County may research public defender office

August 21, 2013

Facing increasing budget challenges and rising costs for indigent defense, county commissioners may begin researching the viability of a public defender office.

At its regular meeting last week, the Hood County Commissioners Court did what it seems to be doing increasingly – moving money from the General Fund reserve to pay lawyers who represent the county’s indigent in felony and misdemeanor cases. Last week’s figure was $30,000.

“We’re amenable to looking at it from a cost benefit analysis,” said Precinct 3 Commissioner Jeff Tout, who has a law degree. “It may be prohibitive, we don’t know.”

Tout acknowledged that as yet commissioners “haven’t done much research at all.” Any consideration would be for budget discussions a year from now. Right now, the 2013-2014 budget has been drafted and will be adopted within the coming weeks.

By law, there must be “parity” between a public defender office and the offices that handle prosecutions – the district attorney and the county attorney. However, that does not necessarily equate to having the exact number of paid attorneys and staffers, according to sources with the Texas Indigent Defense Commission (TIDC).

States are required by law to provide legal counsel for those who are charged with a crime and cannot afford a lawyer. The requirement is based on the landmark Gideon versus Wainwright ruling by the U.S. Supreme Court 50 years ago.

In 2012, total indigent expenses for Hood County was $430,680. The state provides a formula based grant, but counties pay the bulk of the cost of indigent defense.

Precinct 4 Commissioner Steve Berry said that Hood County is no longer considered a rural county. It has grown to the “middle category” of counties, he said. That means more criminal cases to prosecute.

Last year, 65 percent of Hood County’s felony cases were defended with appointed counsel, according to the TIDC.

Tout and Berry said that commissioners may discuss creating a committee to research the feasibility of a public defender office, and perhaps also look at ways to improve the current court appointment system.

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