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Indigent Defense Takes a Bite Out of Houston County


By Will Johnson
Messenger Reporter

HOUSTON COUNTY – Residents of Houston County often ask where their tax dollars go. During a meeting of the Houston County Commissioners Court held on Tuesday, Nov. 13 it was reported a large amount of funding goes towards covering indigent defense legal fees.

The sixth amendment to the US Constitution guarantees the accused shall “… have the assistance of counsel for his (or her) defense.”

In the 1963 US Supreme Court case of Gideon v. Wainwright, the Court ruled under the Sixth and 14th Amendments, state and federal courts were to appoint an attorney for the accused if he or she could not afford one.

However, the ruling of the high court does not indicate where the funding will come from. As a result, the costs for indigent defense are passed down to the county level.

“We have to submit the IDER (indigent defense expense report),” County Auditor Melissa Jeter explained to the court.

“We receive $32,066 from the state of Texas in order to provide court appointed attorneys. In 2008, a new interpretation of Miranda rights came down,” the auditor said.

The Miranda decision stems from the case of Miranda vs. the state of Arizona in 1966. Also heard by the Supreme Court, the Miranda decision stated a detained criminal suspect, prior to police questioning, must be informed of his or her constitutional right to an attorney and against self-incrimination.

“The interpretation of Miranda – you will be appointed an attorney if you cannot afford one – was reinterpreted to say you must refuse a court appointed attorney. So, how many people refuse a court appointed attorney? Very, very few,” Jeter said.

As she continued, Jeter said before the law changed in 2008, the county spent $122,000 on indigent defense

“Now we are spending $269,000 in court appointed attorney fees. That’s a 19 percent increase from last year. The new twist is the civil fees the court has to approve and pay. These are for CPS (child protective services) cases. These are ad litem fees that are in the interest of children. None of those are eligible for reimbursement from the Texas Defense Commission. None of it,” she indicated.

Jeter said this cost the county approximately $121,000 “… which is one tax point that is going towards this. We can’t get reimbursement from the state on any level.”

The growth of the expenditure, Jeter furthered, in many instances resulted from when a child was taken from a parent. Attorneys must be appointed for the mother, the father, and in many cases, an ad litem attorney was appointed for the child.

“You’re spending about $7,000 per case and I want to say we have maybe 45 children in foster care. Those children have already gone through the process, but we have more and more coming. The bottom line is we are $87,000 over what the state will reimburse us,” she said.

The auditor said the county receives $32,000 from a grant, along with a percentage of probation fees totaling $26,693 and the baseline of $122,000 which brings the total to roughly $182,000. The current year’s total expenditure is $269,149 which is $87,000 more than the state will reimburse the county.

“On top of that, you have the civil fees. So, we are over $200,000 for court appointed attorneys,” Jeter said.

Precinct Two Commissioner Willie Kitchen asked if the $32,000 received from the state remained the same, year-over-year. Jeter replied it fluctuated from $26,000 to $32,000 since this started.

The report was unanimously accepted as information by the court.

Will Johnson may be contacted via e-mail at wjohnson@messenger-news.com.