Massachusetts’s highest court yesterday ordered that poor criminal defendants in Hampden County be freed from jail if they are not assigned a lawyer after seven days, reports the Boston Globe. The ruling could force the Legislature and Governor Mitt Romney to raise hourly pay rates for court-appointed lawyers. Declaring that “chronic underfunding” of legal services for the poor is making it impossible to find lawyers to take cases, the Supreme Judicial Court ordered that charges be dismissed if defendants go 45 days without a lawyer. Charges could be reinstated once defendants get lawyers.
The release of defendants could threaten public safety, the court acknowledged. “Public safety, however, comes at a cost,” said the unanimous ruling. “The level of aid to private counsel has barely changed over the last two decades and is among the lowest in the nation.” By Tuesday night, he said, 55 people facing charges in the county could not find lawyers willing to take their cases. About 20 could be freed soon as a result of the decision. Robert Kidd, vice president of the 400-member Massachusetts Association of Court-Appointed Attorneys said the decision was ”intended to shame and embarrass the Legislature, which it should, into taking action.”