By Mei Perez and Helen Greenia
BEXAR, TX – In 2010, Laquita Garcia was wrongfully arrested for theft and could not pay the $30,000 bond—as a result, she was forced to stay in jail for over a year.
Making matters worse, she could not afford an attorney and one was appointed one by a judge. This attorney did not visit her in custody or communicate with her about the case, and only had contact with her when they were entering a plea deal.
After she was released from jail, she was determined to help others who were poorly affected by Bexar’s criminal justice system.
Now, Garcia is the Statewide Policy Coordinator for the Texas Organizing Project (TOP), a non-profit organization that mobilizes Latino and Black communities through issue-based campaigns.
TOP has now won a major victory by successfully implementing a new system of criminal defense for indigent defendants in Bexar County, like Laquita Garcia.
Noting about 80 percent of criminal defendants are indigent and unable to pay for a private attorney, TOP collected 3,000 survey answers about what reforms they would like to see within criminal justice.
The result of the survey was a call to remove court-appointed lawyers from the system. Criminal justice reformers claim that court-appointed lawyers do not help their clients efficiently.
According to the Texas Indigent Defense Commission (TIDC), a report from 2021 found that Bexar’s public defenders have high caseloads that makes it difficult for them to face appeals, meet deadlines, and help release clients from jail.
The executive director of the TIDC stated, “You have to appear in court, communicate with your client, conduct legal research, do factual investigations, file motions. What we’re finding in Bexar County is that [these tasks] don’t always take place.”
A solution to the problem is a managed assigned counsel system (MAC), which is designed to end reliance on court-appointed attorneys with a team of administrators that will oversee, train, and, if necessary, discipline attorneys. The group will also provide experts and investigators for its lawyers.
The aim of the MAC is to reduce jail time of innocent defendants, increase rates of compliance with court orders, and trim expenses on wasteful administrative tasks.
Implementations of similar programs have shown promising results, with reduced recidivism and fewer days spent in county jails, according to the Lubbock County Private Defender Office. In addition, the cost-effective methods of the system saved the taxpayers of Collin County $630,000.
The current court appointment system practiced throughout most cities in Texas has shown to lead to a “plea mill,” in which overwhelmed and underpaid attorneys pressure indigent clients into plea deals, regardless of their innocence.
Reformers said detention centers across Bexar are in poor condition, so it is crucial to help residents avoid being imprisoned and continue to keep them out of jail.
According to Texas Radio, half of the people in Bexar County Jail were waiting to go to trial and the detention center was at 88 percent capacity.
The TIDC has agreed to give the MAC a $15 million grant over four years and a former chief of Lubbock’s Private Defender Office, Jim Bethke, has been hired to direct the program. This is the first MAC to reform misdemeanor felony and juvenile cases.