Law School News

South Texas College of Law Houston Receives Nearly $1.3 Million to Launch Criminal Defense Certification Program

South Texas College of Law Houston recently received a $1.27 million multi-year gift to launch a Criminal Defense Certification Program to develop a pipeline of well-trained defense attorneys to effectively represent indigent criminal defendants in Houston’s courts.

Funded by an anonymous donor, this unique pilot program is the first of its kind in the state and has the potential to significantly impact the criminal defense system in Texas. The program could be replicated by other law schools located near court systems that use court appointments to handle indigent defense work all across Texas, and potentially, the nation.

“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 South Texas College of Law Houston. “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.”

Newly licensed criminal defense attorneys often struggle to meet the experience minimums required by the Harris County courts; therefore, it can be difficult for these lawyers to break into the system, and the quality of indigent criminal defense in the city suffers as a result.

For example, in 2016, 451 attorneys accepted nearly 70,000 indigent appointments of counsel in the district and county courts in Harris County alone. The top 10 percent of these attorneys — 46 individuals — 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.

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 impact of these experience requirements is felt in the continually exclusive list of aging criminal defense attorneys who meet the appointment qualifications, and the growing list of young attorneys — eager to provide quality representation to indigent defendants — who end up disillusioned by the process and pursue careers in other areas of law that are less-exclusionary and more profitable.

“Clearly, the system is broken,” said Burnett. “With the Harris County Public Defender’s Office only able to responsibly take 9 percent of the indigent criminal cases, there are too many convicted individuals left asking, ‘What if…’”

The law school’s Criminal Defense Certification Program aims to right this wrong — from the outset of a future defense attorney’s legal education, through his or her first year as a mentored, practicing lawyer.

Law students interested in criminal defense can opt into the program beginning their second year, which includes focused study on criminal law and procedures. These students also will participate in a year-long Criminal Defense Clinic — a new addition to the school’s Randall O. Sorrels Legal Clinics — in which they, working alongside criminal defense attorneys on staff who are themselves included on the county’s indigent appointment list, will gain valuable practical experience in advocating for actual clients.

Then, following graduation, the new lawyers will receive hands-on mentoring from Houston-area criminal defense attorneys participating in the program to help ease their transition into practice. This extended mentorship program effectively will transform law students interested in entering the indigent criminal defense profession into qualified and practice-ready attorneys eager to provide passionate advocacy for their clients.

“This program is an exciting opportunity to bridge the gap between legal education and practice in a novel way, benefitting both law students and their future clients,” said Burnett.

After completing the final year of the program and post-graduation mentoring, participants will receive a certificate attesting to their satisfactory completion of the Criminal Defense Certification Program.