Wednesday, February 17, 2010

Poor to Pay for Public Defender Fees

I-Team: Accused Assessed Fees to Pay for Public Defense
Posted: Feb 16, 2010 8:37 PM EST Updated: Feb 17, 2010 10:34 AM EST

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I-Team: Accused Assessed Fees to Pay for Public Defense

Damen Bentley is about to learn the value of competent criminal defense.

Convicted for a third time on charges related to domestic violence, Bentley explains to District Court Judge Jennifer Togliatti his failure to actually stab his wife means he faces probation for nothing.

"Every once in a while I hear a defendant make a statement and it makes it harder to follow the deal, every once in a while," she said.

Bentley's perspective almost lands him in prison. Almost, thanks to his attorney.

"He should've stopped after, ‘I'm sorry for the victim and I apologize to the state,'" said Togliatti.

After a few precarious moments, and a few persuasive words, Togliatti approves probation and orders Bentley to pay $250 toward the cost of his defense.

"I think that there's zero downside for a defendant to know that they need to be accountable when they commit a crime and be required to pay some portion of their representation," said Togliatti.

At their discretion, judges may now impose a fee, anywhere from $100 to $750 to offset the cost of the public defender and other court-appointed attorneys. The service used to be free.

"This is truly a trial and error process," said Clark County public defender Phil Kohn. "The problem is we defend poor people, and that certainly is not going to be the answer to our problem, is having poor people pay for public defender offices."

A recent study found the Clark County Public Defender's Office is 90 attorneys short of national caseload standards. With an average of 17,000 clients a year, even a minimum contribution from some of them could add up to hundreds of thousands of dollars.

"This is my big concern; someone who's in custody and then they end up going to prison. So if we're going to charge them money, so when they get out of prison they have this debt they have to pay. They're just going to end up back in prison," said Kohn.

Unlike restitution for victims, indigent defense fees are a civil assessment, meaning a client can't go to jail for failing to pay. Instead, the court compliance office will act like a collection's agent.

Togliatti argues, like the gambler convicted of failing to pay his casino markers, many who come before her in court can afford to contribute something, even if they can't pay a private attorney.

"Clearly they're getting more than they're being assessed in a value of representation," she said.

Certainly Bentley did when his court-appointed attorney saved the third-time convict from himself.

The court is still working out the details of exactly how the collection process will work. Washoe County has a similar program. According to the public defender there, between 2008 and 2009 it collected $200,000 of the $800,000 in assessed fees.

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