The Fort Bend County Commissioner’s Court applied for a state grant in May to fund a five-year pilot program which will form the county’s first ever Public Defender’s Office (PDO). If approved, the Office will open to the general public who can’t afford a criminal defense attorney. About 10-20 percent of cases will be represented in the pilot program.
The County already has a five-year-old PDO for those with mental health concerns. It’s been successful according to County Commissioner Grady Prestage and has saved the county millions of dollars.
Simply put, a PDO is like a freestanding law office within the governmental system that represents defendants.
There are three main reasons to at least consider measuring the efficacy of such a program. It saves money, time and has the ability to change public perception regarding obtaining justice in the County.
A sizeable number of people who are charged with crime(s) have a court-appointed attorney because most can’t afford the astronomical fees. And a big downside to court-appointed attorneys is that all fees are charged to the County – which ultimately cost you. Charges also include work that is outsourced to investigators and other personnel.
Presently, the County spends close to $7 million on court-appointed attorneys. There could be more controlled costs if the program goes in-house.
The PDO can also get people moving through the system faster, and can save people waiting in jail. The office is slated to have two or three attorneys, clerical staff and investigative staff to handle the cases that come through. This should expedite the process.
The most relevant, not to mention timely reasoning behind considering the program is that many people do not feel like they’re getting equal justice these days – because of race, socio-economic status or whatever the case may be. Some defendants feel that their attorney represented them poorly or they can’t meet or see them until right before the court hearing. Sometimes, they are forced to take some type of plea because the attorney hasn’t done anything to prepare for the case.
Instead of having defendants feel this way, wouldn’t it be simpler just to provide them with in-house representation?
The Commissioner’s Court will know if the grant is approved in June. The Office will not be able to handle all of the cases. So there will still be plenty of work to go around to other court-appointed attorneys.
I think that it’s worth seeing whether or not this program will work before immediately saying yes or no to implementation. The key is to give it a chance, see what happens and move forward from there.