A new model of public defense will reform a failing system

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Before we turn our attention to Bexar County’s new managed appointed lawyer service and the mighty hope that comes with this overdue reform, let’s stop to remember Janice Dotson-Stephens.

A seriously mentally ill grandmother, Dotson-Stephens, 61, was jailed in 2018 in the Bexar County Adult Detention Center for a misdemeanor. She died there for lack of a $ 300 bond, starving for the next five months. During that time, she rejected over 100 meals and lost 136 pounds.

The question was open whether her court-appointed lawyer had ever seen her.

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Dotson-Stephen’s death remains a tragic monument to indifference and outrage. Our hope with the county’s adoption of a Managed Designated Lawyer Service, or MAC, is that a tragedy like this will never happen again in Bexar County. A CAM, well done, should provide much needed oversight to court-appointed indigent lawyers. This oversight should ensure that lawyers visit their clients and maintain an appropriate workload, allowing for adequate defense. We have championed a CAM as a key reform of our “Unequal Justice” project.

Accountability did not exist in the old system. Consider the workloads, tracked by the Texas Indigent Defense Commission, for some court-appointed attorneys in Bexar County in fiscal 2019.

One lawyer had 707 cases, the highest in the county. The second highest caseload was 525. Four other lawyers had over 400 cases. Seven others had more than 300 cases.

As we observed in 2018, there were three attorneys who handled over 500 cases in fiscal year 2017. At that time when we raised these numbers with Jim Bethke, the longtime former chief from the State Indigent Defense Commission, he basically said that these workloads were untenable.

“There are 2,080 hours in the standard work year,” Bethke wrote in an email. “Not taking any vacation, no vacation, no sick leave, a court-appointed lawyer would settle about two cases a day, every day the court is open” if he works 500 cases a year.

Janice Dotson-Stephens died in Bexar County Jail on December 14, 2018 after spending nearly five months there on a criminal trespass charge. Perhaps his story would have been different with the proper representation of the defense.

Dotson-Stephens family / COURTESY

When he wrote this email, Bethke was overseeing Lubbock’s private advocates office, a MAC. We would travel to Lubbock later to get a better understanding of how his MAC works and why it was a role model for the defense of the poor. What we saw made sense. Lawyers were required to interview clients within seven days. The office monitored workloads, results and invoicing. It handled complaints, served as a resource center and deployed case managers. It was a better way.

Now Bethke has been selected to run the MAC here. He is an exceptional recruit. There is a lot of work to be done in Bexar County – reform will take time – but done right, there will be better defense of the needy here, reduced prison costs and greater supervision.

The MAC will initially be funded by a combination of local and state dollars. The Texas Indigent Defense Commission awarded a grant of $ 3.4 million over five years to launch the program.

A MAC can lead to spending more on the defense of the indigent, but it would be welcome because you can be cautious and foolish. Each major Texas market spent more on indigent advocacy than Bexar County, which spent $ 356 per case in fiscal 2019, according to a 2020 report from the Public Policy Research Institute at Texas A&M University. The second lowest in Texas was Travis County, which spent $ 494 per case.

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Paying for better representation could ultimately lead to lower prison costs – and a more equitable form of justice and potentially less recidivism for defendants. As a 2016 Harvard Cash Surety Act Primer notes: “Unnecessary imprisonment also compromises the safety of the community. Statistical studies have shown that low-risk people in the same situation are actually more likely to commit new crimes after release.

District Judge Ron Rangel aptly described adopting a MAC as “a complete game changer.”

While we can only wonder “what if” for Dotson-Stephens, we welcome this incredible opportunity to reform and improve a system that fails too often.


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Shanta Harris

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