Lubbock County will be the first in Texas to try, at a countywide level, a novel method of assigning attorneys to represent indigent criminal defendants, after winning a $320,000 grant from the Texas Task Force on Indigent Defense. The task force announced yesterday that it had voted to award $21.2 million in grants to Texas counties to improve their indigent defense efforts. That money includes funding for five new programs, including a managed assigned counsel program in Lubbock County and a new public defender office for Central Texas, plus funding for counties with the biggest jumps in spending on indigent defense and money for continuing public defender programs. A managed assigned counsel program changes how counties appoint attorneys for indigent defendants. An attorney heading the program would relieve judges of the duty of assigning and managing attorneys for indigent defendants, says Wesley Shackelford (pictured), deputy director and special counsel of the task force. “We’re hopeful that will lead to an improvement in the quality” of indigent defense, says Shackelford. “It takes a lot of administrative burden off the judges.” Lubbock County may partner with a local bar association for its program. Bryan Wilson, grants administrator for the task force, says the program idea comes from San Mateo, Calif., but the model is new for Texas. Lubbock County already tested the model with a smaller-scale pilot program that assigned lawyers for indigent defendants with mental health problems. He says the grant award allows the county to expand that pilot program to cover all types of criminal defendants. “Lubbock has taken on the whole enchilada,” Wilson says. He adds that Montgomery County is also piloting a managed assigned counsel program. David Slayton, director of court administration in Lubbock County, says, “Everyone here is real excited to do this. We take great pride in the opportunity to provide a new model for the rest of state to emulate.” Another big grant award of just more than $597,000 went to Burnet County to create the new Central Texas Regional Public Defender Office. Wilson says the office will help four counties in the region. “We’ve been setting up public defender offices for several years now,” Wilson says. The grant awards also include $8 million for 97 counties with the highest increases in expenditures for indigent defense and $11.8 million for continuing public defender offices in six counties. Other new programs receiving funding are an indigent-defense attorney training and mentoring program in Bell County, a direct filing system that lets indigent defense attorneys access files electronically and lets those managing them track the cases in Cameron County, and a regional videoconferencing system for magistrate hearings in Uvalde County.
-- Angela Morris