Need a public defender? Better be prepared to pay up

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Remember that part in the Miranda rights that says, “You have a right to an attorney. If you cannot afford an attorney, one will be provided for you…”? If you’ve watched enough cop shows, it’s pretty standard.

What you may not realize is that in Illinois, as well as 12 other states, “provided for you” means we’ll give you a lawyer now and charge you for it later – up to $5,000 for a felony offense.

Many defendants are swimming in debt to the state, even after they’ve paid for their crime, according to a new report released by the Brennan Center for Justice at New York University School of Law, because of numerous fees the state charges indigent defendants.

Consider Michelle, a person highlighted in the report. She was sentenced to six months in prison and three years probation after being convicted of fraud and drug charges. In addition to her sentence, she had to pay $40,000 in restitution, to pay back those she had hurt by her crime. On a payment plan for the restitution, she was also charged a probation fee. The two together totaled more than $360 a month. She continued to scrape together the money even when she was laid off from her job. After missing one payment, her probation officer told her that if she didn’t pay next month, she’d be sent back to jail.

And because she hadn’t paid her entire restitution by the time her probation ended, her probation was extended – meaning she has to keep paying probation fees.

“I’ve only ever been arrested that one time,” Michelle said.  “I made a mistake. I messed up. And now all of this is still happening. I can’t imagine what it would be like for people who can’t get a job or don’t have the support I have.”

Why are states charging these extra fees? As always, it’s all about the Benjamins. Cash-strapped judicial systems use fees to raise money, causing some to wonder if judges have an incentive to apply fees to poor defendants to make money for their court system.

If you miss a payment in Illinois, you can be sent to a debt collector and be charged up to 30 percent interest for your late payment, says the Illinois code.  These payments and late fees can add up. Take a look at this bill from the state of Pennsylvania where one defendant’s fees added up to $2,464:

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The report says some defendants have waived their right to an attorney because they can’t afford the public defender charges. A judge in Michigan estimated that 95 percent of his misdemeanor cases waived their right to an attorney because they couldn’t afford the costs imposed by the state.

These fees aren’t being leveled against people with resources. The National Center for State Courts estimates that 80 to 90 percent of criminal defendants are poor, too poor to afford a private attorney. And race also plays a huge factor. African Americans are five times more likely to depend on a public defender than people who are white, says the National Council on Crime and Delinquency.

All of this comes as news of the state’s most famous indigent defendant, former Governor Rod Blagojevich, has lost his general counsel.
The state will only pay for two lawyers for poor Blago, quite a bit
fewer than his former 14. Somehow, I think if Rod faces a $5,000 fee,
he’ll easily pay it with reality show appearances and stints on the
talk show circuit.

But for the majority of indigent defendants
in Illinois – those who might have trouble finding any job at all –
being encumbered with debt to the state, even after you’ve paid your
debt to society, is not an easy burden to shake.

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