Wednesday, April 30, 2008

New Model for Legal Representation Under Consideration in West Texas

The Lubbock Avalanche-Journal reports that more advances in legal representation are in the works for West Texas ("Lubbock County commissioners seek grant for mental health defense system", April 26, 2008). Last year, state and local leaders created the West Texas Regional Public Defender for Capital Murder Cases, the only office of its kind in Texas. Representing 85 counties in West Texas, the office is based in Lubbock and is charged with providing quality representation to indigent defendants facing the death penalty. The office consists of the chief public defender and a 10-member staff, which eventually will include four additional attorneys with specialized training in capital cases and two investigators.

The Public Defender’s office was established through a grant from the Texas Task Force on Indigent Defense, with support from Senators Duncan, Ellis, and Kel Seliger, as well as Rep. Aaron Pena. The state will pay for the office for the first year; the 85 counties will increase their contributions in subsequent years and will assume the entire cost by 2012. The office is intended to assist counties with the high costs associated with death penalty trials.

Local leaders now have turned their attention to addressing the need for legal representation for offenders with mental illness:

"Lubbock County is one step closer to implementing a new system for defending the mentally impaired accused of crimes.

Lubbock County commissioners on Friday agreed to apply for a grant that would help fund the establishment of a private defender for mental health offenders. The office, which would be the first of its kind in Texas, would use county funds to pay a nonprofit organization to oversee cases defended by private attorneys.

'This will actually save money and address a critical issue,' said Bill McCay, Precinct 1 commissioner.
Commissioners noted in the Friday meeting concerns about the amount of time people are staying in jail before trial and said this office will help expedite the process for mental health offenders.

Establishing the office will save money by streamlining processes such as mental health screening, which was budgeted to be done by five screeners. This will in turn pay off by getting the people out of jail who don't need to be there, said Patti Jones, Precinct 4 commissioner.

There are no private defenders in Texas, said David Slayton, director of court administration and director of the mental health defender program.

If Lubbock receives the grant, it will start a new system, combining elements of the two existing defense systems in Lubbock County. Currently private attorneys are appointed to handle all non-death penalty cases on an ad hoc basis. Capital cases are handled by the new West Texas Regional Public Defenders Office of Capital Cases, also the first of its kind in Texas.

In a public defender system, the attorneys are actually county employees. The new system will be a convergence of ad hoc and public.

'It's 100 percent a marriage of the two,' Slayton said.

The private defenders office still will allow private attorneys to handle the cases of the mental health offenders, but the oversight will be done by a non-profit organization using county dollars to defend the accused.

Slayton said other counties in Texas are already looking to Lubbock County as a model for the capital public defenders and hopes the new office will likewise serve as a model.

'This is just another example of Lubbock County always looking for new and innovative ways to manage and do what we do,' McCay said.

Commissioners expect to know by June whether they received the grant."

In terms of other models of legal representation for mentally ill offenders, last year Travis County (Austin) established a Mental Health Public Defender Office, which represents offenders with mental illness in misdemeanor cases. Earlier this year, Bexar County (San Antonio) officials have hired four mental health public defenders. Bexar County also joined Dallas and El Paso Counties in establishing a mental health court that will address the needs of defendants with mental illness who come into contact with the criminal justice system.

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