Legal help for poor also shackles them

'It's like setting them up to fail'
May. 25, 2014 @ 08:20 AM

A system designed to provide cash-strapped defendants with legal help may actually be hurting their ability to stay out of trouble.

Carolyn Gibson, for instance, couldn't afford to hire a lawyer in 2009 when was charged with driving while impaired after taking Codeine and driving. She was convicted in 2010, placed on probation for nine months, fined $300, ordered to pay $155 in court costs and also ordered to pay the cost for her court-appointed attorney.

"I couldn't make those payments," said Gibson, now 45. "I had bills, house payments and kids to feed. My children were lucky to eat a meal each night. I went to work hungry."

Because she couldn't pay, her probation was revoked, and she spent 45 days in jail. The good news was that serving that time in jail meant she didn't have to pay the fine and court costs. But no such luck on the attorney fee. Now, including the interest that bill continues to accumulate, she owes $340.19, according to the Caldwell County Clerk of Court's office. Until it's paid, there's always the possibility she could be sent back to jail.

The N.C. Office of Indigent Defense Services pays private lawyers to represent people accused of crimes who can show they can't afford to hire a lawyer themselves. But defendants who are found guilty and placed on probation routinely are ordered to repay the agency as part of their sentence, said Monteen German, Caldwell Superior Court trial coordinator.

"It's like setting them up to fail," German said. "The economy we are in, it's unlikely they will ever be able to pay back. It's an imperfect system."

The collection rate by the IDS is abysmally low. During fiscal 2011-12 in Caldwell County, the office collected only 22.5 percent of $169,704 in attorney fees. Statewide, only 13.6 percent of the more than $13.1 million owed was collected.

Court-appointed lawyers are paid radically lower rates than  privately hired attorneys: $55 an hour for district court cases and $60 for most superior court cases. For high-level felonies, the rate goes up to $70 and hour, and for first-degree murder $75, or $85 if prosecutors are pursuing the death penalty. For a typical DWI case, private lawyers in North Carolina typically charge $1,000 to $3,000, while a court-appointed lawyer on average is paid less than $280. Defendants also pay a flat $60 application fee for a court-appointed lawyer, though that fee also is waived if the person is acquitted.

And the court costs those who are convicted are ordered to pay often dwarfs the attorney fees, so court-appointed attorneys often don't even report the full number of hours they worked on a case, IDS executive director Thomas Maher said.

"Many attorneys are reluctant to report the full hours because they feel bad for their clients," he said. "We're not supposed to be putting people in jail for failing to pay, but we are often last in line for getting paid."