Sustain Progress; Make Additional Improvements: NAPD Harris County Misdemeanor Assessment Report
An NAPD Assessment of the Harris County (Houston) misdemeanor system of representation has been released. It was conducted at the request of Harris County pursuant to a November 21, 2019 Consent Decree in ODonnell et al v. Harris County, Texas No. 16-cv-01414 (S.D. Tex. Nov. 21, 2019).
We know that misdemeanors are too often minimized. Likewise, we know they affect peoples’ lives greatly. As Alexandra Natapoff observed in her 2018 book, Punishment Without Crime: How Our massive Misdemeanor System Traps the Innocent and Makes America More Unequal, “The first and most important change in thinking about misdemeanors is to appreciate their importance.”
Doug Wilson, Chair of the NAPD Systems Builders Committee, commended Harris County for having an independent analysis conducted by national public defense leaders. “That speaks volumes about Harris County’s interest in creating a public defense delivery system that meets national standards.” Wilson said, “After 6 months of analysis of substantial qualificative and quantitative data, the Assessment found that in line with national standards of practice, Harris County has made progress in creating and funding value-centered structures to ensure effective county-wide representation of persons charged with a misdemeanor who cannot afford counsel. At the same time, there remain measures critical to realizing the goal of effective client-centered holistic representation across all indigent cases in Harris County that are yet to be accomplished.”
Some of the highlights of the 158-page Assessment (with an extensive Appendix) include the following. In Fiscal Year 2020, there were 46,090 misdemeanors filed, a 68|PERCENT| dismissal rate, and 34 trials. The percentage of clients who had their cases decided at trial ranged from .11|PERCENT| to .22|PERCENT| between FY 2016 and 2020 with the percentage of trials resulting in acquittals during that period ranging from 51|PERCENT| to 67|PERCENT|. Approximately, 14,000 persons went through magistration in 2020.
All who request counsel at magistration are provided representation by full-time staff attorneys from the Harris County Public Defender Office. Private appointed counsel lawyers do not appear at magistration. Over a 5-year period, pending misdemeanor cases have increased, misdemeanor filings decreased, time for disposition of a misdemeanor increased, misdemeanor cases pending on the last day of the fiscal year have increased. The average number of days from filing to disposition is 292.
There must be timely appointment of well-trained, competent, value-driven counsel who have reasonable workloads including appointed and private cases, adequate support staff, and who are committed to client-centered, holistic representation. Performance must be evaluated and supervised. In 2020, 106 attorneys taking misdemeanor appointments in Harris County were appointed to more than the equivalent of 226 misdemeanors when including appointments those attorneys took in other Texas counties.
Discovery is too often delayed. Requests by appointed counsel for funds for investigators and experts are infrequent. Training specific to appointed counsel’s responsibilities is not provided. Diversion is underutilized and has substantial costs for indigents. More appointed counsel should be performing at a higher level.
The interdisciplinary holistic defense model of representation is vital to effective representation of clients charged with misdemeanors.
NAPD’s Doug Wilson said that “misdemeanor data over a 5–6-year period was collected and analyzed. And after review of the considerable quantitative and qualitative information, the Assessment’s 10 Recommendations, all of which are achievable, are:
- Continue to provide representation at magistration for all clients
- Ensure well-trained, competent, independent, client-centered representation
- Ensure timely access to counsel, timely representation and continuity of counsel
- Ensure reasonable workloads
- Promote and encourage an interdisciplinary representation model that includes social workers, investigators and adequate support staff
- Provide effective data-driven management and accountability
- Strategically collect and analyze data
- Create a unified public defense delivery system in Harris County
- TIDC should adopt comprehensive statewide policies and standards for providing legal representation and other defense services
- Create and sustain an appropriate culture for the MAC.”
The full Report is found HERE