Who's Paying Your Lawyer?
They say there's no such thing as a free lunch. This observation exposes
the truth that everything costs something. What might be free for you
may have been paid for by others which raises questions about what that
unknown other person bought for you. In New York, you become eligible
for the public defender in a criminal case if you make less than $12,762
for single person or $17,112 for a family of two with no other significant
assets (stocks, bonds, property). For people in this situation who don't
hire an attorney, they would be represented by legal aid which is the
most common public defender in New York City.
Most of the country's public defenders rely on taxpayers to cover the
cost of hiring and training attorneys. Because asking a taxpayer to pay
for someone else's criminal defense isn't popular during campaign
season, politicians are under intense pressure to cut funds to the public
defender or avoid giving the public defender adequate funds. The
New York Times recently reported that when criminal defendants in New Mexico go to court
and say they can't afford a lawyer, the State says that neither can
they. Criminal defendants are then forced to defend themselves in court
often resulting in lopsided outcomes. In New Mexico, according to the
Times, this is partially because of falling tax revenue caused by the declined
in the oil industry. The top public defender in Hobbs City felt so stressed-out
about the situation that he told his public defenders representing 200
defendants each to stop taking any new cases. Some interesting highlights
from these overburdened public lawyers were discussed such as that a typical
- was handling 200 criminal defendants or more at a time
- only has a few minutes with his or her client before being forced to negotiate
critical decisions such as a plea deal or jail sentences
- was unable to adequately prepare for hearings or evaluate the evidence
against their clients
- was unable to draft and file critical motions needed to protect their clients
It's worse in New York. Here, you are often sharing a legal aid lawyer
with 400 other criminal defendants, almost twice the New Mexico rate which
is causing this catastrophe (in 2014 legal aid attorneys were supposed
to transition from caseloads of 600 to 400, still well above what can
be properly handled by one lawyer working 9 to 5, Monday through Friday
with time off for holidays, vacations, and sick time).
Many cities, apparently, have money to spend on the police and district
attorney (the prosecutor) but nothing left over for public defenders.
This means that there's plenty of police to make arrests which are
then transferred to a system of few public defenders who are sometimes
so overworked that they can't remember their client's names. This
makes sense if you think about it from a politician's point of view.
Which is easier to convince taxpayers to pay for, more police officers
or more free lawyers for the people who are arrested? It's certainly
not the right outcome, though.
Unfortunately for people heading to criminal court alone, they may receive
a record or jail time that, if they were able to afford a lawyer, could
have been avoided.