There are several models for public defense in use across the U.S., and Bexar County’s “wheel” model is utilized by about 20 percent of country, according to this article in My San Antonio online arguing for a better system for indigent representation. San Antonio lawyers know all too well that “money talks when it comes to the criminal justice system,” and the money spent on providing indigent individuals with the Constitutional right to legal representation may not be cutting it. It’s an unfortunate fact of society that those who can afford more competent attorneys usually tend to negotiate the system better and achieve better results for their cases in court than those who don’t have the money to hire their own counsel.
In addressing the issue of justice, the author of the article referenced above questions whether the indigent criminal defendants are getting adequate representation—and wonders if not, why not, and how the system can be improved. In a just world, the quality of and budget for public defenders and criminal prosecutorial attorneys would be equal, but that’s not the case, and especially not in Bexar County’s wheel model of public defense. San Antonio lawyers understand better than anyone that the cost of representation isn’t cheap, and it’s worth nothing that Bexar County already spends over $10 million a year for court-appointed attorneys handling cases. But are those funds being utilized in the best way?
Not according to the Bexar County Task Force on Indigent Defense. Comprised of a committee of San Antonio lawyers to review the system, the task force submitted a detailed report almost three years ago to the Commissioners Court, which, to this day, has done little to pursue any of the task force’s recommendations. Some of the recommendations followed models in use by other counties in the U.S., like one in a California county where the government contracts private lawyers to represent indigent defendants. While the Commissioners Court was almost keen on cozying up to this idea, the judges were hesitant to give up authority to make defense appointments and the criminal defense bar wasn’t buying it.
It’s clear that something should change though; the wheel model in use in Bexar county constitutes a list of names of qualified San Antonio lawyers from which judges make assignments, and those who monitor criminal court activity note that the “practice of indigent criminal defense has become nothing more than a plea mill.” The pay for public defenders is paltry, so lawyers on that list rely on high case loads and quick resolutions. Which sounds efficient until considering that Texas has seen the highest number of wrongful convictions overturned in the last decade.
That’s not to say there isn’t hope for indigent defense in Texas. A pilot program in Comal County has been funded for two years and lets indigent defendants choose their own attorneys off the list of those participating starting in the fall. It may not be as efficient or result in the same quality that private attorneys contracted by the county might be, but at least it’s a start.