By Ryan Autullo
Travis County officials may increase pay for indigent defense lawyers, in response to a recent study that found that poor defendants are receiving worse representation in low-level felony drug cases than those who hire their own lawyers.
County Judge Sarah Eckhardt will announce a proposal Tuesday at the Commissioner’s Court to discontinue a flat-fee schedule that she says discourages quality courtroom advocacy.
For example, Eckhardt said it is not uncommon for a defendant with a court-appointed attorney to be nudged into pleading guilty by a lawyer who gains nothing by fighting to get the case dismissed. A lawyer is paid $550 if a case ends in a plea deal and is paid that same amount if the case ends in a dismissal.
“I think there are perverse economic incentives to plea,” Eckhardt told the American-Statesman. “Law enforcement can’t represent both sides, and prosecution can’t represent both sides. So, we need to shore up the defense side. And that’s going to be expensive, but necessary.”
Test runs for two new payment options — hourly and salary — would begin as early as October. Any permanent change to the way lawyers are compensated will be taken up in this year’s budget cycle.
A study commissioned by the county looked at 2,458 drug possession cases from 2016 that resulted in state jail felony charges — which are crimes higher than misdemeanors but lower than most felonies.
It documented large disparities in how cases were resolved, and in punishments:
‒ Eighty percent of defendants with an appointed attorney were found guilty, compared to 48 percent of defendants who hired their counsel.
‒ Of those with an appointed lawyer who were found guilty, 11 percent got some type of probation, while 88 percent were sentenced to county or state jail. Defendants who hired their own lawyers got probation in 41 percent of cases and jail time in 58 percent.
‒ Defendants with a retained attorney were often twice as likely to receive a personal bond as those with an appointed lawyer.
Autullo, Ryan. “Study Finds Serious Shortcomings in Travis County Indigent Defense.” Statesman, Austin American-Statesman, 22 Sept. 2018, www.statesman.com/NEWS/20180419/Study-finds-serious-shortcomings-in-Travis-County-indigent-defense.