State grants help boost legal aid to the poor - Brownsville Herald: Local News

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State grants help boost legal aid to the poor

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Posted: Friday, July 26, 2002 12:00 am

By STEVE TAYLOR

The Brownsville Herald

AUSTIN A South Texas lawmaker has praised a state task force for awarding

$300,000 in grants to the four-county Rio Grande Valley region to improve

legal aid for the poor.

State Sen.-elect Juan Chuy Hinojosa, whose legislation last session created

the Texas Fair Defense Act, said while more funding was still needed, the

grants would help steer the state away from its image as the laughing stock

of the nation when it comes to indigent defense.

The Task Force on Indigent Defense announced $7.2 million in initial grants to

238 Texas counties, including $172,605 for Hidalgo County, $103,702 for

Cameron County, $20,857 for Starr County and $10,999 for Willacy County.

What with the highest number of death penalty verdicts and sleeping lawyers,

our judicial system was ridiculed during the 2000 presidential system, said

Hinojosa, D-McAllen, chairman of the House Criminal Jurisprudence Committee

and a member of the task force.

We have an adversarial system and we owe it to the poor to provide competent

counsel when they are up against experienced prosecutors, he added. Weve

heard too many horror stories about how our system was failing when this

legislation was going through my committee, so I am delighted at the progress

being made.

State money for these grants was provided under Senate Bill 7, filed by Sen.

Rodney Ellis, D-Houston, and carried in the House by Rep. Hinojosa, which

passed during the 2001 legislative session.

In addition to overseeing the distribution of grants to assist counties with

indigent defense, the task force is responsible for developing statewide

policies and standards for providing legal representation to indigent

defendants for trial, appeals and other post-conviction proceedings.

Task force members and staff reviewed grant applications submitted by 244

counties in Texas to determine if they met minimum standards for prompt

counsel appointment for poor defendants, as well as whether the county was

financially eligible for the state money. In the case of the Valley, all four

counties received full funding.

The Task force also established guidelines to distribute $11.2 million in

indigent-defense grants for the 2003 fiscal year. Applications will be

distributed to all counties by early August.

Judge Sharon Keller, task force chairwoman and presiding judge on the Texas

Court of Criminal Appeals, applauded the efforts of those counties that

applied for the grants.

Weve got significant work remaining, but this money is an important step for

counties throughout Texas to ensure a fair, efficient and effective criminal

justice system, Keller said.

Hinojosa said if the state had not acted, the federal government would have

taken over the process of allocating indigent defense lawyers.

Before this bill, Texas had a hodge-podge approach. We had lawyers appointing

their buddies, sleeping lawyers, and inexperienced and incompetent lawyers. I

think in time we can have a model system that will be the envy of other

states, Hinojosa said.

According to Bill Beardall, an attorney at the Equal Justice Center, the new

grants mean the state now contributes around 7 percent of local indigent

defense funding, compared to 50 percent in some states.

There is no major state comparable to Texas that contributes less, Beardall

said. What the Fair Defense Act did, it set in motion a process of reform

that will take a long time. Its a marathon.

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