South Texas College of Law in Houston, TX.
South Texas College of Law in Houston, TX. (Credit: RTex via Wikimedia Commons)

South Texas College of Law Houston has received a $1.27 million gift aimed at launching a criminal defense certification program, which is meant to train defense lawyers to more effectively represent indigent defendants in the city’s courts.

The money came from an anonymous donor, the school said in a statement, adding that it would be the first program of its kind in the state.

The program would be geared toward preparing lawyers to meet the minimum experience requirements to be appointed as counsel for indigent defendants, the school said.

“Without enough trained advocates to provide quality criminal defense at the trial level, indigent defendants have no real chance at justice and due process,” said Catherine Greene Burnett, vice president, associate dean and professor of law at the school. “This program aims to increase the number of qualified defense attorneys who can accept court appointments—as approved by local criminal court judges—and provide client-centered representation and ardent defense.”

Burnett said newly licensed criminal defense lawyers often find it difficult to meet the experience requirements required by the Harris County courts, which affects the quality of representation that indigent defendants receive.

The school said that in 2016, 451 attorneys accepted about 70,000 indigent appointments of counsel in the district and county courts in Harris County. The top 10 percent of these attorneys accepted indigent court appointments for more than 375 cases each over the course of the year. A report issued by the Texas Indigent Defense Commission in January 2015, “Guidelines for Indigent Defense Caseloads,” suggests an indigent defender’s annual caseload should be closer to between 77 and 236 cases, depending on the level of offenses handled, the school said in its statement.

To join Harris County’s list for indigent appointments in criminal court, an attorney must have at least four years of practice experience in criminal law, with at least four felony jury trials acting as lead attorney, that are tried all the way to verdict, the school said.

The experience requirements have led to the creation of an exclusive list of older attorneys, with younger one disillusioned with the process, the school said.

“Clearly, the system is broken,” said Burnett, noting that the Harris County Public Defender’s Office can only reasonably handle about 9 percent of indigent cases.

Law students can join the program, which focuses on criminal law and procedure, in their second year. Students in the program also will participate in a yearlong Criminal Defense Clinic—an addition to the school’s Randall O. Sorrels Legal Clinics—in which they work alongside criminal defense attorneys on staff who are themselves included on the county’s indigent list.

After graduation, the lawyers will be mentored by Houston-area criminal defense attorneys to help ease their transition into practice, the school said, adding that the mentorship program will produce attorneys who are prepared for defending indigent defendants in court.