After reading Patti Hart's two recent Houston Chronicle articles about the future of the Harris County Public Defender's Office (here and
here), I am once again dismayed that no one in the media or elsewhere is focused on or reporting meaningful data on the effectiveness of either the PD or appointed attorney indigent defense systems.
It often appears to me that the discussions around indigent defense in Harris County focus on the wrong things – namely anecdotes about individual lawyers and cases and the political posturing rather than hard data. Whether one supports a public defender office or the appointment of individual attorneys, the focus should be on the results, not the players. That means that some individual or group has to mine the data and compile, collate, and publish it.
There has been, however, one data point routinely reported - cost. Four years ago, most of the data I saw used by the consultant hired to evaluate the potential of a public defender office in Harris County focused on a single metric – cost to the county per case. While this may be the most important number to some decision makers, it is the least important to the defendants, who are focused on the quality, not cost, of defense. Quality of defense, however, isn't impossible to determine. There are metrics that would substantively address the combined interests and goals of all decision makers and stakeholders.
If those may be summarized as to increase the quality of indigent representation at a comparable cost to the private attorney appointment system, (i.e. which system is the better value) then the metrics that one might use are:
- Average Cost Per Case (including attorneys, investigators, experts);
- Average Sentence Length;
- Non-Conviction or Non-Community Supervision Dispositions (e.g. dismissals, acquittals, pretrial diversions – something akin to conviction rate);
- Appellate Reversals;
- Successful Claims of Ineffective Assistance of Counsel.
The first metric is a discrete number that can be determined based on comparing aggregate data on the two systems as they have performed since the Harris County Public Defender's Office came on-line. The second and third are more difficult as they require crime specific case data which is imperfect, as all cases, even within a specific crime (e.g. Aggravated Robbery, Sexual Assault, etc.) are different (facts, enhancements, etc.), but the broad categories should still provide useful data. The fourth and fifth metrics will take years or a decade or more to acquire data for comparison so are probably not presently useful.
It is more difficult to define metrics of value relating to mental health matters, specialty or diversionary courts. Considering most of these special dockets are relatively new, the specialized nature of their dockets, and focus on treatment, metrics for comparing private v. PDO attorneys focused on results would likely be inappropriate. Similarly, the relationship between the jail population and amount of time cases remain pending are not necessarily indicative of the quality of defense.
It would be refreshing to see some of the various stakeholders in this conversation challenged to produce data supporting their positions. As a voter and attorney, I would be very interested in the results - but not as much as the accused. These are, after all, their cases.
I have been informed by Alex Bunin, the Harris County Public Defender, that "Harris County recently contracted with Council for State Governments Justice Center to create exactly the type of metrics you suggest and more. I expect a preliminary report later this year. Initially, it will probably be limited to the misdemeanor mental health and possibly felonies, until we get more cases completed over at least a year’s time."
I applaud that decision and encourage local media outlets take note. It may not be prudent for the Commissioner's Court to make any big changes to the current course indigent defense is on until that work is done and/or until there is a meaningful amount of data to analyze which requires, at a minimum, more time and opportunities for the PDO to prove it's value. Hopefully there will also be a fair hearing in the court of public opinion.
There is another Houston Chronicle story today on the subject as it relates to Harris County juvenile cases and related reforms. The disagreements quoted in the article over the cost effectiveness of the new office underscore the need for more comprehensive and accurate metrics, which the Public Defender told the reporter should arrive in about six months.