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Public defender grant eyed by commissioners

BY GREG PEAK
Editor
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LIVINGSTON – The creation of a public defender’s office in Polk County to replace the current court-appointed attorney system was examined Tuesday by the Polk County Commissioners Court but the idea was shelved for the time being pending further study.

Edwin Colfax, grant program manager for the Texas Indigent Defense Commission, presented a proposal under which the state would provide grant funds to pay 50 percent of the program costs over a four-year period. He estimated that the grant would provide about $1 million during the transition period.

Currently, criminal defendants who cannot afford to hire an attorney have one appointed by the local judges at county expense. Under the public defender system, a new county department would be set up in which the county would hire a full-time staff of attorneys to represent the indigent defendants.

Colfax noted a study in Wichita County indicated the public defender system that was put into place saved that county money but added there was no guarantee that it would be as effective in Polk County.

“And you would not be getting rid of the court-appointed aspect,” he said. “In cases where you have multiple defendants, legal ethics would prevent the public defender’s office from representing more than one of them. You would still have to appoint attorneys for the others.”

He did note that what the county would receive is more control over the process, which would help prevent criminal defendants from “falling through the cracks” and remaining in the county jail for longer than necessary.

County Judge Sydney Murphy noted that keeping people locked up in the county jail for extended periods can often not only be unfair to the defendant but a burden on taxpayers who must foot the bill for the jail inmate.

She noted that last year the county spent $786,000 on indigent defense, but noted that included expenses for Child Protective Service cases, interpreters, expert witnesses and other costs the county would have to cover regardless of which defense system is being used. It was noted Texas law would not allow the public defender’s office to be involved with CPS cases.

After Colfax’s presentation, County Court at Law Judge Tom Brown, 258th District Judge Ernie McClendon and 411th District Judge Kaycee Jones all voiced their opposition to creating a public defender’s office at this time.

Brown noted he and the other judges have been working to help control the indigent defense costs and are not convinced the public defender’s office is the way to go.

He added the current system allows the judges to utilized attorneys that are experienced in the type of cases they are being appointed to represent. He pointed out a defense attorney handling a sexual assault cases needs more experience than one asked to represent someone charged with simple possession of marijuana.

“If you have a public defender’s office, what you will get is one chief public defender with some experience and four or five assistants who are right out of law school,” he said.

Brown noted that one of the most common grounds for an appeal of a criminal conviction is the defendant was not adequately represented and without having experienced attorneys the chances of those appeals being granted could increase.

“I am not opposed to having a public defender’s office in the future, but I do think we need more study,” Jones added
Murphy noted an indigent defense plan put in place by the judges in the fall seems to be working and helping to reduce costs. She did suggest a quarterly meeting between the judges, law enforcement officials, local defense attorneys and others be set up to review how things are proceeding.

After Brown, Jones and McClendon outlined the process they utilize in appointing attorneys and then how they follow up to make sure the lawyers are doing the work for which they are billing the county, Murphy and the commissioners expressed their gratitude.
“This is information that we needed,” Pct. 3 Commissioner Milt Purvis said. “I had no idea how that was being handled.”

District clerk’s update
In other discussion, District Clerk Bobbye Richards provided commissioners with an update on changes being made in her office since her appointment seven months ago.

She noted that with the exception of a few accounts dating back to the 1990s, all of the excess funds owed to local school districts have been paid and a new system has been put into place to make sure the payments are made in a timely manner in the future.
The excess funds involve money collected on the sale of property seized for the non-payment of taxes. Any amount of money over the amount owed for taxes is classified as excess funds and is held by the district clerk to give the former owner of the property a chance to claim it. If after two years it is not claimed, it is divided among the various taxing entities that had an interest in that particular piece of property.
Two years ago the local school districts complained the excess funds had not been issued to the schools for well over a decade. This complaint led to a Texas Attorney General’s investigation and the resignation of former District Clerk Kathy Clifton.
Richards said Tuesday the accounts from the 1990s are still being traced because those records are all on paper rather than computer files and it is taking longer to identify if money is owned and to which taxing entity.
At present, her office is holding $400,000 in excess funds seized over the past two years and Richards said they can begin disbursing that money to the schools starting in July.
Richards also reported work has progressed in other areas, with $30,000 in old, expired bonds being returned and $47,000 in money held for minors being issued to them after they reached legal age.
“The county also earned $9,700 in administrative fees for these accounts,” she said.
Other business
During the meeting, commissioners also:
-- Received a report from Jerry Hathorn of the Polk County Health Advisory Coalition regarding the Healthy Polk County program. At present the program is seeking to reduce the number of hospital stays and costs for chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD), congestive heart failure and diabetes. While the data on of hospital stays and costs will not be available from the state until March or April, Hathorn reported that the number of local clients taking advantage of the program increased last year.
-- Authorized the replacement of old railroad culverts with Texas Department of Transportation approved culverts on the Plant Road project near Corrigan. The county and the City of Corrigan are currently working together to upgrade Plant Road into a farm-to-market highway, at which point TxDOT has agreed to take over its maintenance.
-- Authorized the Precinct 4 road and bridge department to advertise for the purchase of a backhoe and front-end loader.
-- Approved the sale of nine pieces of property seized for the non-payment of taxes.
-- Approved a request to purchase a new security door for the Precinct 4 justice of the peace office.