Alex Bunin talked to the Houston Chronicle about his challenges in creating the first public defender office in Houston’s Harris County. Bunin will begin working with his staff to represent mentally ill defendants facing misdemeanor charges and appeals cases for the indigent by February. Bunin, 51, has created federal public defender offices in Alabama, Vermont and New York and expects the Harris County agency to expand its caseload to include juvenile and felony cases within two years.
Suspects in Houston too poor to hire a lawyer have court-appointed attorneys. The public defender office is a pilot project funded for the next four years in part by grant money, after which Commissioners Court can decide to continue it, expand it or close it. Asked if the new office will save the county money, especially in jail beds, Bunin says, “Right. You can’t just compare what you’re paying assigned lawyers to what you’re paying us. There are so many interrelations in the system that are outside of what the courts pay lawyers. There’s the jail cost, there’s the social services, there are a lot of things that are affected.”