Many indigent juveniles and adults charged with crimes in Houston’s Harris County could soon be represented by a public defender office that also would provide social workers for the mentally ill who wind up in the local criminal justice system, says the Houston Chronicle. If approved, the proposed “hybrid” public defender office would handle juveniles, adult felons, and those with mental health problems, as well as appellate cases. The proposal would represent a dramatic change in county policy, one meant to address shortcomings in the existing indigent defense system.
Nearly $24 million is spent each year on private lawyers who operate with little coordination and often defend more cases than recommended by national guidelines. It is considered a hybrid because it would allow courts to use both public defenders and private attorneys. Two of the county’s three juvenile courts are interested in assigning public defenders to represent 60 percent of the young defendants; the other 40 percent would get lawyers appointed by the judge. Advocates say creation of a public defenders office can help reduce chronic overcrowding in the Harris County Jail, where more than half of the 11,500 inmates are awaiting trial.