Harris County legal system change?

May 6, 2008 9:01:05 PM PDT
When it comes to the legal system, justice is supposed to be blind. But in Harris County, some believe the system favors those with money, and if you can't afford your own attorney, it might be harder to get a fair deal. We have a closer look at the system of court-appointed attorneys. There's a new proposal which some believe could do a better job of ensuring equal justice.

Every day in Harris County Criminal Courts, hundreds of people accused of committing a crime hear, "if you cannot afford an attorney one will be appointed for you."

Ana Banos, 17, was jailed for six days in April. It was her first time offense. She was charged with a felony for engaging in organized crime. Her initial bond was set at $30,000. On day two of her stay behind bars, Ana had her first contact with her court appointed attorney. It was a brief meeting.

"This guy comes up, my attorney, and says my name and slides the paper through [the window] and walks off," she recalled. "It made me feel really helpless."

That's why for the first time in nearly 20 years, there's serious talk about changing the way people without money are represented in court.

Right now, Harris County has a court-appointed attorney system, where some 600 lawyers defend the needy. Most work in private practice and also take appointments.

But the current system has its critics. Defense attorney Pat McCann is president of the Criminal Lawyers Association.

"The appointment system has some inherent conflicts in the sense that funding for resources, if you want to fight your case, is something that's left up to individual courts," he said.

Critics also say that some court-appointed attorneys are too busy, or don't take enough time, to properly defend their poor, indigent, often, minority clients. Many of those clients are stuck in jail for months because they don't have money to bond out.

Senator John Whitmire says some appointed attorneys are preoccupied with keeping judges happy, to get more appointments.

"I witnessed circumstances as a young attorney, appointed attorneys would work with the court to expedite the docket," he remembered. "Often times at the expense of the defendant."

That's why county officials are studying whether Harris County should join nearly all other major Texas counties and launch a public defender's office.

Those offices are staffed by attorneys whose full-time mission is to defend the needy.

But many point out that such an office would be just another bureaucracy, unless attorneys are paid as much as prosecutors.

Christian Capitain was with the public defender's office in Austin. He doesn't think the current Harris County system is broken.

"I think having a public defender's office here would be preferable if it were adequately funded and staffed with able lawyers," Capitain said. "Our system, I don't think is broken in any way, I think it's working."

But how well? Ana Banos isn't sure. For now, her case is set for court this month.

"I really don't know what I'm going to do yet," she said. "All I know is I'm doing my reading on criminal law right now."

Ana's court-appointed attorney says he's not sure if the felony charge against her will even stick. He is going to try to have it reduced or thrown out.

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