Greening Criminal Legal Deserts in Rural Texas
Texas’ rural communities urgently need more prosecutors and public defense providers. Many rural prosecutor’s offices cannot recruit and retain enough staff, so the Constitution’s promise of equal justice for all remains unfulfilled. This policy brief outlines three solutions to recruit more criminal lawyers to serve rural Texans: Educational pipelines, financial incentives, and rural public defender offices. Rural Texans deserve the same constitutional protections as their urban and suburban counterparts. With strong recruitment strategies, targeted incentive programs, and new rural defender offices, Texas can green its criminal law deserts.
Texas' shortage of rural criminal lawyers is dire. Rural Texans charged with misdemeanors are four times less likely to have a lawyer than urban defendants. The lower volume of cases prosecuted in rural counties does not lessen the severity of their criminal law deserts. On average, Texas’ most urban areas have 28 lawyers for every 100 criminal cases, but rural areas only have five. In 2021, only 403 rural Texas lawyers accepted an appointment to represent an adult criminal defendant. In 65 rural counties, no lawyer accepted an appointment. And the problem is getting worse. Since 2015, Texas has lost one-quarter of its rural defense lawyers. Many of them retired and have not been replaced.
Mapping Criminal Legal Deserts
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At all levels of the educational system, there is too little information about rural legal careers, and there are too few opportunities for hands-on learning in rural areas. Educational pipelines can help Texas grow its own rural criminal lawyers.
New attorneys who are interested in rural criminal practice may be discouraged by low salaries, particularly if they have high educational debt.Financial incentives can make rural practice more appealing for full- and part-time criminal law practitioners.
Solo rural practice is daunting for new lawyers, particularly if their work involves high-stakes criminal cases for indigent Texans.Full-time public defender offices provide new lawyers with training and supervision in an environment that offers reliable salaries and traditional support services.
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Prof. Pamela Metzger
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