NCPA - National Center for Policy Analysis

FREE LAWYERS FOR POOR COSTING CITIES MILLIONS

April 1, 2005

Free legal representation comes easier to Texas indigents than free medical care, driving up costs for taxpayers, say observers.

Under Texas law, low-income defendants must be provided with a free attorney within four days of being arrested. To qualify as indigent, the head of a family of four can make no more than $24,187; for single persons, the cut off is $11,962.

But because income levels are often not verified, state officials say that it has become too easy for the poor to get free representation:

  • Since the law went into effect, indigent legal costs statewide have risen by 50 percent.
  • In Harris County (the greater Houston area), indigent legal representation cost taxpayers $19.7 million.
  • In Collin County (suburban Dallas), taxpayers paid $5.3 million in legal fees in 2004 for the poor; by contrast, the county spent less than $1 million on indigent health care.
  • Collin County is on pace this year to spend $8.4 million on private lawyers for poor defendants.

Rather than disposing of cases sooner, the law gives legal firms a perverse incentive to drag out the cases for as long as possible in order to bill more hours, says observers.

Source: Ed Housewright, "Lawyer burden soaring in Collin County," Dallas Morning News, March 28, 2005.

 

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