Are Indigent Texas Kids Getting Fair Representation in Court?

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Grimes County Courthouse, Anderson, Tx . Photo by Patrick Feller via Flickr

Some of Texas’ most populous counties may have made strides at reducing caseloads for lawyers representing poor children in juvenile court, data show.

But limitations to data reported to the state make it difficult to tell how much progress has been made toward meeting a goal of lawyers handling fewer than 210 juvenile cases per year.

In fiscal year 2018, Dallas, Harris, Travis, Bexar, El Paso and Tarrant counties reported median caseloads lower than that guideline for juvenile indigent defense lawyers, a Dallas Morning News analysis found.

The guidelines and underlying data resulted from a state law that took effect in 2014 requiring Texas to study caseloads and counties to report the number of appointed indigent defense cases handled by each attorney.

For the state-funded study published in 2016, Guidelines for Indigent Defense Caseloads, researchers examined how many hours public defenders and private assigned counsel in some counties worked in order to set guidelines for managing caseloads.

The study found that attorneys for indigent juvenile defendants in juvenile court should carry an annual full-time equivalent of no more than 210 probation/misdemeanors cases, 108 non-certified felony or 30 felony cases without the support from an in-house investigator.

For lawyers who have investigators as support staff, experts recommended that caseloads not exceed 230 probation/misdemeanor cases, 127 non-certified felony or 36 felony cases.

But the data to the Texas Indigent Defense Commission doesn’t include details about what types of cases each lawyer was handling—such as basic hearings that determine whether a youth remains in a detention facility, versus misdemeanors or more complex court hearings that can result in a teen being charged with a felony in adult court.

“Because there is this detention hearing component to juvenile cases, it throws off the data,” said Nick Davis, a professor who studied indigent defense caseloads for Texas A&M’s Public Policy Research University.

“It’s probably an area that’s understudied in the state.”

Median Caseload of 178 per Defender

For instance, Dallas County showed a median caseload of 178 juvenile cases per public defender in 2018, a sharp improvement from its median of 377 in 2015.  Among private lawyers appointed to juvenile cases last year, the median caseload was 14 and the maximum assigned to anyone was 197.

But each of those years included data showing at least one Dallas County public defender handled as many as 4,500 to 6,000 cases.

Data show one public defender in Dallas was assigned to 5,936 cases in 2018. But that figure doesn’t differentiate between the number of initial detention hearings and full-blown court cases, said Lynn Pride Richardson, chief public defender for Dallas County.

That public defender handled almost 6,000 juvenile detention hearings—not full-blown court cases, she said.

Detention hearings are the first step in the juvenile court process, and many may not result in a court case. Some may simply result in a judge returning a runaway child to his or her parents, Richardson said.

A similar outlier in the 2018 data shows El Paso County public defender Elizabeth Sanchez handled more than 1,000 juvenile court cases.

Sanchez told The News those 1,020 cases included initial detention hearings, not just court cases, but she couldn’t determine how many of each her office handled without getting detailed records from the court clerk.

Even if those cases in Dallas and El Paso counties include large numbers of detention hearings, that’s still an “outrageous amount,” said Ellen Marrus, a law professor at the University of Houston who researches juvenile indigent defense.

The hearings determine whether a child will remain in custody at a juvenile detention facility and should take at least an hour, Marrus said, allowing time to call witnesses and cross-examine police.

Nationally, data has proven that if a child is detained he or she is much more likely to be adjudicated delinquent, she said.

To accurately compare caseloads in Texas, researchers need significantly more detailed records for each year in all 254 counties.

The commission overseeing indigent defense in Texas “chose to be respectful of county resources and not require extremely detailed reporting,” said deputy director Wes Shackleford.

“Having said that, Texas would certainly benefit from more detailed reporting of juvenile cases since it’s not currently possible to separate juvenile cases by type,” he said.

In Texas, each county handles indigent defense for juveniles in its own way, which further complicates the process of collecting uniform data statewide.

In Austin, the public defender’s office handles nearly all juvenile cases. Dallas and Houston operate a hybrid system: Both have public defenders and private appointed counsel who handle juvenile cases.

Many Texas counties don’t have public defenders’ offices and use a rotating system of private attorneys appointed by the court for indigent defense.

To assess whether counties are meeting caseload guidelines, the data must include the types of juvenile cases each attorney handled and the number of cases they managed in adult and misdemeanor courts, experts said.

Data Gaps

Dottie Carmichael, one of the researchers who authored the Texas study on juvenile caseloads, said that in the case of private attorneys, the data also does not account for the number of cases each lawyer handled for clients who can afford to pay — which is another problem.

“With regard to private attorneys, the data is clear; there is no way to responsibly handle the kind of combined juvenile-adult caseload you are seeing,” she said.

Data show 12 attorneys in Harris County earned $100,000 or more in 2018 through juvenile indigent defense cases. Each handled between 180 and 427 juvenile cases, many in addition to adult felony and misdemeanor indigent defense cases (as well as their own private clients).

A 2018 investigation by Texas Tribune/Reveal found that judges in Houston were assigning hundreds of juvenile indigent defense cases to a handful of private attorneys—some of whom handled between 227 and 377 juvenile cases, in addition to as many as 126 cases in family and probate court.

In Travis County, the median juvenile caseload for public defenders in 2018 was less than the guideline suggested by the state study, but some did handle almost 300 cases. Juvenile Public Defender Kameron Johnson said his office has one of the largest staffs in Texas, plus a caseworker and investigator.

His office focuses on efficiency, not just caseloads, he said.

“You could get into a situation and it could affect their school, where their family can live, where a child can go to college—for something that happened at 13, 14, 15 years old,” he said. “I always try to explain to people: How would you want your child to be represented if they come into the court system?”

Cary Aspinwall is a John Jay/Tow Juvenile Justice Reporting Fellow. He prepared this report with Ariana Giorgi, as part of his fellowship project for The Crime Report. A more extensive report is forthcoming in the Dallas Morning News.

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