NCPA - National Center for Policy Analysis


August 29, 2005

More than 40 years after the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that every person charged with a crime is entitled to legal representation -- provided by the government, if necessary -- the promise is an empty one for many low-income defendants, says USA Today.

Today, legal services usually are provided to poor people in one of two ways: by salaried lawyers working in taxpayer-funded public defender's offices or by private attorneys assigned and paid by a court.

Across the United States, examples of an overburdened, underfunded public defender system abound:

  • In Virginia, caps on fees paid to court-appointed lawyers are the lowest in the nation, say observers; fees on a felony that carries a sentence of 20 years or less are capped at $428, while defenders whose clients face felonies with a sentence of more than 20 years can be paid no more than $1,186.
  • In Wisconsin, more than 11,000 poor people annually go to court without representation because anyone who makes more than $3,000 a year is considered able to afford a lawyer, says Ellen Berz, head of the Madison public defender's office.
  • Nevada caps defenders' fees in death-penalty cases at $12,000, and it is the only state that does not allow the payment limits to be waived in such cases, say observers.
  • In Louisiana, the Lake Charles public defender's office was sued by nine defendants who say they have waited years to go on trial.

"If you've been sitting in jail for two years waiting to go to trial, you've lost your job, your housing, you're horribly in debt," says Melia Brink, a lawyer at the National Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers in Washington.

Source: Laura Parker, "8 years in a Louisiana jail, but he never went to trial: Poor sometimes languish behind bars as they wait to see lawyers; public defenders' offices swamped," USA Today, August 29, 2005.


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