A recent study by the Texas Indigent Defense Commission (TIDC) and Wichita County found that, overall, lawyers in the Wichita County Public Defender office serve indigent criminal defendants better than court-appointed private attorneys, and it notes that other counties may want to explore whether “a public defender office might be a good fit in their communities.” But two lawyers in private practice question the study’s methodology.
“By the highest standard of defense — client acquittals — the public defender provides a better service than other court-appointed counsel,” according to the October study, “Wichita County Public Defender Office: An Evaluation of Case Processing, Client Outcomes, and Costs.”
The study found private lawyers do better in some areas — they get more favorable sentences for indigent defendants who are found guilty. But it concluded that the public defender model has many benefits: a higher level of service, the support of case investigators, more case dismissals, fewer guilty verdicts, and cost-savings for counties and defendants.
TIDC, which provides resources and information for counties, will distribute the study to counties that may want to establish public defender offices, says Jim Bethke, TIDC’s executive director.
“The clear takeaway, I think, from the report is it makes a great case that a well-rounded public defender office . . . is a very effective way to establish an indigent defense system,” says Bethke.
Wichita County Public Defender Jim Rasmussen says his office, established in 1986, is one of the oldest public defender offices in Texas. He says his office has staff investigators who “dig in” to cases to help get dismissals. Such resources aren’t always available to court-appointed attorneys.
But he says his office couldn’t operate without private lawyers, who represent one-third of the county’s indigent defendants.
“I don’t think you can have or set up a system in any jurisdiction that only relies on public attorneys representing indigent folks,” says Rasmussen.
Two private-practice lawyers in Wichita Falls praised the lawyers and staff of the public defender office. But solos Reginald R. Wilson and Bob Estrada both see a “flaw” in the study: The court only appoints private lawyers to indigent defendants when the public defender office has conflicts of interest.
“How could that be a valid representation of the overall number of cases being disposed of? I’m suspicious of their comparison,” Wilson says. He adds that criminal defense work is “case-by-case in nature” and he thinks it’s “hard to make a qualitative judgment about the representation.”
Estrada says he thinks the public defender office may shift “the weaker cases” out of the system by getting them dismissed “before the [private] attorney is appointed,” which could impact the outcomes.
Dottie Carmichael, a research scientist with the Public Policy Research Institute at Texas A&M University, which conducted the study, says she analyzed Wichita County criminal case records from 2005 through 2010 to compare “case processing and case outcomes” of clients of public defenders and court-appointed lawyers.
According to the report, public defenders get more dismissals: 22 percent of public-defender clients have cases dismissed before charges are filed, compared to 13 percent of private-lawyer clients.
After charges are filed, public-defender clients are 23 percent more likely to have charges dismissed.
But when found guilty, public-defender clients have worse sentencing outcomes. Clients of public defenders are less likely to get probation, and those who face jail time get 29 percent longer sentences.
The study notes contributing factors: Private attorneys have more experience. Also, public defenders represent the most “challenging” defendants — the county saves money if the office represents the most culpable defendants, and those defendants benefit from the office’s greater resources; plus, the office assumes representation of defendants who private lawyers withdraw from representing.
The study says public defenders provide more services, spending 21 percent more time on misdemeanors and 42 percent more time on felonies. Even so, the office saves the county $204 per case and provides $160 in “additional income earned by defendants” who stay in jail fewer days.
-- Angela Morris