LUBBOCK, TX (KCBD) - After more than a decade of service to those in need of specialized criminal defense, the Lubbock Private Defenders Office has become a model to other Texas counties and their efforts to provide quality indigent defense.
Assisting the mentally ill with legal counsel, it began as the Special Needs Defenders Office in 2008, the first private defenders office in the Texas, according to Executive Director Jim Bethke. He brought the idea to Lubbock from his work with the American Bar Association in San Mateo County, California and his time as director of the Texas Indigent Defense Commission.
“There’s been a resistance in Texas to public defenders, programs or growing government,” Bethke said. “This was a way to improve the delivery of indigent defense services without growing government but still getting the quality controls you get with a defender organization."
As the case loads grew and more funding was secured from the Texas Indigent Defense Commission, the non-profit changed names in 2012 and expanded to all non-capital cases. Legislation was passed with the help of Senator Robert Duncan to provide a blueprint on how to set up similar offices in Texas.
Travis and Collin County have now set up private defender programs, following in Lubbock’s footsteps. Other counties, such as Harris and Bell, are looking into establishing a program and have sent officials to Lubbock County to observe the work of the office.
The office currently operates with six forensic mental health case workers and other specialists for a full-time staff of 10. A panel of 80 lawyers provide defense. Bethke tells KCBD the office receives an average of 175 case referrals per week.
Those referrals come from the Lubbock County Detention Center after the defendant is screened and meets certain qualifications. The process breaks from the traditional public defenders office or jurisdictions with assigned counsel by judges.
“The national recommendations and the models are to have a defender organization where the defense component is independent from the judiciary,” Bethke said. “Lubbock County, we are independent from the judiciary.”
Bethke tells KCBD that the structure of the office, which includes two governing boards, allows for better oversight of counsel and better case monitoring.
“We are making sure the lawyer provides meaningful, effective representation that is required both under our Texas Constitution and the Federal Constitution,” Bethke said.
Lubbock County contracts with the non-profit office to provide the representation. Ninety percent of the office’s funding is from the County and the rest from the State. The county budgets $4.1 million per year. Bethke said in recent years the office has operated under budget and has secured grant funding, including from the National Legal Aid Defender Association which provided AmeriCorps VISTA students to work with the program and modernize the office.
According to Bethke, the overall cost per case in Lubbock County is $450 while the State is at $642 per case. He said those comparisons help them ensure the office is fiscally responsible.
“We are very mindful that there aren’t unlimited resources,” Bethke said. “We need to be accountable and we need to provide good, quality services for the money being spent.”
Charles Lobban tells KCBD that the representation he received in 2017 saved him from spending two years in jail. His charges, including criminal mischief, stemmed from PTSD and his reaction to being inside a building that was struck by lightening. He said he went door to door with a hammer and fire extinguisher looking for help but his mental state was misinterpreted.
“Here they actually cared and took the time to review my case, check all the facts and fought for me,” Lobban said. “That’s the way the justice system ought to be. I love them to death. They’ve been great to me.”
Bethke tells KCBD that the office and other officials in Lubbock County understand that most of their clients will reenter the criminal justice system. That’s why it’s important to have professionals who specialize in caring for them.
“But for their mental health issues, they may not be in the criminal justice system,” Bethke said. “These folks need the extra guiding hand to get the benefits. If you’re able to get them the benefits, able to get them their medicine, able to get them housing, chances are they are not going to be coming back through the system. When people are coming back and recycling through the system, there is a huge cost. Doing it right at the initial stops, you’re going to save a lot of money on the back end. Plus, you’re not just paying for a warm body. You’re paying for somebody who is committed, ethical and providing quality services.”
The Lubbock Private Defenders office now hopes to help surrounding South Plains counties in securing funding for forensic mental health case workers. Bethke also hopes to see work to retool pre-trial services for defendants.