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The Official Publication of the County Judges and Commissioners Association of Texas

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Issue No. 92
April 2012

Fort Bend County to Establish Mental Health Public Defender Office

August 2009

At its June meeting the Task Force on Indigent Defense (Task Force) awarded $517,824 to Fort Bend County to establish a mental health public defender office to serve indigent defendants with mental illness.

“Mentally ill defendants present special challenges to their attorneys, as well as to the criminal courts system,” said Sharon Keller, presiding judge of the Court of Criminal Appeals and Task Force chair. “The specialized skills and support services that will be developed for the Fort Bend mental health public defender office will help assure better outcomes for the clients and the community as a whole.”

Staffed with attorneys, case workers and social workers, the office will represent defendants with mental illness in misdemeanor cases. The program will help connect them to available services and treatment options. The office also will seek solutions to transfer and keep defendants with mental illness out of the criminal justice system.

“Establishing the Fort Bend County mental health public defender office is a major step forward in ensuring fairness in our legal system for a segment of the population that is often overlooked and underserved,” said Sen. Rodney Ellis, D-Houston. “This office will go a long way toward protecting the constitutional right to counsel, as well as connecting mentally ill persons with services and resources that should reduce their involvement with the criminal justice system in the future.”

Dr. Tony Fabelo, director of research for the Justice Center of the Council of State Governments, has been working with Fort Bend officials to develop more effective diversion strategies for defendants with mental illness.

“The mental health public defender funded by the Task Force supports local efforts already underway to create a more effective system to identify mentally ill persons who pose little threat to public safety and divert them into treatment,” he said.

The Task Force also awarded $33,450 to Parker County to fund an indigent defense coordinator position. The indigent defense coordinator will be bilingual in Spanish and English and screen defendants to determine if they are eligible for a court appointed attorney. The indigent defense coordinator will appoint counsel for those who qualify and will ensure attorneys contact their clients within the legally required timeframe.