Texas Rural Counties: Criminal Defendants at a Disadvantage

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Facing jail or prison time obviously puts defendants in difficult positions, but this affects some people far more than others.

The two-tiered criminal justice system in Texas puts those in its poorest rural areas at a distinct disadvantage – in addition to the disadvantages these defendants already experience in relation to financial inequalities. Their livelihoods, futures, and ability to continue supporting their families are on the line, and there is not much in the way of a safety net to help them out.

If you are facing a criminal charge, the most important first step you can take to protect your future is to consult with an experienced Killeen criminal defense attorney as early in the process as possible.

A Brief Background

According to The Texas Tribune, the two-tiered system in question was approved into law twenty-two years ago in the State of Texas. At the time, the motivation was – at least in part – to address the ongoing shortage of lawyers in rural Texas areas.

This law stipulates that, in counties with at least 250,000 residents, indigent clients – or those who are “not financially able to employ counsel” – must be appointed an attorney by the court within one day of request. In rural Texas counties, however, the wait can be up to five days.

The system requires Texas counties to enact appointment procedures that determine the qualifications attorneys need to represent indigent clients. In so doing, however, the state afforded rural counties more time to get the job done, which calls the right to counsel of defendants into question.

Criminal Justice Reform Advocates Speak Out

Pamela Metzger, the director of the Deason Criminal Justice Reform Center, shared that changing the law to bypass defendants’ constitutional rights does not make the problem go away or fix it.

Low-income defendants who are residents of any one of Texas’s 200 rural counties are feeling the pinch. These areas tend to have very few practicing attorneys on hand, which translates to delayed representation for those who can’t afford to bring in their own counsel. As a result, indigent defendants are far more likely to face serious consequences such as the following:

  • Spending more time in jail overall

  • Accepting hastily reached plea deals that are not necessarily advantageous

These powerful effects can lead to all of the following overarching results:

  • Job loss, which can negatively affect the defendants’ children and families

  • Loss of child custody, which negatively affects the children themselves

  • Loss of home, which can leave entire families homeless

While rural America has put its shoulder into incentivizing medical professionals and teachers to commit to rural jobs, the same is not true for the legal profession.

A Recent Initiative

Lawmakers are beginning to take notice of this professional discrepancy, and two identical bills were recently filed in the Texas House and Senate that are designed to build programs that afford favorable loan repayment incentives for attorneys who elect to work in rural areas throughout the state.

Rural work tends to mean lower salaries, and it can also limit opportunities. As a result, young lawyers who are shouldering massive student loans generally can’t afford to take on positions in rural areas.

Under the new initiatives in question, lawyers who commit to practicing at least four years in specific parts of rural Texas could receive up to $180,000 toward repaying their student loans.

The overall goal is to tempt young lawyers to put down roots in these areas and continue to serve them throughout their careers, but the financial carrot is considered a critical element of getting them to practice in rural areas in the first place.

If you live in a rural area and need a criminal defense lawyer to defend you, contact one of our skilled attorneys!

Rural Counties Banding Together

Many rural counties throughout Texas have joined together to create joint public defender offices that serve indigent residents. The lawyers who fill these roles, however, have continued to retire, move on, or die, and their numbers are dwindling. As a result, many rural parts of Texas are seriously underserved.

To help shed more light on the problem of insufficient legal representation, Geoff Burkhart – the executive director of the Texas Indigent Defense Commission –┬áhas stated, “If you were to ask me what the number one problem with Texas public defense is today, I would say access to counsel in rural areas.”

How Lawyers Are Appointed

The current two-tiered lawyer-appointing guidelines were created in 2001. The consequence of this law is that, while indigent defendants living in counties with at least 250,000 residents only have to wait one business day to be connected with counsel, those in less-populated counties must wait up to three business days, which can extend to five if there’s a weekend involved.

The law’s intent was addressing the obvious deficiencies in the number of available lawyers in rural counties. Policymakers hoped to address the problem by creating a rotation process for defense attorneys, creating a public defender’s office, or implementing any other viable strategy.

However, rural counties ultimately ended up depriving indigent defendants of their rights by extending the amount of time they’re required to wait for court-appointed counsel.

If this situation sounds familiar to you and you feel you have been treated unfairly, don’t hesitate to reach out to one of our compassionate criminal defense attorneys.

Analysis of the Situation

Analysis of the current system – according to the House Research Organization – finds that “While some areas, particularly large urban jurisdictions, report that they appoint attorneys for indigents within hours or a day or two, in other areas it is not uncommon for defendants to spend weeks – sometimes even months – in jail.”

In 2002, the Texas Attorney General shared his belief that the two-tiered system would not violate indigent defendants’ constitutional right to equal protection under the law. His stance at the time was that the need for uniformity under the law must be balanced with feasibility given the state’s size and given variations related to resources throughout.

Determining Indigency

The State of Texas also lacks consistency when determining who is indigent and who is not. This determination is crucial because it dictates who is eligible to have a court-appointed lawyer and who is not. This primary consideration is determined on a county-by-county basis.

According to the Deason Criminal Justice Reform Center, this approach translated to 181 different standards for appointing counsel to the indigent in 2019. Various plans take a range of variables into consideration when determining indigency, including the following factors:

  • Overall income

  • Overall assets

  • Overall financial obligations

Justice Based on Where You Live

The two-tiered approach that Texas adopted two decades ago concerning who receives court-ordered counsel boils down to two different systems of judgment that are based directly on where the defendants live. Consider the following prime example.

In 2021, there were 216 misdemeanor charges filed in the far west County of Culberson, which is home to about 2,000 residents. However, none of those charged were provided with a court-appointed attorney.

Unfortunately, this is not an isolated event. According to the Texas Indigent Defense Commission, there were 12 other Texas counties in which no one who was facing a misdemeanor charge in 2021 received court-appointed counsel. That same year, 53 Texas counties experienced a 10 percent appointment rate for misdemeanors.

While the appointment rate percentages for felony charges are more in keeping with averages throughout the state, this does not factor in the amount of time defendants languish in jail while they await their legal representation.

Waiting a Week for a Criminal Defense Attorney

The fact is that many indigent defendants in Texas spend more than a week in jail before ever consulting with an attorney. These early days can be critical to building one’s strongest defense for all the following reasons:

  • The sooner legal counsel is obtained, the less chance there is of spending time in jail prior to resolution of the charge.

  • The sooner legal counsel is obtained, the less chance there is that the defendant will inadvertently incriminate himself or herself.

  • The sooner legal counsel is obtained, the better the chance that the charge will be dropped or that an advantageous plea deal will be made.

  • As time passes, exculpatory evidence can be lost or degraded, the memories of eyewitnesses can fade, and the ability to establish an alibi can become more challenging.

With every passing day you spend in jail, it becomes more difficult to maintain the life you have built for yourself and your family on the outside and to protect your legal rights moving forward. If you have been arrested, it is essential that you contact a criminal defense attorney right away. This will give you the best chance of protecting your rights and staying out of jail.

No Shade on Rural Attorneys

Rural attorneys can provide excellent legal guidance and tend to be better attuned to the climate of the criminal justice system in the rural area in question, which leaves them better equipped to successfully navigate these systems. The problem is that there simply are not enough of them to go around.

When you also factor in the fact that these attorneys have their own practices to nurture and that their indigent clients are generally in far-flung locations, which means considerable driving time, it is a lot to take on for a relatively small group of professionals.

Dwindling Numbers of Criminal Defense Lawyers in Rural Texas

According to The Texas Tribune, the number of rural defense lawyers throughout the State of Texas has diminished by 25 percent. The Deason Criminal Justice Reform Center’s research shares the following sobering statistics as they relate to criminal defense attorneys in rural Texas:

  • Fewer than 1 percent of the state’s criminal defense attorneys were practicing in Texas’s 159 smallest counties in 2021.

  • Fewer than half of these 846 attorneys accepted any indigent-client appointments that year.

  • Ultimately, rural defendants are four times less likely to receive court-appointed counsel as compared to indigent defendants in urban settings.

A Moral and Constitutional Obligation

Texas State District Judge Curt Brancheau shared his view that Texas has a moral and constitutional obligation to ensure adequate legal guidance. The problem, however, continues to defy all attempts at easy fixes. Brancheau pointed out that when the state and the defense work together to root out viable answers, you know things have gotten bad.

FAQ about Your Rights

If you have been accused of a crime in Texas, you have questions about your rights. The answers to some of those that are asked most frequently by those in situations like yours can help. If you are facing criminal charges, the most important thing you can do is speak with a skilled criminal defense attorney.

I’ve been accused of a crime. Do I have the right to an attorney?

If the crime you’ve been accused of falls into any of the following classifications, you have the right to an attorney in the State of Texas:

How important is it to have an attorney in the face of a criminal charge?

Protecting your rights to the fullest extent possible is critical to your future, and the surest means of achieving this level of protection is with a dedicated criminal defense attorney in your corner.

When am I entitled to consult with an attorney?

You have the legal right to speak with an attorney in all the following situations in the State of Texas:

  • When you are being interrogated by the police

  • When you’re facing a court hearing

  • When you are involved in a court hearing that’s already begun

If you have been arrested or are being interrogated by the police, it’s time to assert your right to an attorney and your right to remain silent. From this point, it is important that you implement your right to remain silent by actually remaining silent – and standing by for professional legal guidance.

An Experienced Killeen Criminal Defense Attorney Is Standing By to Help

Facing criminal charges is difficult, and every defendant’s path will look slightly different. However, all defendants should receive competent legal counsel, no matter where they live. If you are facing criminal charges of any kind, you need the guidance of an experienced Texas divorce attorney. Call us at (254) 781-4222 or contact us online for a FREE consultation!

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