Texas's Bruised Public Defense Program Gets an Overhaul

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After the slings and arrows of the 2000 presidential election, Texas's reputation in legal circles was in pretty bad shape.

As Texas's governor pursued the presidency, endless newspaper and magazine articles detailed the conditions of the state's public defense system. National newspapers recounted stories of defense lawyers missing court dates, forgetting to visit their clients, even falling asleep during death penalty trials because they were alternately lazy, underpaid or caught up in a system of cronyism with judges. The election's exposure led many Texans, appalled by the conditions in their own state, to start asking questions.

Now, spurred in part by last year's unwelcome attention, Texas's legislature is poised to pass a bill overhauling the state's public defense system, providing $12 million to pay for lawyers representing indigent defendants and mandating guidelines for defense attorneys. Under the new bill, each county in Texas would be responsible for selecting lawyers from a pool of salaried public defenders — rather than depending on the old system, which paid lawyers a flat fee whether they went to trial or not.

Legal aid advocates say it's about time for this change. "The officials in Texas are just realizing what the public understands via common sense," says Jo-Ann Wallace, chief counsel for defender services at the National Legal Aid and Defender Association. "You cannot have a fair justice system without equal representation."

Public defenders around the country have come under intense scrutiny in recent years. While Texas's introspection and pledge to change was among the most public, 12 other states have also taken steps recently to revamp and improve their public defense programs. "There's been a lot of movement in this arena lately," says Wallace. "An increasing number of states, including North Carolina, have begun new statewide public defense systems."

While the public at large has been mostly receptive to the overhauls, which can be expensive, there are some, like Texas representative Terry Keel, who fear that legislating standards of legal representation will merely prove burdensome to the state and to defendants themselves. In a statement last month, Keel argued that the new guidelines could interfere with healthy defense programs in certain Texas counties, where judges and experienced defense attorneys collaborate to provide indigent defendants with legal advice.