AUSTIN – In its recent assessment of a one-of-its-kind pilot project in Texas, in which indigent defendants choose their own lawyer, a national justice research institute found that indigent defendants who chose their lawyer were more inclined to believe they had received procedural justice.
The study, conducted by the Justice Management Institute, a Virginia-based justice-reform research organization, also found that the majority of defendants who were offered the option to choose their attorney did so.
The report, "The Power of Choice: The Implications of a System Where Indigent Defendants Choose Their Own Counsel," was released Thursday.
The Texas Indigent Defense Commission helped implement the Client Choice pilot project in Comal County, between Austin and San Antonio, and financed the institute's evaluation. "The Commission did what no other jurisdiction in U.S. has done," said the Honorable Sharon Keller, the Commission's Chair and Presiding Judge of the Texas Court of Criminal Appeals. "It tested the concept of letting a poor defendant choose his or her lawyer." Judge Keller said the study's conclusions offered promise that the program, designed with input from Comal County judges, has broader benefits.
The consultant who designed the program, Norman Lefstein, law professor and dean emeritus at the University of Indiana McKinney School of Law, credited Comal County judges and the Texas Indigent Defense Commission. "Both were willing to experiment with a concept that is well-established abroad by permitting indigent clients to have a voice in selecting their defense lawyers. The project proved that this can be implemented in the U.S. and that most defendants prefer to exercise choice about the lawyers to represent them."
In counties without public-defender offices, attorneys for indigent defendants are appointed by judges or court administrators. In addition to enhancing defense attorneys' independence, the program is intended to align defense attorneys' incentives more closely with their indigent clients. By giving defendants the option to choose their lawyers, the program's intent was to confront a reputation that appointed lawyers provided on the whole poor quality representation.
The theory is that lawyers chosen by defendants will lead to better representation and those lawyers would be rewarded with more cases.
"The Justice Management Institute's evaluation of the Client Choice program presented an opportunity to test the extent to which affording choice to indigent defendants affects a local criminal- justice system," said Elaine Borakove, president of the Justice Management Institute. "We found little to suggest that concerns about operating a choice model, such as potential case delays or increased costs, had merit."