On. Oct. 12 state legislators joined with community members to congratulate Jefferson County officials for their decision to participate in the Regional Public Defender for Capital Cases, a multi-county collaboration that provides constitutionally required defense services in death penalty cases.
The Jefferson County Commissioners Court unanimously approved joining the program as a way to better manage the costs of capital defense while ensuring that well-qualified defense teams are provided that meet the standards of the Texas State Bar and U.S. Supreme Court requirements.
"Jefferson County took an important step today toward a more effective system of justice," said Sen. Rodney Ellis, Houston, who authored the Fair Defense Act of 2001, overhauling the Texas indigent defense system.
Rep. Joe Deshotel, Beaumont, noted the importance of the program for county budgets.
"Death penalty cases can break the bank in a county," he said. "Through this partnership with other counties, Jefferson County will be able to access the expertise and professionalism of the RPDO, and at the same time control costs and have greater budget predictability."
Lubbock County formed the RPDO in 2008 with a grant from the Texas Indigent Defense Commission.
In exchange for paying annual membership dues, when a member county has a death penalty eligible case, a qualified defense team is provided by the program at no additional cost. Originally open to counties in the 7th and 9th Administrative Judicial Regions, the success of the program led to subsequent grants to expand the program in stages into other parts of the state.
Currently 240 counties across the state are eligible to participate in the program and more than 150 are actively participating. The program provides a mechanism for counties to join together through inter-local agreements to ensure that defendants in these most serious cases are represented effectively.
Earlier this year, the Texas Legislature appropriated additional general revenue for indigent defense for the first time, including $2.6 million over two years for the RPDO. This has allowed the program to reduce participation costs for counties and re-open enrollment opportunities at the reduced rates.