State Asks Court-Appointed Lawyers to Work for Peanuts; Will More Poor People Land in Jail? | The Daily Pulp | South Florida | Broward Palm Beach New Times | The Leading Independent News Source in Broward-Palm Beach, Florida


State Asks Court-Appointed Lawyers to Work for Peanuts; Will More Poor People Land in Jail?

Back in January 2011, Charles Harper was facing stalking charges from his terrifically estranged ex-foster dad, Broward Circuit Judge John Bowman. The kid was an adult by then and didn't have much money to speak of, but public defenders were dropping him like a hot potato because of perceived possible conflicts with a sitting judge.

The state has rules for such conflicts: They're forwarded to the Office of Criminal Conflict and Civil Regional Counsel, where other lawyers wait to take the cases. If they too find a conflict, the case is sent to a group of lawyers randomly selected in a process called "the Wheel" to represent the defendant while the state foots the bill.

State legislators trying to save money slipped in a change in the rules that will ask some lawyers to accept a flat fee for their work in exchange for getting the first chance to represent some felony defendants, reports the Herald. That could mean lawyers are paid less than the minimum wage to see cases through court.

Harper eventually landed Broward DUI Attorney Bill Direnzo but chose to plead guilty to put the charges behind him. The PD's office and the regional office had both taken some time to refer him to a lawyer, meaning that he actually went days without legal representation -- and could have gone longer if the case had not been in the media spotlight.

Now, lawyers who agree to be part of the new flat-rate pool will be bound to those rates no matter how much of their time a case takes -- providing the incentive to move a case along quickly, possibly to a plea deal rather than a protracted trial. Current rules allow for flat rates, but lawyers can ask for more money. Under the new rules, that wouldn't be possible.

The one thing that's certain in Tallahassee is that state budgets are way out of whack. This fiscal year, the state has paid $6.5 million over budget to private defense lawyers.

The pro of this move is that the state can save a lot of money and move cut-and-dried felony cases through court without wasting time and resources. The con is that behind each one of those cases, there's a person who is likely to be poor, relatively uneducated, unfamiliar with the legal system, prone to recidivism if chewed up and spat out by a jail term, and forced to navigate the courts based only on what his lawyer says.

Harper, wishing to get out of jail as fast as possible, told his lawyer he wanted to plead, despite the fact that private attorneys the Pulp spoke with had been trying to represent him for free in a trial, due to the sex-abuse allegations that Harper was throwing at Bowman. A lawyer has to represent his client's interests, but in an unfamiliar case that pays only a couple of thousand bucks, maximum, he probably won't try too hard to convince a client to go to trial, no matter how many holes there may be in the state's case.

You're starting to see the potential conflict of interest that public defenders' offices around the country have done such a noble job of hiding: the use of state money to defend somebody against state charges. The PD often maintains a slightly antagonistic role to underscore this. But private attorneys make no pretenses of altruism; that's not their job. Sure, a win is good on a lawyer's record. But when a lucrative personal-injury case is just around the corner, there's only so much they'll be willing to do for a small, fixed fee.

The best solution would be a better way to avoid conflicts in the PD's office -- or a more careful system of evaluating supposed conflicts, which are often declared in an abundance of caution, so that cases don't make it to "the Wheel" in the first place.

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Stefan Kamph
Contact: Stefan Kamph

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