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Blackwing Offline
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Some states charge poor for public defenders - October 4th 2010, 12:28 AM

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States increasingly are imposing fees on poor criminal defendants who use public defenders even when they can't pay, causing some to go without attorneys, according to two reviews of the nation's largest state criminal justice systems.
A report out Monday by New York University School of Law's Brennan Center for Justice found that 13 of the 15 states with the largest prison populations imposed some charge, including application fees, for access to counsel.
"In practice, these fees often discourage individuals from exercising their constitutional right to an attorney, leading to wrongful convictions, over-incarceration and significant burdens on the operation of courts," the Brennan report concludes.
In Michigan, the report says, the National Legal Aid and Defender Association found the "threat" of having to pay the full cost of assigned counsel caused misdemeanor defendants to waive their right to attorneys 95% of the time.
Three states studied Florida, North Carolina and Virginia have no provisions for the courts to waive some of the fees if defendants can't pay. In Virginia, defendants may be charged up to $1,235 per count for some felonies, the report says.

A separate report of five state justice systems out Monday by the ACLU produced similar findings.
Both studies say the fees are a little-known source of revenue in the criminal justice system that are steadily rising.
"People are emerging from the criminal justice process with significant debts that they cannot hope to repay," says Rebekah Diller, a co-author of the Brennan Center report. "As a result, these fees are creating new paths back to prison for those unable to pay."
Vinita Gupta, the ACLU's deputy legal director, says: "We are creating a two-tiered system of justice in which the poorest among us are punished more harshly than those with means."
But Jim Reams, president of the National District Attorneys Association, says it "seems only fair" that defendants be required to pay.
"Since the vast majority of criminal defendants do not get sentenced to jail, but receive some type of probation instead, their job status and economics can and should change relatively quickly allowing repayment," he says.
David J. Johnson, executive director of Virginia's Indigent Defense Commission, says he has not seen defendants forego representation because of costs.
"I can't imagine that happening in a serious case," he says.
Missouri public defender Justin Carver says the fees sometimes surprise clients who have not closely reviewed court documents outlining conditions of the legal representation.
"We get a lot of calls around tax time," says Carver, referring to clients whose state tax refunds have been "intercepted" to pay outstanding legal bills.
In one case, Carver says, the fees even surprised a judge. Carver says the judge had just offered a defendant the services of a "free" lawyer when he was told that the service wasn't exactly free.
"He was floored," he says.


Do you think they should be charged?


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