Lawmakers across country examine the costs of indigent defense

BY Phyllis E. Mann on Monday, May 9, 2011 at 12:42 PM

This brief May 9, 2011 article from the Associated Press, via the Greenfield, Indiana Daily Reporter notes that Tennessee is intensifying its review of billings from attorneys paid to represent indigent clients.  The impetus for this increased examination of costs for defending indigent clients is a short-fall in the fund to pay those costs.  “[A]uditing has been stepped up to conserve money,” the AP reports.

Tennessee is not alone in having insufficient funds to provide counsel for all of the indigent people charged with a crime.  Over the past several months, newspapers around the country have steadily reported budget shortfalls for indigent defense services and state legislatures struggling to meet this constitutional need with dwindling state resources.  On May 3, Channel 3000 reported that public defense paychecks in Wisconsin were delayed due to a multimillion dollar deficit.  Texas legislators have struggled with the possibility of taking funds from its dedicated Fair Defense Account and using those funds instead to balance its budget, as explained in an April 28, 2011 press release from Sen. Rodney Ellis.  A proposed $11.3 million budget reduction for indigent defense services in North Carolina has seen attorneys stepping away from representing indigent clients in counties all over the state, as reported by the Winston-Salem Journal and WXII12.  In Massachusetts, the Governor is suggesting a revamp of the public defense system in an effort to cut $45 million from the indigent defense budget.  Financial times are bad all over, and policymakers are taking a closer look at what tax dollars are purchasing in the states’ indigent defense systems.

Naturally, criminal defense attorneys bristle when it seems lawmakers are suggesting that attorneys are less than honest in their billing or that they are providing unnecessary services in order to increase their pay.  But on closer reflection, those of us who care about indigent defense should welcome policymakers taking a closer look at exactly what our nation’s indigent defense systems require to provide constitutional representation. Good, honest, hard-working lawyers are representing the poorest of the poor in courts every day, and most often doing so at pay levels that at worst do not even cover their overhead and typically provide less pay than that earned by a plumber, a General Motors employee, or an electrician.  If policymakers take a hard look at the bills submitted by these lawyers, they are likely to find that most attorneys are underbilling rather than overbilling.  Policymakers, if they examine the actual tasks performed by these lawyers, may begin to understand exactly what is necessary and required to defend a person charged with a crime.


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