Who Pays for a Dallas Public Defender?
Who Pays for a Dallas Public Defender?
If you are accused of a crime in Dallas County, Texas and cannot afford a private attorney, you have the right to a court-appointed public defender under the U.S. and Texas Constitutions. But who exactly foots the bill for your legal representation?
Well, it’s complicated. Funding for indigent defense in Texas comes from a mix of county, state, and federal money. Let’s break it down:
Counties bear the primary responsibility for funding indigent defense services. The Dallas County Public Defender’s Office, which was established in 1983 after the landmark Supreme Court case Gideon v. Wainwright, is funded mainly through the Dallas County general fund budget.
In fiscal year 2020-2021, Dallas County allocated over $34 million to the Public Defender’s Office out of its $1.5 billion total budget. This covers the salaries, benefits, training, and overhead costs for around 300 attorneys and staff across the felony, misdemeanor, juvenile, family law, mental health, and appellate divisions. It’s by far the largest public defender program in Texas.
The average salary for a public defender attorney in Dallas is approximately $58,000, ranging from entry-level positions around $52,000 up to around $93,000 for the Chief Public Defender, according to Salary.com. Benefits like health insurance and retirement plans add another $15-20,000 or so per employee. Not a huge amount considering the long hours and heavy caseloads most defenders carry.
The state also kicks in some funding to supplement county indigent defense budgets. The Texas Indigent Defense Commission (TIDC), created in 2001, provides grants to counties to help offset the costs of providing attorneys to the poor. TIDC is funded through court fees and fines as well as a small portion of state general revenue.
For example, in 2020-2021 TIDC granted Dallas County over $5.8 million for its public defender program. This came from a mix of formula and discretionary grants to support additional attorney positions, investigator salaries, social workers, expert witnesses, training, and more.
TIDC also sets standards and policies for indigent defense across Texas. All counties must submit a plan to TIDC detailing how they will provide counsel to the indigent accused in compliance with the U.S. and Texas Constitutions. So TIDC wields some influence, even though ultimately counties decide how to run their public defender offices.
There are a couple sources of federal funds that can be used for indigent defense services as well.
For example, Dallas County receives an annual grant from the U.S. Department of Justice to help support its Felony, Misdemeanor, and Appellate Divisions. In 2020-2021 this grant was around $1.5 million.
Another source is the Texas Emergency Services Trust Fund, which can provide emergency federal funds to counties to cover extraordinary expenses related to indigent defense. However, counties must apply for reimbursement so this is not a regular budget item.
Recoupment of Costs
While public defender services are free up front to those who cannot afford a lawyer, counties can seek recoupment of defense costs after the fact in certain circumstances. However, ability to pay must still be taken into account.
For example, Dallas County charges a $50 administrative fee for appointing counsel regardless of the case outcome. Defendants may also be billed for attorney fees and expenses if they are convicted and not found to be indigent at the end of the case.
However, judges are prohibited from ordering reimbursement of attorney costs if it would impose “undue hardship” on the defendant or prevent them from paying for basic living expenses. Most defendants don’t end up paying anything back.
While this mix of funding streams supports the Dallas County Public Defender’s Office, there are still challenges making sure attorneys have the time and resources to provide effective representation.
Public defenders carry extremely high caseloads – sometimes 200-300 felony cases per attorney per year. That’s more than double the maximum national guidelines. High turnover also leads to a lot of inexperienced attorneys right out of law school.
Insufficient funding can lead to defendants waiting weeks or months for an attorney to be appointed. It also limits access to investigators, experts, and other resources the defense needs to contest the prosecution’s evidence.
There have been lawsuits in several Texas counties alleging public defender systems are underfunded to the point of violating the constitutional right to adequate counsel. Dallas has not seen litigation yet, but faces similar pressures.
- Dallas County foots most of the bill for providing public defenders, with state and federal grants covering about 15% of the budget.
- On average, public defenders in Dallas earn around $58,000 salary plus benefits.
- Defendants may be charged fees after the fact but only if found able to pay without undue hardship.
- Chronic underfunding remains a challenge to ensuring constitutional right to counsel.
So in summary, if you qualify for a court-appointed attorney in Dallas, the cost will be covered by some mix of county, state and federal funds. But you may have to be patient and persistent in exercising your right to counsel!