County tries to trim court costs
Dec. 24, 2013 at 6:24 a.m.
Longtime Crossroads attorney James "Jim" Beeler has represented indigent clients who drove a better car than his.
"Everybody lies," Beeler said. "I don't mind helping people who need help, but some try to abuse the system and take advantage. That's always been a concern."
After years of rising costs, Victoria County hired someone to ensure the people requesting a court-appointed attorney actually financially qualify for them.
Nora Kucera, a former juvenile probation officer, has been on the job as pre-trial services coordinator for about a year now.
While she estimates she's turned away about 20 percent of people requesting court-appointed attorneys, indigent defense costs the county $722,936.99 so far this year.
That's up from $621,464.81 in 2012, according to data collected by the Texas Indigent Defense Commission.
The commission only collects data about criminal indigent cases for the fiscal year.
Multiple things could be driving up that number.
Judges began paying court-appointed attorneys more in 2012.
The attorneys may opt to be paid a flat rate of $250 or an hourly rate between $30 and $75 for felony cases.
The number of cases filed and the type of cases filed also matter. One capital murder case involving not only a lot of investigation but also a lengthy jury trial can throw the numbers out of whack, officials said.
In 2012, the county paid for 1,672 indigent cases. In 2013, it is set to pay for 1,585 indigent cases, but it will likely have two capital felony cases on its books.
They are Tyrell Richards, 22, and Shawn Chapel, 32, both of Victoria.
Richards is charged in the death of 17-year-old Cynthia Shands. He was arrested in March 2012 and has a motions hearing Jan. 22.
Chapel, meanwhile, has not been indicted but was arrested on suspicion of capital murder after police found the body of Daniel Silgero, 66, at the Victoria Motel on Houston Highway in November.
Attorneys assigned to these cases can choose to get paid as it goes on, and the cases will continue into 2014.
"In my opinion, the office (of pre-trial services coordinator) is here to stay," County Judge Don Pozzi said. "The problem (of indigent defense costs rising) is not going to stop. We can only hope to diminish it."
135th District Judge Kemper Stephen Williams agreed.
"If law enforcement gets aggressive on drug sting operations, and if you end up with a round up of multiple defendants, that will increase it. Mr. Tyler (the criminal district attorney) has been aggressive with gangs here," he said.
Before Kucera came on board, judges asked the defendants a few questions about their finances, but there wasn't much time to be thorough while sitting on the bench.
"I can't cite an example, but I think, sure, there would be people who would not put accurate information on those forms," Williams said.
Kucera also advises judges about whether someone would be a good candidate for a lower bond, he said.
"That may free up some resources for these people to hire their own lawyers. That's the theory, and I think it's a good theory," Williams said.
A single person earning $957.50 a month, or at 100 percent of the federal poverty guideline, would qualify for a court-appointed attorney.
Kucera said her office, which will grow when she hires an assistant in 2014, empowers defendants to be more informed about the process.
Defendants are asked to bring pay stubs and proof of public assistance, such as Medicaid, food stamps and public housing information.
Providing false information can earn someone a 10-year prison stay as well as a $10,000 fine, so meeting face-to-face makes defendants more accountable for what they're writing, she said.
"As of today, no, I have not had anyone who has gotten irate," when I have denied them a court-appointed attorney, Kucera said. "They know I'm trying to help, not hinder the criminal justice process."
Pre-trial services departments are a growing trend throughout the Lone Star state.
In a survey of four counties of similar size, only one, Orange County in East Texas, met with defendants face-to-face to determine indigence.
Orange County spent $385,327.46 so far on indigent defense this year while Hunt County near Dallas spent almost $2 million during the same time period.
Hunt County filed double the number of indigent cases that Orange County did. A judge in Hunt County, not a pre-trial services coordinator, also appoints indigent defendants counsel.
While Beeler said employing a pre-trial services coordinator is a good idea, he said the county should never establish an indigent defense spending goal.
"An influx of people moving into the area changes the dynamics of the community," he said. "I don't think you can accurately predict it."