Public Defense Group Charges System-Wide Deficiencies in Texas County Criminal Defense Representation

By Perla Chavez 

CORPUS CHRISTI, TX – The Wren Collective—composed of criminal justice researchers specializing in public defense—reported this week Nueces County, Texas, has issues providing adequate legal representation to the poor.

As a component of Wren’s “Gideon Turns 60: Improving Public Defense Across America” project, this report was published to evaluate public defense nationwide. According to its website, Wren has assessed indigent defense in five counties and proposed improvements.

Wren reports that in analyzing the court appointment system it found, in almost 60 percent of resolved cases, attorneys only received $200 per case in 2021; numerous lawyers had overwhelming caseloads; and in 2022 one top earner managed 470 cases.

As stated in the report, “Assuming this lawyer spent 40 hours per week on case-related work, and worked 52 weeks a year with no vacation or sick leave, this attorney could spend no more than 4.4 hours on each case, which would have to include waiting at the jail, driving to investigate, or sitting in court waiting on a hearing.”

These findings explain, said Wren, that attorneys in Nueces County are being grossly underfunded, causing them to accept heavy caseloads to make a living which compromises the quality of legal representation and hinders their ability to effectively prepare cases.

Furthermore, Wren reveals investigators were employed by attorneys in only seven cases over a six-month period, adding attorneys infrequently sought the assistance of experts in the mental health or forensic science field to prepare cases.

The consequences of rarely seeking the expertise of an investigator, mental health, or forensic science professional could result in insufficiently prepared defenses or unfavorable outcomes for the clients, the report charged.

Regarding investigators, the report claims, “Investigators are the lifeblood of criminal defense work, as they help unearth evidence that can undermine the government’s case or even prove a client’s innocence.”

In terms of social workers and other mental health professionals the report affirms, “They are able to address mental health issues, connect clients with community-based providers, and collaborate with the defense attorney to identify alternative sentencing plans that are focused on treatment and rehabilitation and may help the client avoid prison time,” the report said.

Wren’s report notes that, despite an attorney’s constitutional obligation to provide advice on immigration consequences, they rarely consult with an immigration attorney regarding the ramifications of a guilty plea, and still other accused endure long periods of incarceration without a single attorney visit.

For individuals not being informed of their immigration consequences, they are at risk of deportation and a violation of constitutional rights, the report reminds readers.

Wren added, “In Padilla v. Commonwealth of Kentucky, the Supreme Court held that noncitizen clients must be advised by their criminal defense attorneys about the deportation risks of a guilty plea. Failure to do so constitutes ineffective assistance of counsel.”

Those waiting in jail face limited access to their attorneys and lose the opportunity to build trust with them and the system. Wren states, adding, “And they also cannot notify their client about court dates or conditions of release, which may result in missed court dates and then judges issuing warrants for their client’s arrest.”

The report includes recommendations made by Wren, including the suggestion for the County to establish a Managed Assigned Counsel (MAC) as the public defender’s office expands, to supervise appointments for indigent defense. In addition, this independent entity would arrange resources and training while monitoring attorney caseloads and quality, said Wren.

Importantly, “A MAC can also provide more transparency into how the criminal defense system operates, and where it must be fixed,” claims Wren.

Wren also advises the Nueces County’s recently established public defender’s office to significantly expand, as written in the report.

Jessica Brand, principal for the Wren Collective, states, “Poor people in Nueces County are not receiving constitutionally adequate representation. Lawyers are funneling clients through a plea mill system, they are failing to adequately investigate cases, and they are not showing up at the jail.”

Brand added, “When Nueces County started the public defender, it took a step in the right direction. It should continue expanding the office and start an independent system with quality control immediately.”

About The Author

Perla Chavez is a first-generation college student that has obtained a paralegal certificate from the UCLA Extension Paralegal Program. Her academic journey includes a major in Political Science with a focus on race, ethnicity, and politics at UCLA. Perla has actively contributed to social justice advocacy through internships with CHIRLA and the NAACP. Driven by her passion to recognize inequalities and advocate for the rights of others, Perla aspires to become an immigration lawyer. Apart from her dedication to academics and the legal field, she finds fulfillment in being a volunteer for the city of California City, spending quality time with family, and expressing creativity through painting.

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