Since 1963, anyone accused of a felony is guaranteed the right to an attorney — even if they can’t afford to pay for one privately. That law was designed to create access to equal justice for all, regardless of their income.
Yet, somehow, that isn’t how things have worked out. Each state gets to figure out how to provide indigent defendants with an attorney. In Texas, that system is further broken down by county.
In essence, that means what kind of access to an attorney you get depends a lot on where you’re arrested and charged. In many areas in Texas, the public defender’s office is overwhelmed with cases and unable to handle the workload. Consequently, judges will tap a private attorney who is on contract for a modest fee.
Even those attorneys may be overworked. One defendant, for example, was assigned a private attorney who had been paid to handle 331 felony cases and 275 misdemeanors in one county — plus 46 felonies in another county — all in one year. That’s estimated to be the workload of more than three separate attorneys!
Lest you think that the issue is uniquely Texan, it isn’t. Louisiana, California and Georgia are other states that report similar problems. And they aren’t alone. There is a real crisis in the American legal system that is leaving poor defendants in the lurch.
But Texas does have a distinct problem other states don’t: Judges have a tremendous latitude that they don’t have in other states. They assign lawyers at will to indigent defendants and decide which motions for DNA tests or bail have merit. Since judges are elected, and elections depend on the public’s view of how efficient a judge is at putting criminals behind bars, there’s an inherent conflict of interest.
Before you assume that you cannot afford a criminal defense attorney, find out more information. Your future could depend upon it.