Get Out of Jail Free Cards

Something's rotten in the State of Massachussetts. Accused felons are getting out of jail because the state won't pay lawyers to represent them.

With hourly pay rates for representing indigent alleged criminals the lowest in the country, Massachusetts has been flirting with an indigent-defense disaster for some time. But with lawyers in several counties refusing to take on additional criminal cases, the state's assigned-counsel system is officially in crisis. And although underfunding is always an issue in indigent-defense systems, it is rarely the only problem. The real issue is the kind of indigent-defense system Massachusetts is buying—not how much they pay for it. The focus on pay rates is an unfortunate side effect of leaving the defense of the poor to languish as a low priority. The way the Massachusetts crisis came about, and the narrow terms of the current debate, should be a cautionary tale for policy-makers across the country—many of whom will soon be confronting similar questions.

For indigent criminal defendants, low-paying assigned-counsel systems like that in Massachusetts offer the worst of all possible worlds. They virtually guarantee sub-par representation, since low assigned-counsel rates almost always imply huge caseloads—a nightmare for poor defendants desperately in need of legal attention.

Read more about the crisis here and here. The court-appointed attorneys latest press release is here. The Bristol, Mass. Bar Advocates website is here.

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