In the wake of an American Bar Association (ABA) report demonstrating the failure of indigent defense systems nationwide, Senator Rodney Ellis of Houston held a press conference today to highlight legislation he is sponsoring, which intends to improve the legal representation of the state's poorest citizens. According to Bill Beardall, executive director for the Equal Justice Center, Texas only spends about $12 million per year for indigent defense, leaving counties to make up the difference. While many states foot 50 percent or more of that cost, Texas only covers about 10 percent. The result, says Beardall, is that many poorer defendants are left with untrained or unqualified legal counsel, even in cases where the defendant faces the death penalty.
Senator Rodney Ellis has filed Senate Bill 1218, entitled the Fair Defense Improvement Act, in an effort to improve the quality of legal counsel for defendants who cannot afford to hire their own lawyer. "We still have a long way to go before the promise of the right to counsel is a reality for all Texans," said Ellis. "All Texans, rich or poor, should have access to quality legal representation. Justice in our state should not be dependent on how much money someone has in their bank account." SB 1218 would increase the state funding, both in hiring more and better-qualified lawyers and funding projects to explore more efficient ways to improve indigent defense. It would also ensure that anyone accused of a crime has access to a lawyer within four days of arrest, and would increase bond options available to judges to allow for more accused to post bond and keep working, to help pay for their own defense. Finally, the bill creates objective criteria by which a defendant can qualify for a court-appointed lawyer.
The Senate will reconvene, Tuesday, March 15th, at 11:00 A.M.