Mass. Court Addresses Crisis in Indigent Defense
One of the great barriers to equal justice is the inability of poor defendants to afford a lawyer. The Gideon decision was supposed to level the playing field, assuring counsel for criminal defendants who can't hire an attorney, but the chronic underfunding of public defender and other assigned counsel programs has betrayed the promise of that landmark decision.
Recognizing that those accused of crimes have no voice in state government, the Supreme Judicial Court of Massachusetts spoke on their behalf this week, ordering indigent defendants in Hampden County released from jail if they aren't furnished with a lawyer within seven days. After 45 days, charges must be dismissed (subject to refiling if the state gets around to furnishing the defendant with counsel).
The decision is expected to force the state legislature to raise the hourly rate of pay for court-appointed lawyers. Current rates, ranging from $30 to $54, haven't significantly increased in twenty years. Lawyers can't pay their overhead at those rates, providing them with no incentive to take appointed cases. The state's other alternative is to increase funding for the Committee for Public Counsel Services so that it can hire enough lawyers to meet the demand for indigent defense.
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