Kaufman Public Defender- One Year Later

The Kaufmnan Herald has a good article about the Kaufman Public Defender. I was a pubic defender out of law school, it is a tough job for many reasons from bad breath to mental illness to clients who berate and.or do not trust you.

Kaufman’s Public Defender office was created a year ago and everyone interviewed glows about the office’s successful first year. By all account Andrew Jordan has created an effective office out of nothing; no small task. Texas has a handful of Public Defender’s offices, most indigent defense is handled by private court appointed attorneys.

The news article seems to focus on the cost savings to the county. Much is made over the fact that the average cost per case is down 50% over 2005-2006. Is that a good thing? I know the county wants to save money but the government created the need for indigent defense. Instead of looking for the cheapest defense maybe we should rethink our incarceration epidemic.

Chief Public Defender Andrew Jordan shows some insight into the frustrations that come with having scores of mentally ill in the criminal justice system. Here is a great quote-

“Sadly, over the last several years the Legislature has continued to under fund programs that care for people with recognized mental illnesses.”According to Jordan, the result has been that the county jail has become the de facto care facility for citizens who, through no fault of their own, can’t interact in society. “In addition to being expensive and presenting a liability issue for Kaufman County, it’s simply inhumane,” Jordan said. “Many of these individuals also qualify for my office’s services so that area of the law is of particular importance to me. Hopefully in another year I can report that we have found a way to balance public safety against the absolute need to take a more compassionate approach to the mentally ill who enter our criminal justice system.”

That is absolutely true. The mentally ill are constantly arrested and shuffled through the criminal justice system. When I was a prosecutor in East Texas we had a few defendants who constantly got arrested for “criminal trespass.” Here was the common scenario.

George is a homeless mentally ill alcoholic. Bill, who owns the local 7-11 is tired of George showing up drunk and begging for money in the parking lot. Bill has the police give George a criminal trespass warning. George is now banned from the 7-11.

George is still a homeless mentally ill alcoholic and returns frequently to the 7-11. George is arrested for criminal trespass and can not make bail. George is too mentally ill to plead guilty to anything, and the State treatment facilities are full and will not take George for a few months. Robert, the friendly prosecutor routinely drops charges against George to get him out of the County Jail because it is too expensive to incarcerate the mentally ill indefinitely.

A variation on the scenario- Sometimes the mentally ill would get back on their meds in jail and sober up to the point the could plead guilty if they wanted to.

For good reading on Mental Health problems in Texas Criminal Justice, have some Grits.

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