NEW BRAUNFELS — Comal County will seek a grant to establish a groundbreaking program designed to improve the courtroom defense provided to accused persons too poor to afford their own attorneys.

“Here we go again, with Comal County being the leader in the state,” said County Judge Sherman Krause.

Edwin Colfax of the Texas Indigent Defense Commission (TDIC) said the program would not only be the first in the state but in the entire United States.

Comal County is required by state law to provide defense counsel for poor defendants charged in state cases — and spends about $630,000 a year to do that. But, according to the Texas Public Policy Foundation, indigent defense services in Texas are of “notoriously poor quality.”

So county commissioners on Thursday approved applying for a two-year, $200,000 TDIC pilot program that would improve indigent defense services locally.

“It’s a system that is used in some other countries, like England and parts of Canada,” Colfax said. “It’s a relatively simple idea, but it just hasn’t been tried. We’re excited about it.”

Currently, Colfax said, if someone charged with a criminal offense can’t afford to hire a lawyer, local judges appoint a attorney. “The judge has a running list, a wheel, of attorneys who are qualified to serve and who will take appointments,” he said. “The attorneys take turns.”

Under the proposed system, Colfax said, a defendant would be allowed to choose his or her own attorney.

“The notion being that if you introduce those kind of market forces, then generally the system will operate better,” Colfax said. “The idea is that once the defendant has the ability to make a choice, the incentives are aligned so that the attorney has more reasons to work hard for their defendant — so that they’ll continue to get business.

“The system provide an additional incentive for attorneys to perform well.”

He said Comal County is right for the pilot project because the local justice system is “very interested in opportunities to innovate.”

“The willingness of the stakeholders is necessary to make something like this work,” Colfax said. “The local Bar was generally supportive. And the size of the jurisdiction makes testing a new process like this manageable. It’s neither too big nor too small.”

The program would include training and mentoring for local attorneys who take indigent cases. The program would begin with an organizational meeting next month. During the coming year, a manual would be developed, training held and other preparatory work done. The program is scheduled to go into effect in local courtrooms in early 2014.

Austin-based TDIC was established by the Legislature in 2011 to provide financial and technical support to counties to develop and maintain quality, cost-effective indigent defense systems.

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