Broken Cogs

The wheels of justice in the public defender's office grind up a few lawyers

The problem, as Price and other commissioners had noted, was that criminal court judges were using public defenders less than before. In 2006, Dallas County criminal district judges assigned just 38 percent of their cases to the public defender's office. For Lollar, the explanation was simple: His office was understaffed.

In response to these complaints, the public defender's office asked the Texas Task Force on Indigent Defense to review their performance and the cost-effectiveness of the appellate division, which county commissioners were considering abolishing. The task force concluded that the appellate division was not only efficient, but that its attorneys often performed a higher level of service than lawyers from the private sector.

The report concluded that according to the county's own data, public defenders handling misdemeanor cases were taking on an average of 100 new cases each month at a cost of $77 per case, compared with $150 per case appointed to private counsel. For felony cases, each lawyer in the public defender's office was averaging 31 new felony cases per month, at a cost of $314 per case compared with $380 per case assigned to private attorneys.

Lawyer Mike Howard says an overburdened caseload drove him out of the county public defender's office.
Lawyer Mike Howard says an overburdened caseload drove him out of the county public defender's office.

For attorneys like Howard, the report was vindicating, but he says it did little to change the way commissioners wanted the office run. When Lollar was forced out on June 10, he says, he could see the writing on the wall.

"There was no way I could zealously represent my clients, which is the ethical responsibility of a public defender, and carry the number of cases they were asking me to," Howard says.

But Price says this wasn't the case at all.

He says the commissioners never instituted a quota system. The goal, he says, is for felony attorneys to take on 30-40 new cases a month, but with an understanding that those carrying cases moving toward trial will not be able to do so.

"I'm unapologetic," Price says of the changes at the office. "I'm in charge of the budget, and I asked for information and shared it with my colleagues. They can call that micromanaging, but I was just doing my job."

As a result, the county commissioners are no longer looking at closing down the appellate division of the public defender's office. And while Lollar insists there is a quota, he says he has been told that it has been scaled back to 35.

These changes are encouraging to Lollar, but he says it's only a start.

"I keep thinking of the I Love Lucy episode where Lucy and Ethel are in the chocolate factory and the conveyer belt keeps going faster and faster," Lollar says. "Pretty soon it's going so fast they can't keep up and the chocolate is falling off the belt and getting squashed."

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