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Travis County seeks new way to appoint attorneys for poor defendants

Thursday, April 17, 2014 by Jimmy Maas

Travis County is considering revamping its system to assign court-appointed attorneys. For years, its system was a model for defending the poor. But now, judges and staff are looking west for a new model to adapt to the county’s needs, to of all places, Lubbock County.

 

They are also looking for grant funding in order to start up the new system.

 

Travis County’s “wheel system” was devised by judges in the 1980s to distribute cases to defense attorneys evenly and fairly. It was so successful that a state law passed in 2001 required all Texas criminal courts to come up with a formal procedure to assign attorneys similar to the one used in Travis.

 

But that may all change soon. If approved, the county may adopt a plan like its South Plains counterpart, called the Managed Assigned Counsel Program (MAC). As proposed, it would be a joint venture of the Austin Criminal Defense Attorneys Association and the Austin Bar Association, with oversight by county leadership.

 

Travis County is growing and so is the court system. Right now, more than 250 attorneys and 25,000 cases are on the over-burdened wheel that is managed by 13 county judges, according to court staff. Therein lie two huge problems with the wheel, as county commissioners heard Tuesday,

 

“The American Bar Association has standards for indigent defense,” said Judge Julie Kocurek, Presiding Judge for the Criminal Courts.

 

“The number one standard is that the indigent defense should be independent of the judiciary. And as you can tell, it is not independent of us. We are running it. Everything about it is judge-driven,” Kocurek told county commissioners this week.

 

“As judges, we not only control who represents the defendant, but also what a lawyer will earn for that representation,” explained Judge Cliff Brown. “And we feel the current system lends itself to the belief by some that lawyers are appointed and paid well if they move a court’s docket and not for quality representation. And this type of thinking, it undermines the very fundamental confidence that citizens should have in the criminal justice system as a whole.”

 

“On our court appointed cases, I’ll take a plea,” explained Kocurek. “I’m in my robe on the bench and as I take the plea, I hand a voucher to the defense attorney, a voucher for anywhere from $500 to $1,500. I’m actually handing them cash. It feels unethical… It’s just not the right way to do things.”

 

The second problem with the current system is quality control for the appointed attorneys. Travis County’s MAC hopes to fix that.

 

“In terms of verification and oversight, the MAC would provide all applicants would be more thoroughly screened, with increased criteria for placement on the panel,” said Brown. “The MAC will not only provide more direct supervision, but mentoring for young attorneys to grow and develop.”

 

Brown has been working to retool the wheel and implement the MAC for the last two years.

 

Travis County’s MAC will alleviate current problems on several fronts. It is supposed to provide independent review of performance and qualification for attorneys. What they’re paid will also be determined independently. There will be a formal mentorship and training program, along with peer-evaluation and assessment.

 

“It is a lot cheaper than a public defender’s office, because you don’t have county employees,” said Kocurek. “When we went to Lubbock. I went there thinking we would go there, leave and thought we wouldn’t want to do this.”

 

“After all, It’s Lubbock,” joked Pct. 3 Commissioner Gerald Daugherty.

 

“But I got there, I was impressed with (it),” continued Judge Kocurek.  “I also spoke to one of the judges, the Presiding Judge there privately. I said ‘What do you really think of this?’ He said, ‘It is the best thing we have done since he had been judge.’”

 

After judges looked at Lubbock’s MAC program, they looked to San Mateo County, California, to see if it might be applicable in a county comparable to Travis. Both programs seemed to be a good fit here and county judges pursued the matter further. They devised a hybrid public-private MAC. Lubbock and San Mateo are both private non-profits.

 

There would be costs associated with the change. Five full-time employees and one part-timer would be hired. Adding in administrative costs, there is an estimated tab of almost $830,000. The county will be applying for a grant to the Texas Indigent Defense Council to defray some of those costs. Though staff is confident, if the county does not receive the grant, the MAC will be put on the shelf until funding is available. Until then, the old wheel continues to turn.

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