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Newsmonger: The wheel of (in)justice, San Antonio's Finest

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The wheel of (in)justice

In the quiet fight between judges and commissioners over how to tackle indigent defense in Bexar County, one side's starting to drop some troubling data challenging the current system.

Bexar's courts use an indigent defense system known as "the wheel," a rotating list of attorneys approved by misdemeanor and felony court judges. In a perfect world, poor defendants would always be assigned lawyers through pre-trial services, but for a host of reasons outside a judge's control, defendants often show up in court without an attorney, meaning judges have to appoint from the bench.

But recent numbers from county judicial services show a small number of attorneys are handed far more cases than others, as Elaine Wolff first wrote this week at Plaza de Armas. The average number of cases assigned to attorneys each month on the misdemeanor wheel is 6.7. A dozen attorneys in August were assigned cases at three times that average, past the threshold that usually makes the Texas Indigent Defense Commission start to worry.

The data complied by Bill Wiehl, a senior analyst with judicial services, also surveys outcomes for defendants with appointed attorneys versus those who could afford to hire one in Bexar County's misdemeanor courts for the first nine months of 2012. Defendants appointed an attorney were more likely to plead guilty or no contest to charges (34.9 percent of cases versus 24.1 percent with hired attorneys) and less likely to have their cases dismissed (34.9 percent versus 36.9 percent). More jarring are numbers showing defendants assigned to the courts' top 27 "frequent fliers," as Wiehl calls attorneys with the most appointments, were much more likely to plead to charges (52.3 percent plea rate versus 24.1 percent with hired attorneys) and much less likely to have cases dismissed (25.8 percent versus 36.9 percent with hired attorneys).

A scathing 2010 evaluation of Bexar County's system pinpointed problems with the wheel, among them being cases weren't assigned in a "fair, neutral, and non-discriminatory manner." Meanwhile, E-N and WOAI investigations suggested a link in some courts between attorneys with high caseloads – therefore banking more in court-appointed fees – and campaign contributions to judges.

Thus began commissioners' attempts to push us away from the wheel, likely toward some type of managed assigned counsel system, modeled on a highly-regarded program out of California's San Mateo County – a so-called private defender's office, where an independent organization would assign cases to attorneys rather than judges.

"We don't think the present system is operating properly," contends Wiehl. "What we're looking for is someone to step forward to train attorneys on how to handle cases in misdemeanor court, to mentor them, to provide investigative services."

County Court at Law Judge Jason Wolff naturally resists efforts to tell judges how to run their courtrooms, and says problems highlighted in 2010 have largely been resolved, pointing to the county's most recent and glowing evaluation by the TIDC this summer. "[The TIDC] came back and, quite frankly, told us we kicked butt, that we'd fixed things," Wolff says.

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