Unpaid attorneys mean unrepresented clients

Jessica Jackson 

While the Sixth Amendment to the U.S Constitution affords individuals the right to counsel, lately it seems that counsel’s right to compensation for their work has been forgotten.  As many States continue to struggle with making tough budget cuts, one area seems to be getting cut across the board: indigent defense.

Last week 42 criminal defense lawyers in North Carolina withdrew from the court appointment list after learning that their hourly pay was to be reduced from $75 an hour to $50 an hour, a decrease that would make covering overhead and paying their own bills significantly more difficult.  In Iowa, many court appointed defense attorneys are struggling to keep their office doors open and pay their staff as they wait for the legislature to approve funds that will pay them for past work on cases and reimburse their expenses.  In Philadelphia, capital defense attorneys decided to take matters into their own hands and filed a suit against the city, claiming that court-appointed attorneys in capital cases are so poorly paid they violate the defendant’s right to effective counsel.  Court-appointed defense attorneys in federal cases have suffered budget cuts as well, frequently waiting months to receive payment for casework.

Meanwhile, across the aisle, prosecutors from District Attorneys’ offices continue to receive their paychecks, enabling them to move forward with criminal cases.  Unlike court appointed defense attorneys, prosecutors don’t have to worry about doing work they may not be paid for or about balancing paying work with court appointed work.  This creates an unfair balance in the courtroom, results in a blatant violation of Gideon,  and weighs heavily against already disadvantaged defendants.

Several recent reports have demonstrated valid options for alleviating the budgetary crisis in the States.  These options include diverting and reclassifying misdemeanors (saving a billion dollars per year), cutting the death penalty (saving a billion dollars in five years in California), and federal intervention. However, it seems that protecting the rights of the indigent and their counsel is falling by the wayside as politicians continue to fight over the budget.

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