Almost a year ago, Harris County, Texas did something that most other American cities did decades ago: it opened a dedicated public defenders office in Houston. Funded by a state grant of a little over $4 million, the office has slowly been setting up over the last ten months. Unsurprisingly, they have a fan in me. I only recently learned of their “birth” but I’ll be watching their developments closely and cheering them on.
I’m all but pointing out the obvious when I note that Houston is a big city. In fact, it’s the fourth largest in the country with around 2 million residents. In other words, it faces a lot of traffic in the criminal justice system. If Houston’s crime patterns are like any other major city, probably three-quarters or higher of the criminal defendants charged are too poor to hire an attorney.
So, how had Harris County previously been providing the guaranteed 6th amend. right to counsel as extended to the states by Gideon v. Wainwright, 372 U.S. 335 (1963)? Assigned counsel. Yup. Private attorneys were assigned cases…I’m presuming they probably put their names on a list and billed the government by the hour much like New York’s system. I’ve already ranted about why I think such a system is undesirable so I won’t again. Suffice it to say, this new office is a big step to ensuring zealous defense for criminal defendants in the Houston area.
But how big of a step?
The office certainly got off to a great start by hiring Alex Bunin (an accomplished federal defender who has experience setting up and running public defender offices) to be the Chief Defender. Throughout the year, the office has been hiring seasoned attorneys and apparently integrating well into the local fabric. And yet, the office anticipates only employing 68 people total once it’s fully set up. For speculation’s sake, let’s imagine that 45 of those employees are attorneys, 15 are investigators, and the other 8 are support staff. Those numbers may vary some but I’m willing to bet that I’m in the ballpark. With those kinds of numbers, I find it hard to see how the Harris County Public Defender’s office will be able to reach the lofty goals its supporters have for it. DC’s Public Defender Service employs over 200 people in a city with around a quarter of Houston’s population. All of this is to say that Houston’s office will be highly overworked with only 68 employees.
From what I can tell, the plans are to start small and allow private counsel to continue doing the vast majority of indigent defense for now. Over time, the office will hopefully grow to have a larger employee base and take on more responsibility. Indeed, the long-term goal is probably to set up a system similar to the federal one: the most serious cases going to the Harris County PD and the less severe out to private panel attorneys (akin to the federal CJA panel set forth in 18 U.S.C. § 3006A). If a plan of this general nature doesn’t take hold, it’s hard to see how the new office will be effective on a systemic level.
All in all, this is a really big and important step for the city of Houston and its surrounding communities. I just hope the progress continues. Starting slowly and transitioning into the current framework is important but I have fears about the funding. When the state grant diminishes and the county is expected to provide 100% funding, the office is at the whim of politics. When that day comes, it may be harder to cause any meaningful change to how indigent defense is handled in Houston. Even if that doesn’t cause problems like it has in other cities (e.g. New Orleans), major change will have to be the long-term goal. Otherwise, the office’s creation may end up being a hollow victory that looks great on paper but effects little impact in the quality of most indigents’ representation.
Success is a very real possibility for the new Harris County Public Defenders Office but that success won’t come without struggle. The office’s new attorneys are experienced and ready to tackle the challenge. They’re like mountain hikers. But, they’re at the base of the slope and the trip to the summit is just getting started. It’s a long hike from here. I wish them the very best in overcoming the obstacles they’ll face along the way.