In Texas, approximately 1 million people cycle through local jails every year, with about 65,000 individuals incarcerated daily. On average, more than half of the men and women currently in county jails have not been convicted of the crime for which they are accused. They are awaiting trial, often because they cannot pay high bond amounts – even if they may not be a risk to public safety. This leads to unnecessary and costly jail overcrowding. Similarly alarming, nearly two-thirds of those charged with misdemeanor offenses did not receive appointed attorneys in recent years, and more than one-third charged with felonies did not receive appointed counsel. Given the imbalance of inadequately resourced defense systems against well-resourced prosecution, it may not be surprising that, from 1989 to 2011, at least 86 Texas’ convictions were later overturned.
- Access to Counsel: Every individual should be informed of the right to request appointed counsel. And if a defendant can’t afford to hire an attorney, timely appointment of counsel should be made upon the start of adversarial proceedings or earlier.
- Support for Counties: Texans deserve a balanced judicial system, which increases fairness and integrity in sentencing. This means that counties must have the resources to adequately provide for indigent defense, including appointing attorneys and providing necessary resources to ensure a meaningful defense for those who can’t afford one.
- Strengthened Indigent Defense Infrastructure: The Texas Indigent Defense Commission is critical to providing indigent defense services throughout the state. By distributing grant funds and offering technical assistance, the Commission helps counties comply with the state’s Fair Defense Act. It also helps counties improve their local indigent defense delivery through the establishment of public defender offices and other programs that demonstrate quality and efficiency. The Texas Indigent Defense Commission must have the resources it needs to continue its important work at the state and county levels, and to further advance the basic right to counsel.
- Improved Pretrial Practices: Only a few counties in Texas have established pretrial services, where practitioners meet with defendants to determine risk of flight or recidivism, then recommend to judges whether each defendant should be released on bond before trial or detained until trial. Counties that have the ability to pre-screen defendants for release have reduced costly pretrial jail overcrowding while keeping public safety intact. They have also allowed released individuals to maintain crucial support networks in the community. Texas should expand access to pretrial services and strengthen its pretrial services infrastructure by incorporating best practices – such as validated, population-driven assessments – to provide judges reliable information to support release decisions. Keeping individuals in local jails unnecessarily drains already strained county budgets and creates undue hardship for individuals and their families.
- Informed Decision-Making: Through more frequent trainings, judges and attorneys should improve their knowledge of smarter, more effective defense and sentencing practices.
- Protection of the Innocent: The indigent defense system must be improved to ensure fair and stronger procedural safeguards. No person in Texas should be wrongfully convicted or incarcerated for a crime they didn’t commit.
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