General Question

ibstubro's avatar

Remember Miranda rights? 'If you cannot afford an attorney, one will be appointed for you'? Do you assume that is free of cost?

Asked by ibstubro (18636points) May 21st, 2014

First off, you have to file an application for a public defender and that can range from $10 (NM) to $400 (Ark,).

In some areas, if you plead or are found guilty there is an additional fee. Think about that one. These fees are used to pay public defenders, and if you have a public defender and are found guilty, the fees increase.

Interesting concept.

I have only had experience on one felony trial where the young man had a public defender, and he would have been better off defending himself. At the time, I thought he got what he paid for – as it turns out, he did not.

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40 Answers

Unbroken's avatar

Nothing is free, who else would pay them… As to quality… Well personally most cases I have been close to were straightforward. Might as well represent yourself…

But the guilty paying more… That is new… And seems unjust.

ibstubro's avatar

It was a piece on NPR, @Unbroken, where I have poor luck sourcing. I’m pretty certain the lawyer being interviewed was from New Orleans. I believe there was a $40 application fee, but I’m certain the interviewee said that if the client was ultimately guilty (plead or trial), there was a $45 additional assessment.

I tend to agree with your “Might as well represent yourself…”

wildpotato's avatar

@ibstubro Is it possibly this story?

Christ, that is maddening. What a travesty of justice. How are they getting away with this? It seems like another way for the companies that run jails and prisons to make a bunch more money at the expense of taxpayers.

jca's avatar

I have worked with the court system in the county I work for and I knew already that people have to apply for this benefit, and have to prove that they have a need. I am not sure if there’s a fee to apply or what the rules are, as it was something I didn’t get involved in.

ragingloli's avatar

You have to wonder what you are paying taxes for.

Skaggfacemutt's avatar

What happens if you have no money to apply for a free lawyer?

El_Cadejo's avatar

I heard this story on NPR yesterday as well. I remember hearing this bit

“These fees are used to pay public defenders, and if you have a public defender and are found guilty, the fees increase.”

and just thinking…..well fuck….. why the hell would a public defender ever try and win a case?

jca's avatar

Today’s NY Times has an editorial on it. I tried to link it but could not. It’s called “Pay up or go to jail.”

livelaughlove21's avatar

I know that, when I was working with probation, the judges rarely let the offenders represent themselves, even in a probation violation hearing. If they didn’t have an attorney, the judge would ask why. If the answer was “I can’t afford one,” the judge will ask if they applied for a public defender. If they say they can’t afford the fee to apply ($25 here), the judge goes through a series of questions about how much the offender makes, if they have a job, etc. If they meet the requirements, as most of them did, the judge usually appointed a public defender on the spot free of charge. Sometimes the public defender would ask for a continuance if the case is too complicated to defend that day. In most cases, the judge would push the hearing back.

Of course, I’m not sure that’s how it works anywhere other than Lexington County in South Carolina, but it seemed to be a pretty simple process to get a free lawyer if you truly could not afford one.

jca's avatar

@livelaughlove21: The question is, what happens when someone is represented by a public defender? That seems to be the real issue. They seem to be getting crappy representation.

livelaughlove21's avatar

@jca That’s a common misconception. Public defenders are actually pretty great attorneys, generally. They see all kinds of different types of cases and are familiar with most areas of the law. Their caseloads are too heavy to really give you one-on-one attention, but you get what you pay for. They’re not as incompetent as people make them out to be, though.

jca's avatar

@livelaughlove21: I know the attorneys may be the same attorneys one would pay for if they paid, but at least here where I work, people tell me that when they have a public defender, they don’t meet with him until court, outside or at a desk on the same day. The attention paid to their case is minimal. If someone pays an attorney, from what I know (I have never but know people who have) they meet with the attorney one on one in the privacy of the attorney’s office prior to whatever the event is where they attorney is needed. So the publicly defended get two minutes of face time, the attorney opens the folder in front of them “who are you” kind of thing.

Public defender stories are legendary, not just on Fluther, where people get really bad defense. This is not surprising.

livelaughlove21's avatar

@jca “If someone pays an attorney, from what I know (I have never but know people who have) they meet with the attorney one on one in the privacy of the attorney’s office prior to whatever the event is where they attorney is needed.”

Yeah, and they pay a lot of money to get that kind of attention. Like I said, you get what you pay for. You can’t expect them to just hand over some awesome attorney with a light caseload that has plenty of time for every broke Tom, Dick, and Harry that does something stupid and gets arrested. Miranda Rights say an attorney will be appointed to them – an attorney is appointed to them. What’s the issue? Poor people always end up with crappier products and services – nothing new.

Dan_Lyons's avatar

When I was studying law, our professor, Jack Weaver, one day stated that Justice is a commodity like salt and pepper. The more money a client has, the more Justice he can afford.
I took this to mean that with more money a client will be able to buy extra research on his case by the lawyer.

wildpotato's avatar

@livelaughlove21 “Poor people always end up with crappier products and services – nothing new.”

This is the issue. Justice should not be predicated on wealth.

Also, sometimes people get arrested mistakenly. And sometimes people are arrested who wouldn’t have been arrested if they were a different ethnicity. It is too reductive to call these people stupid, broke Toms, Dicks, and Harrys – simply being arrested is not an indication of guilt, and these sorts of fees (guilty-people-pay-more fee aside) seem like putting the punishment cart before the determination-of-guilt-beyond-a-reasonable-doubt horse. Also, the punishment seems to be disproportionate to the crime – 12 months in jail for being unable to come up with $50 towards court fees on the first day and being deprived of the job needed to pay back the fees strikes me and no doubt many others as wildly extortionate and cruel – though unfortunately not unusual, apparently.

JLeslie's avatar

What a racket. The legal system is a real gem isn’t it? I know lawyers who really care abut justice and fairness, they are not all taking advantage of the system, but the system really does suck in many ways.

livelaughlove21's avatar

@wildpotato You’re right, SOME people are arrested mistakenly. Most are not. Regardless of guilt, everyone has to pay for a lawyer – whether they pay in cash or otherwise, as you’re suggesting. Life isn’t always “fair,” whatever that means. They say fix it or stop bitching about it. I don’t think that it really can be fixed, so I opt for the latter. There are flaws in the system, just like anything else, but plenty of it runs the way it should.

People who don’t have money for whatever reason don’t get to live in nice houses and drive nice cars and send their kids to fancy colleges because they can’t afford it. The same goes for hiring a lawyer. Is it fair? Maybe not, but it’s just the way it is.

I’ve seen judges give probationers that clearly had no intention of doing what they needed to do a million chances to prove themselves instead of sending them to jail where they belong. That’s also a flaw in the system, from the other side. Nothing I can do about it, though.

jca's avatar

It’s a very complacent attitude to feel that because one cannot afford an attorney, one should be satisfied with an increased possibility of being unjustly accused and unjustly sentenced. Wearing Walmart clothes or living in a housing project is one thing but being wrongly accused and/or sentenced improperly because one can only acquire substandard representation is a whole different issue.

wildpotato's avatar

@livelaughlove21 The point is that having a fair trial and judgment is different in kind from the other things on your list – living in a nice house, driving nice cars, and sending kids to college. Those latter three are not rights. Having a chance at justice, on the other hand, very much is.

jca's avatar

@livelaughlove21: and then to say “people should stop bitching about it” is just very unjust.

livelaughlove21's avatar

@wildpotato I’d like some sources that show that these people are getting a shitty deal because they can’t afford a lawyer. Statistics of conviction rates, wrongful convictions, anything that is not just you or some other random person saying “well, I’ve heard a lot of stories about crappy public defenders.” I’m not saying these sources don’t exist, I’d just like to see some evidence that this is a genuine issue before I go any further.

wildpotato's avatar

@livelaughlove21 Here’s a couple to start. And one more, which has a conclusion I think you’ll find interesting (and possibly supportive of your point).

Here’s a report on a study that found an opposite result. That’s not a good reference though, since it’s from an obviously biased source and the link they provide goes nowhere. I’ll keep poking around for a better one; let me know if you find anything too, eh?

What I’d really like to find is a study of whether having a public defender or no attorney leads to these higher fees and punitive jail time for not being able to pay them, not just conviction rates. Point of clarification here you you could probably address for me, actually: these punitive jail sentences for not paying fees, they’re not counted as convictions, right? And so presumably would not be measured in the Mother Jones article’s figures or in those two pdfs, is what I’m thinking…right?

jca's avatar

@livelaughlove21: I just googled it myself and saw the one that @wildpotato linked. There are tons more but I am at work and don’t have time to do major research. Lots of recent articles (NPR, The Atlantic, the Mother Jones one, law journal essays, etc).

livelaughlove21's avatar

@wildpotato Thank you for the links. You’re correct that I do find the conclusion in that article to be pretty decent. I do not, however, know the answer to your question. I have an idea, but I wouldn’t feel comfortable giving you an answer if I’m unsure.

I may be complacent on things like this, and perhaps I don’t worry nearly as much as I should about all of the country’s or world’s many social injustices. And maybe karma will come and bite me in the ass on that one. But my viewpoint is that all I can do is be aware of these things (which is why I asked for sources), because what could little ole me really do about it? As much as I hate to say it as it’s trite, “it is what it is.” I choose not to spend my time worrying about things I can’t change. I work for the wrong kind of lawyer to be helpful in any way on this front.

Unbroken's avatar

This is a bit off topic but talking to what the poor can afford.. I remember there is a fee paying for your incarceration here. I’m not certain if it is per day or a set fee.

I couldn’t find a fee list but here is an article or two on the inmate paying for incarceration.

jca's avatar

@livelaughlove21: On our own, we usually can’t change much. However, first by understanding an issue, we can learn more about it and maybe become passionate about it. Then, if it concerns us, we can band together with others to try to effect change.

livelaughlove21's avatar

@jca Little too optimistic for me. I’m much more cynical. :)

jca's avatar

@livelaughlove21: Yes, I understand that, but to just say “it is what it is” is a little too much in the other direction.

LostInParadise's avatar

What if you can’t afford a lawyer? The point that @Unbroken brought up is really upsetting, people charged for their prison stay. This brings up the possibility of people being imprisoned for not being able to pay their prison fees. I thought debtor prisons went away in the 18th century.

Unbroken's avatar

@LostInParadise I thought so to. American legal and justice system is so reactionary. Youse criminals cost us money…. Not just by your crime but keeping you seperate.. punishing you. So we will defer some of that cost to you. Now we know you don’t have a job that pays more then cents an hour. That you are probably poor, and that you are also undoubtedly uneducated. That you will have difficulties getting a job… And might have other garnishments waiting for your paychecks….. We are getting our money back!!!!

Oh and someone told me yesterday that businesses who hire felons recieve incentives… Which just further boggles my mind. Even though the intent is obvious the method esp when looking at the big picture is so backward.

jerv's avatar

This is American-style Capitalism. Now you know why I seem more liberal than I actually am; I’m a little more actively opposed to this sort of thing than those who cannot foresee the consequences of their ideology.

Paradox25's avatar

Yes, there are usually small fees involved, even where I live. This is one of the reasons why I oppose the death penalty too, because how many poor convicts (potentially innocent) are sitting on death row right now because their public defender inexperienced with capital cases falls asleep drunk during the trial. The wealthy or popular person who may be guilty on the other hand gets a top notch defense team. I had always thought that justice should be one of those areas where price tags should not be put on.

@Unbroken That’s a lot of money a day. You’re paying these fees even if you are found not guilty too. I’m definitely not a bleeding heart when it comes to crime, but I find it despicable to force people to pay for something they’re forced to do. Any laws can be made on a whim where anybody could be incarcerated, and be forced to pay. Profit incentives within the justice system are very immoral to me.

ibstubro's avatar

I wrote the question and left for the day. I just read every response and there was great dialogue there.

I do have to add that I have only served on one felony criminal jury, and I have to say that not only was incredulous that the public defender had a law degree, I would go so far as to say I doubt he has ever seen an episode of Perry Mason or Law and Order. It was maddening sitting there wanting to object and/or ask questions while he sat on his hands. And the prosecutor apparently felt the same…he literally made thing up that went unchallenged. It ruined me on the (at least local) justice system.

Oh, and thanks to @El_Cadejo for seconding my radio experience.

Unbroken's avatar

I was the plaintiff in a criminal case. Or rather the state was but I was one of the victims.

We won the case, rather he pled out. But I left the court house physically sick. Thinking three thoughts: there is no justice to be found in the court house.

The defendant openly claimed he was innocent even as he pled guilty.

My third thought was this was only going to make him worse.

MollyMcGuire's avatar

This has grown from people who can certainly afford an attorney asking for a public defender. Abuse is America’s middle name, didn’t you know.

jerv's avatar

@MollyMcGuire Yep; the poor suffering because the rich cheat. ‘Murica!

MollyMcGuire's avatar

@jerv There are many people who aren’t wealthy but don’t fall into the poor either. The poor who aren’t poor enough to get government benefits seem to be the most likely cheaters sometimes. I don’t have a source, it just kind of seems like common sense to me. I don’t like to lump the entire population into “the rich” and “the poor.” Most people really aren’t either.

jerv's avatar

@MollyMcGuire I don’t require government assistance, but in case you haven’t noticed, lawyers aren’t cheap. So I’m definitely not poor, but I don’t have thousands of dollars sitting around either. Is it really cheating if the only way you could afford a lawyer is to get yourself evicted and unable to buy food? If you’re unable to bear that sort of expense, you’re effectively poor, no matter what your income is.

You’re correct that most people are neither rich nor poor. Maybe “poor” wasn’t the right word to describe those that don’t have fat bank accounts, but I prefer single words over sentence-long phrases. Still, most people who hire a good criminal defense lawyer either are rich, or become poor. It’s not easy for the average person living paycheck to paycheck to cough up 6–12 months income and still make rent. Even 2 weeks pay can throw many into a hole that’s hard to climb out of, making even paying $400 for a public defender an unbearable expense for many.

ibstubro's avatar

Incidentally, I heard a portion of the radio program that @wildpotato mentioned above yesterday. There was a family that turned their teenage son in for being a threat to the parents. The court then assessed the fees against the parents as the guardians of a minor child, ruining the family finances. It boggles the mind.

SecondHandStoke's avatar


Yes, legal representation is indeed a commodity, just like shoes, food, gasoline and yes, healthcare.

Just like the things above you get what you pay for. The more you pay the higher the quality is likely to be. If it’s “free” you shouldn’t expect as much as if you are paying. This should also be understood by those that are publicly housed.

That said, It’s a myth that your public defender is poor at their job simply because of his or her role. Public defenders can be quite talented.

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