Beginning this fall, indigent defendants in Comal County, Texas will be able to use vouchers to hire any qualifying attorney to defend them. The program is called ‘client choice’ is in the pilot phase as the county monitors the quality of the services the defendants receive.
According to the Texas Indigent Defense Commission’s executive director James Bethke, the program is based on an article written by David Friedman and Stephen Schulhofer, law professors at Santa Cara University and New York University respectively. The story was recently reported in the New York Times. The Times referred to the payment system as Gideon Vouchers.
Bethke explained that the program was brand new, but they have some excellent guidelines. One very important one is the lawyer must be qualified in order to participate in the program. Defendants will not be able to simply select just anyone with a law degree. The program is an attempt to give defendants the option to choose a private attorney to represent them rather than a legal aid attorney assigned by the county.
The program is designed for both the defendant and the state to get the best legal services for the money spent. It’s a step into uncharted territory. Bethke pointed out that it had never been used before. Depending on the results, this experiment in Comal County, Texas can have national implications. It can form the basis of a model that can be used in other places across the country.
This free market approach to indigent defense has great potential. The outcome of the Comal County, Texas pilot program is being watched with great interest by people involved in indigent defense and others in the legal profession. It is another step in the battle to provide indigent defendants with the best legal representation possible.