November 30, 2009

Should Harris County have a Public Defender's office?

The Wizard has a rash of blog entries that I want to write, so I've been spending quite a bit of time at the keyboard.

The first of my writings concerns a rather obscure issue that should matter to all citizens of Harris County. As of late, there has been inquiry made as to whether Harris County should have a Public Defender's office, for purposes - at least on paper - of insuring that the poor and indigent have constitutionally guaranteed legal counsel available to them in the event that they are charged with a criminal offense.

The current regime of criminal defense for the poor in Harris County, which can be read in this excellent paper published by the Houston area League of Women Voters, is for a judge who is presiding over a criminal case to assign an attorney to handle the case. However, as the LWV paper states, there are two other primary methods by which legal representation can be provided for; one is via the Contract method, by which the government contracts out with a non-profit group or a law firm to provide legal counsel for the poor. What usually happens is that the firm gets a fixed sum regardless of how many cases are dealt with. The other means by which indigent defense can be dealt with is via a Public Defender's office. One of the things I learned was the nearly all other large municipalities and counties around the United States - for better or worse - employ a public defender's office. The LWV pamphlet states that as long as 30 years ago, 90 of the 100 largest counties in the U.S. had a public defenders office.

As for the meeting at the Democratic Party headquarters, it was an interesting affair. Much like the quarterly Republican Party precinct chair meetings, the D's have free food at their "brown bag" events. The bonus for the Wizard is that the Dems were holding their brown bag issue townhalls during the day, but now they're holding them in the evening.

Presiding over the evening's talk was HCDP chairman Gary Birnberg. The evening's guest speakers were State Senator Rodney Ellis and HC District Attorney (and former Houston City Council member) Vince Ryan. There were about 100 people attending the meeting, indeed it was standing room only for the crowd. There was definitely a sentiment that Bill White "would be our best candidate for Governor." One person mentioned that "it changes all of the state races."

Mr. Birnberg said that some 100 candidates had filed for Judge. Pleas were made for precinct chairs by Mr. Birnberg, who stated that it was through the PC's that you won races. Sheila Jackson Lee showed up at the meeting, and did speak, but much to my amazement, she didn't try to take up all the time at the podium.

The first featured speaker was Rodney Ellis. Senator Ellis stated that Harris County does have a Public Defender office, but that it is a federal office, not a county office. Ellis stated that "most people around the country look at Texas and think we're lost our minds." Ellis went on to say that yes, "criminal justice is a government program, and because it's a government program, there are going to be screw ups." Ellis stated that we in Texas send more to the death chamber and to prison than anywhere else. He argued that a public defender system is fairer to the accused than any other regime of indigent defense. He said, "if you're poor, you'd want a federal public defender."

Ellis also pointed out that if you have a judge making appointments of counsel to the defendant, there are conflicts of interest. So, gentle readers, where are the conflicts of interest in a judge appointed counsel system for the indigent? Two main ones: One is that the judge, in theory, has the power to hand out appointments to lawyers, like those who contribute money to that judge's political campaigns. Another possible conflict is if the lawyer is not doing too well financially and decides that he needs some cases to work on.

In a broader sense, what is it that judges campaign on when they are candidates for the post? Do they promise that they will be fair? No, they promise to voters that they will run their courts efficiently and keep their dockets clear. The issue (or danger) that arises with a court appointed attorney for the indigent is that since the object is to keep the dockets clear, if you have a court appointed attorney representing an indigent defendant, the possibility arises that if a defense attorney is hungry for cases and wants to stay on the good side of the judge (or judges) who appointed him or her to defend the client, then the court appointed defense attorney could conceivably sell the defendant short through encouraging guilty pleas, plea bargaining, or doing things that serve the interest of the judge and the attorney, rather than that of the defendant. In the words of one retired defense attorney who was present, "we're supposed to have an adversarial judicial system!", the implication being that with a court appointed lawyer system that we really don't. Instead, we have a conflict of interest.

Someone whose name I didn't get argued that the only reason why the State of Texas hasn't been sued over the issue of court appointed attorneys for the accused is that everyone points the finger at everyone else, ergo where does the fault lie within the system? Again, this issue is not a vote getter when it comes to campaign time.

Senator Ellis went on to way that corruption is something to consider, but noted that judges make nearly $100,000 per year. Ellis, who authored the Texas Fair Defense Act in 2001 (and more here), stated that a public defender office would be scalable, but noted that whether a PD office would be better than a court appointed attorney system depended on whether it was set up right and was given enough funding.

Harris County Attorney Vince Ryan then took to the podium. He largely agreed with Senator Ellis, stating that Harris County has perhaps the harshest criminal justice system anywhere to be found in America. Ryan noted that the GOP leadership is dead set against a PD system for indigent defenders, and stated that Gary Polland gets paid $250,000 per year by Republican judges.

Sheila Jackson Lee took to the podium - we couldn't have a public meeting where Sheila didn't get to talk, could we? Sheila said that "there was power in justice", and that the Obama Administration is investigating the Harris County Sheriffs department for why there were 110 deaths in prison over the past 10 years. Also being investigated are a lack of medical care of prisoners and Ms. Jackson Lee said that there needs to be a substantial mental health component in the jail system. Sheila also decried what she called "the proliferation of guns in the community."

Mr. Ryan resumed command of the podium. He stated that it costs some $50 per day to have someone in jail. A study that was commissioned for the Harris County commissioners recommended that to relieve overcrowding, there should be a Public Defender's office, it recommended that three days of time be given for every day in jail, rather than two as it is now in Harris County, that there be personal recognizance bonds allowed, and that pre-trial release be given for low risk offenders.

Another topic that was raised was bail reform in Harris County. Mr. Ryan said that twelve bondsmen get 47 percent of the bail bonds in the County. A point was raised that there should be a series of questions asked of a defendant before a defendant is allowed to obtain a pre-trial bond.

Senator Ellis resumed speaking. He argued that implementing a PD office would institutionalize knowledge on indigent defense. He believed that yes, most defendants are in jail because they are guilty, but some are in there because of their lawyers pleading them out. Ellis stated that a PD would be an appointed office, not elected. Ellis said that sixty percent of defendants are in jail because they weren't processed properly and that the average number of cases for a juvenile PD is 1,200 per year, compared to a recommended level of 150 per year. He stated this to reiterate his point that to have a functioning PD office, you need to adequately fund it. Currently the County staffs the Attorney's office with 100 lawyers with a budget of $16 million. About $30 million per year is now spent in indigent defense.

Further discussing the funding and conflict issues, Ellis asked, "when was the last time a lawyer asked to reduce a bond?" The answer was never, because they make money when a defendant stays in jail. Senator Ellis stated that 50 percent of the jail population is black and poor. He went on to say that this is obviously a political issue for him because his voting base was being eroded.

Long time defense attorney David Mitcham was present. Mitcham handed out a November 9th, 2008 New York Times story stating that public defender offices in seven states are refusing to take on cases citing heavy workloads. Mitcham argued that the problem was political, stating that the current judiciary overturned the pre-trial release regime, but Senator Ellis stated that the court appointed attorney regime was put in place by Democrats. Ellis told the audience that Dick Raycraft was all for a PD office, and that some Republicans also recognized that lawyers felt an allegiance to a judge in order to get more cases.

It remains to be seen whether the Democratic Party will adopt, as a resolution, the formation of a PD office next year, but it is on the table. The Republicans are strongly against it, witness this article by Court Koenning in the Texas Conservative Review.

So, is this political, or is this good justice? Should we have a hybrid PD office and court appointment system? The Wizard has yet to make up his mind. By the way - as a word of warning to the Republican Party. The Wizard heard a lot of talk about how Harris County was now 62 percent black and brown, and that there would be a Democrat County Judge soon. Clearly the local Democratic Party is taking it for granted that Hispanics and Blacks will vote for them in the future.

Well gentle readers, this was a long scribe. If you want to read up more on this issue here are some helpful links:

1) Here is the Texas Fair Defense Project's report on a Harris County Public Defender's office, where it is argued that a PD office will result in increased public accountability and will control costs.

2) Two stories back from 1999 from the Houston Press tell a story that the rights of defendants get compromised via the court appointed attorney system in order to keep the dockets cleared, and having defendants plea guilty to get out of prison.

3) An excellent blog entry from the always readable Murray Newman where he states that the real problem with our court system is that there are heavy caseloads and that defendants will be - in a memorable phrase - cooling their heels for a while, because of heavy caseloads. Newman also joins David Mitcham in countering the Houston Chronicle (and Senator Ellis), arguing against the establishment of a PD office.

Posted by The Mighty Wizard at 05:52 PM
This entry was posted in the following categories: Houston and Texas matters

November 17, 2009

On jitneys and elevated busways

Addendum edit: November 26th, 2009

When I initially published this blog entry, I identified the owner of the Washington Wave jitney service as Erik Ibarra. That information is incorrect and is hereby retracted. The actual founder and President of the Washington Wave jitney service is Lauren Barrash. The Washington Wave jitney service is in no way owned, operated by, or affiliated with Mr. Ibarra or his Eco Shuttle service. The Wizard formally apologizes to Ms. Barrash and to Mr. Ibarra for any confusion that may have resulted from my error.

(What follows is the resuming of my original blog entry)

Apologize for not blogging for several weeks, but I've been busy mostly on the social front.

The Washington Wave site notes that this service is the first jitney service offered in Houston in 15 years. Why is that? Much of that has to do with the barriers to entry caused by the the restrictiveness of the jitney ordinance (Chapter 46, article 6 of the City of Houston ordinances), which state that a would be jitney operator cannot operate a vehicle that is older than five years old, on top of a pile of other fees that have to be paid and rules that have to be followed. It's not hard for people to imagine that such barriers to entry make it very hard for anyone to break even on operating a jitney service, much less turn a buck.

Moving onwards, the weekend that Randal was in town, my 20 year old Honda CRX with 192,000 miles started having problems with the clutch. A consulting with my mechanic that I've been with for the past 12 years confirmed that pretty much the entire clutch, clutch cable, and probably the transmissions seals were all shot.Getting the car repaired was a cool $900, but I now have a car that can probably last another 100,000 miles if I so desire, and I've been finding I'm getting about four miles per gallon better gas mileage since the transmission work was done.

I was able to make it to and from my car mechanic's shop via Metro bus. Metro has the #81, the #82, and the #53 all at my disposal. No $130 million per mile rail lines, along with the disrupted businesses, nor the 1,500 foot radius condemnation zones needed, but here was the kicker. It was Friday afternoon and a Metro bus was stalled, dead in its tracks at the corner of South Shepherd and Westheimer. The bus driver had put out a set of blocks to indicate an out of service bus. I asked her what was the problem with the bus and she said there was a battery problem. The lost lane of traffic, not to mention the fact that her bus had broken down at the corner of a very busy major intersection, was a recipe for a major traffic tie up. Vehicles were backed up at least 50 deep back along Westheimer.

Fortunately (for me at least), there was another #81 bus just a block and a half up the road, so I waited until the next bus showed up and went home. However, the trips back and forth took 40 minutes for a five mile trip, which meant that the bus traveled an average speed of 7.5 miles per hour. On both the trip home and back the next day, fellow passengers looked at me and complained about how slow the bus was. Granted, these routes were navigating Westheimer during busy afternoons, but those passengers were looking at me as though they were hoping I could do something about the situation.

This got me to thinking about the idea of elevated transit. Last week at the HPRA meeting, Barry had an engineer from Tubular rail speak (or perhaps tout is the better word) on his product, but he didn't get away without having to answer a bunch of questions on the safety of his concept.

This has gotten me to thinking that there seems to be this idea out there that if a social decision is made to elevate transportation, it must be in the form of rail transit. But what about the idea of simply building an elevated road via double decking a thoroughfare, and allowing only buses, bicycles, and pedestrians to access it? Granted there are issues (there always are), including the cost of building anything that is grade separated, which would probably double the cost of a road built at grade.

A double decking of a thoroughfare would have to be at least 4 lanes wide, 2 wide lanes for buses, a middle lane for maneuvering, perhaps a four foot wide buffering strip for planting of vegetation, flowers, or scenery, and outside lanes for pedestrians and cyclists. There could be overhead cover provided for cyclists and pedestrians to allow for shelter against rain. Bus stops could be placed at gaps between the buffers every one-third of a mile.

A host of issues that would arise include resistance from neighborhoods (i.e. would such a project be politically feasible), constructing stairs or elevators for egress, where to put support structures for elevating a road, building the road high enough for vehicles to pass underneath, worries that such a structure would be a visual eyesore, and possibly water drainage. Costs per mile for 60 feet of elevated roadway would probably run at somewhere around $10 - 20 million per lane mile or $40 - 80 million per mile. If there were to be an elevated busway built over a freeway, then additional costs would incur from having to cross over the freeway. Here is a webpage that shows what an elevated busway might look like.

On the positive side, there would be no need for acquisition of additional right of way, but rather simple easements. There would also be no electric stray current leakage to worry about which is a substantial contributor to maintenance costs of rail lines, and some construction costs would be saved via not having to provide electrical power stations or infrastructure. Traffic congestion would ease on the streets below and motorists would not have to worry about unsafe at-grade trains going through our busiest intersections every 3-6 minutes. It's also conceivable that some property owners would build extensions to an elevated bus way from their own buildings.

If an elevated, exclusive busway were to be built over Westheimer, that would conceivably cut the travel time that I experienced a few weeks ago in half. Placing a bus stop every one third of a mile would have meant 15 bus stops to sit through on the way to Shepherd, which at twenty seconds a stop would mean a stop time of five minutes. Given that there would be segregated traffic with no stops at intersections or traffic lights to worry about, the bus could probably average 30 miles per hour between stops. That would result in an overall five mile trip of 15 minutes, or an average speed of 20 miles per hour. That would cut the overall travel time on that bus trip by more than half, and faster trips mean more transit riders. I could conceivably make a work trip to downtown within 30 minutes from where I live, and if I could do that, then I would consider regularly taking a bus to work.

A separated guideway along the elevated busway for cyclists and pedestrians would allow for getting around town without having to tear up the existing infrastructure and current business owners just might be able to survive the construction.

It's admittedly implausible that elevated busway will make it into the public discourse, but what such an idea goes to show is that in order to make public transportation (or via other methods) attractive to anyone is that transit has to be able to compete with automobiles in terms of speed, convenience, and overall safety. That means for the smart growth crowd to get what it wants, then the entire City of Houston would have to be completely redone and that's not going to be cheap. I would imagine it would be cheaper to do that via elevating the roadway, but that all depends on what you're after - improving mobility, or reshaping people's behavior.


Posted by The Mighty Wizard at 02:34 PM
This entry was posted in the following categories: Houston and Texas matters , Science and Engineering , Transportation