An interesting story also featured at Talk Left
An impoverished Mississippi county is suing the State to provide more funds for the defense of indigent criminal defendants. The County's current annual budget for indigent criminal defense fees and costs is $32,400.00. (The Mississippi A.G.'s office says $38K.)
Here in Quitman County, on the other hand, two lawyers are paid $1,350 a month each to represent every indigent defendant who comes along. In the first nine months of 2002, there were 45 cases involving serious charges; in all of 2001, there were 20; in 2000, 35. The fee is to cover trials, appeals, investigators, experts and every kind of overhead.
So that's $540 to $1,620 per case. Although more detail would be nice (what kinds of crimes are involved, whether court fees are waived for the criminal defendants, etc.), its clear that the accused are not getting much of a defense in Quitman Co. And the flat fee structure certainly doesn't give the defense counsel any incentive or reason to spend much in preparing a defense.
Interestingly, Arnold & Porter is representing the County in their suit. 40 years ago, that firm represented Clarence Gideon, the indigent criminal defendant in the historic Gideon v. Wainwright case, in which the Supreme Court held that the Constitution "guaranteed all persons accused of a serious crime in a state court the right to counsel regardless of ability to pay."
Not surprisingly, Arnold & Porter is representing the county pro bono.If it were any other way, the County would blow through $1,350 at Arnold & Porter regular hourly rates before the first morning was over.
The hard questions: Can you determine the competency of a defense as a dollars and cents proposition? Paying more to appointed defense counsel won't necessarily ensure that counsel puts more effort into the case. On the other hand, government oversight and approval of expenses doesn't seem to a solution, since its the county that's trying to convict and save money in the first place. (It could also lead to disclosure of defense strategy.) And a judge can't allocate money the County hasn't budgeted.
The Mississippi A.G. says the County should hire a full-time Public Defender. An annual caseload of 20 to 35 cases might be managable for one attorney (depending on the seriousness of the cases), but could you get anyone competent to fill the job for $32K minus necessary expenses?
I have no solution, but its abundantly clear that the current system doesn't work.
Bonus Quiz Question: What was Clarence Gideon's crime and what was the ulitimate outcome of his case?