the remaining 90 percent.
According to a 2010 report by The Spangenberg Project through the Center for Justice, Law and Society at George Mason University, Texas is one of 18 states in which counties continue to foot the bill for more that 50 percent of indigent defense costs. More than two-thirds of states have some form of state-level oversight, but only 23 states fully fund their indigent defense systems.
In 2014, TIDC Executive Director Jim Bethke reported that the Texas Judicial Council adopted a resolution for more state funding toward indigent defense. The project is still under consideration, but could bring some relief to counties by way of more state-level funding.
About 18 months ago, Wichita County benefited from a four-year discretionary grant that was used to hire a mental health caseworker. Shawnee Lofland works with the public defender’s office to identify and assist the more serious mentally ill people who enter the justice system.
Public Defender James Rasmussen said Lofland has been a tremendous benefit to the indigent defense system and the Public Defender’s Office. He said Lofland is able to work with community services like the Helen Farabee Center and the state hospital to get people connected with the services they need.
Unfortunately, the grant that made Lofland’s position available is coming to a close. Wichita County Judge Woody Gossom requested funding for the position beyond the four-year grant, but was told by the TIDC that additional funding would not be possible at this time. Gossom said Lofland’s work has more than paid for itself in time and effort saved, and the county hopes to keep her on staff with or without additional funding.
Bethke said several Texas counties have submitted requests for enhanced state funding for indigent defense and associated services. Gossom said there will probably not be any changes for 2017, but there may be a possibility of additional state funding for indigent defense beginning in 2018.
The need for additional funding for criminal defense is not just a Texas problem. In January, a group of New York state senators submitted a bill that would require the state to pay for all indigent defense services. The bill claims that since the Gideon vs. Wainwright decree in 1963, the state has put a majority of the cost of indigent defense on the counties. They claim defendants in counties with inadequate funding could receive “unconstitutionally substandard representation.” In 2013, indigent defense costs in New York totaled some $359 million with the state contributing $82 million. HH – Reprinted with permission from the Wichita Falls Times Record News, http://www.timesrecordnews.com/.