Charging for Public Defense? Democracy Pays the Price

By Dr. Niaz Kasravi, NAACP Senior Manager for Law Enforcement and Accountability

Originally posted at TheGrio.Com

The right to an attorney for people who are unable to pay for one is guaranteed by the 6th Amendment of the U.S. Constitution and reinforced by the 1963 unanimous Supreme Court decision in Gideon v. Wainwright. Or is it? Two reports released this week (by New York University's Brennan Center for Justice and the ACLU) highlight the increasing trend for public defender offices in states throughout the nation to impose fees on poor criminal defendants even if they are unable to pay.

According to the data, of the 15 states with the largest prison population, 13 charge some sort of fee for public defense. The findings show that in three states -- Florida, North Carolina, and Virginia -- the courts offer no provisions to waive fees for those who cannot pay them. In Virginia, defendants can face a fee of up to $1,235 per count for some felonies. In Michigan, misdemeanor defendants waive their right to an attorney 95 percent of the time, for fear of having to pay fees they cannot afford. This ultimately defeats the purpose of the American indigent defense system.