Despite our overabundance of lawyers, the United States is actually experiencing a shortage in one critical area: public defenders. According to the Bureau of Justice Statistics, the country needs at least 6,900 more of these court-appointed representatives of defendants who can’t afford legal fees, just to handle the current caseload.
That’s why Comal County Court in Texas is experimenting with an idea that can hopefully alleviate the public defender problem, while providing fairer trials to indigent defendants. They’re calling it “client choice,” which allows defendants to pick their attorney from an approved list of defense lawyers, instead of getting a randomly assigned counsel, as is common practice in most of the country. “By providing indigent defendants with the option to choose their attorney, independence from the judiciary is enhanced and incentives for attorney performance will be realigned to make lawyers more beholden to the interests of their clients,” Edwin Colfax, project manager for the Texas Indigent Defense Commission — which has provided Comal County a $200,000 grant to fund the two-year program — recently told the San Antonio Express News.
The client choice initiative was sparked by a 2010 Cato Institute paper that called for the use of the free market to address the problems in America’s indigent defense system. Currently, 90 to 95 percent of public defenders’ clients end up entering guilty pleas because of their large caseloads and limited resources, ACLU attorney Tanya Greene told Mother Jones. In Comal County, defendants will now receive vouchers to effectively hire their own lawyers. Gina Jones, an area attorney, said that she received $500 for a recent client choice case. The idea is that if her client is satisfied, word of mouth will lead other defendants to pick her name from the list, therefore giving her a financial benefit for a lower-paying defense case. “Even if you’ve got a good reputation, when the court appoints you, it takes time to develop a level of trust with your client,” Jones told the Express News. “If they are allowed to pick us, I think they’ll realize quicker that we are really working for them, not the judge or the DA.”