Chief Justice Calls for Legal Aid Funds; Juvenile Justice Reform

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Joint sessions of the House and Senate can feel a bit like childhood birthday parties—everyone’s so excited by the change of pace, it hardly matters why they’re all meeting. Today both chambers met to hear the state Supreme Court Chief Justice give his biennial schpiel. The speech was short (always a plus), but Jefferson crossed traditional party lines in calls for less punitive measures for young offenders and more money for legal aid and indigent defense.

For instance, the chief justice began with a call to soften some of the measures that result in children going into the juvenile justice system. “Sending juveniles away to remote detention centers is sometimes necessary, but it is not the answer to our societal problem,” Jefferson told the assembled lawmakers. He pointed to the disproportionate number of minority and special needs kids who find themselves in legal trouble. 60 percent of incarcerated youths need mental health treatment. While he wasn’t specific on which measures should be changed, Jefferson was clear on his preference for “Criminal records close doors to opporunities that less punitive intervention would keep open.”

Jefferson had tough words for the proposed budget cuts. He called for more legal aid funds to help poor and lower middle class Texans use the civil justice system. The Legislature put $20 million into legal aid last session, but in the wake of a $27 billion shortfall, that money can’t be found in the current proposed budget. Jefferson was adamant on the need for such funds were necessary.

Similarly he criticized the cuts to indigent defense—money that pays for lawyers when defendants can’t afford them. Texas, he said, spends less than most other states per capita on such defenses. The cuts would “drain the system of resources we need to assure indigent criminal defendants get competent lawyers who make the system fair,” he said. 

The rest of the speech was less compelling. Judges have long been demanding that they be appointed rather than elected to the bench. He made the same request this session and then suggested some compromises— no straight ticket voting, longer terms for judges. But his calls for such reforms haven’t been heeded in the past and likely won’t again. 

At least everyone got a break from the hum-drum.