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Providing Better Legal Defence for the Poor in Texas

Resource type: Grantee Story

More than 15 per cent of Texas’ 22 million people live below the poverty line – most of them in rural areas. Texas is one of 16 states that require county governments to provide a majority of funding for indigent legal defence services.

Each county has its own protocol for providing legal defence to the poor. Most use a “low-bid, flat fee” approach, with judges assigning cases to contract lawyers. These lawyers are paid little; provided few, if any, resources for discovery or investigation; held to almost no standards of representation; and given little oversight by the court.

In 2001, the state’s legislature passed legislation to reform indigent defence. While the Texas Fair Defense Act (FDA) addressed only the quality of representation, advocates for criminal justice reform saw a framework for progress in this law. To date, however, FDA-mandated reforms have received only minimal implementation and, in some cases, have been ignored completely by county courts.

Purpose and Impact of the Grant

This grant from Atlantic is facilitating the implementation of the first phase of a six-year coalition effort to reform indigent-defence services across Texas. Participants in the reform coalition include the Texas Defender Service, the Fair Defense Project, the Texas Innocence Network, StandDown Texas and the American Bar Association’s Death Penalty Representation Project. The Washington, DC-based Justice Project is providing leadership and coordination to the coalition.

Over the course of this six-year effort, the coalition members will concentrate on the following five primary activities:

  • Case assistance and impact litigation – including the provision of indigent-defence training to defence lawyers; the provision of trial-level case consulting and “second chair” support; direct representation for the poor; and legal challenges to counties that are not in compliance with the FDA.
  • Research and monitoring – including the documentation of indigent-defence practices and FDA compliance by county; the provision of forensic testing procedures; and the development of research-based reports and tools for public education and legislative campaigns.
  • Coalition-building and strengthening grassroots organisations – including the mobilisation of local and national advocacy groups; and the provision of advocacy training and capacity development for coalition partners.
  • Communications – including the development of a public education campaign strategy; capacity and resource development; and coordinated coalition engagement in public education activities.
  • Administrative and legislative reform campaigns – including the development and implementation of coordinated advocacy campaigns across the state.

The grant also made resources available to coalition partners to develop a local base of sustainable support, both intellectually and financially, for criminal justice reform efforts in the state.

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