Jefferson County justice reviewed

Jefferson County justice reviewed

In a recent review on the handling of indigent defendants, many of the current administrators of justice in Jefferson County are being heralded for a job well done in making great strides toward fixing a flawed system.

According to Andrea Marsh of the Texas Fair Defense Project, a review of Jefferson County’s criminal courts conducted by the Texas Indigent Defense Commission (TIDC) documented the existence of indigent defense procedures that, in her words, violated protections for poor people accused of criminal offenses. The fact that a defendant making bail precluded them from attaining court-appointed representation in some courtrooms – contrary to what’s legal and right, said Marsh, was one of the major flaws noted.

While some courtrooms were criticized for the manner in which they administered indigent defense attorneys, Criminal District Court Judge John Stevens drew praise for his work in ensuring that every defendant entering his courtroom has the benefit of legal representation. 

County Judge Branick said that regardless of who’s to blame for the county’s current state of affairs in appointing indigent defense attorneys, judges like Stevens are to be praised for the extra effort they exert to ensure justice is being served in Jefferson County.

TIDC Director James Bethke said that Stevens has been more than accommodating and helpful in its review of Jefferson County’s indigent defense system. “I do appreciate Judge Stevens,” Bethke said, adding that Stevens traveled to Austin to assist with the TIDC review and has been instrumental in providing facts, figures and new ideas for the TIDC to continue its mission. According to Bethke, TIDC employs 10 agents, with investigators from the agency “usually doing desk reviews, maybe one or two site visits per year,” making assistance from insiders such as Stevens invaluable to the effort.

Bethke presented findings from the TIDC review to the Jefferson County Commissioners Court in a workshop on Monday, May 19, stating that indigent defense practices in Jefferson County, according to the reports findings, permanently deprive many individuals of their right to counsel, and that denial of counsel is most stark in Jefferson County’s misdemeanor courts. 

During Bethke’s presentation to Jefferson County Commissioners and County Judge Branick, no one judge or courtroom was singled out for their failure to follow the rules, yet Commissioner Shane Sinegal said that “not naming names” was not benefiting the public, and he wanted to know just who was to blame for the current state of affairs at the courthouse. 

Judge Lindsey Scott, appointed to the 252nd District Court after longtime controversial judge Layne Walker retired at the beginning of this year, said she has made great strides in bringing the 252nd up to par.

“We’re doing a lot of things different at the 252nd,” she said. “We’ve made a lot of changes and we’re open to making more. Some of this has only recently come to light. We’re not removing attorneys for people making bond anymore for one thing — I think that Walker did do that.”

Sinegal said he too heard complaints pertaining to problems noted in the TIDC report that were instigated in the 252nd court. Officials say Walker’s resignation has definitely changed the way processes are being handled in the Jefferson County Courthouse.

“Judges are responsible to develop a local plan. ... The county auditor is responsible for reporting expenditures,” Bethke said. To have the cooperation of either entity is extremely beneficial.

Stevens said he was happy to be of service and would continue to do all that he could to preserve justice in Jefferson County.

“Our goal is to work together,” Stevens said. He did not, however, excuse impropriety by others who may not be as fervent in their pursuit of justice. “Every court has to speak for themselves. Not one defendant out of over 10,000 has had to stand up in my court not having proper legal representation — and in my court, people are not languishing in jail awaiting justice. I believe we (in the Criminal District Court) are exemplary. It’s unique, it’s different, but it works.” According to Stevens, he appoints every defendant in his court legal counsel and the retention of court-appointed counsel does not end just because a defendant is able to make bail. Stevens said it is his goal to ensure a speedy trail, and a fair trial.

“The worst thing in the world is for someone to be languishing in jail for years without trial,” he said. “Shame on whoever is responsible for that.

“I believe we had some changes in the judges in the last few months, and I think a lot of problems have been resolved.”

TIDC’s Bethke said he was hopeful for a resolution in Jefferson County’s indigent defense system, and noted that assistance from Stevens and other judges, combined with the departure of other judges, will benefit Jefferson County as a whole, and TIDC’s goal in particular. Bethke said Jefferson County Commissioners have until early June to address the TIDC report and apply recommendations to indigent defense processes such as ensuring that defendants are given access to indigent defense counsel regardless of whether they are able to make bond.