States increasingly are imposing fees on poor criminal defendants who use public defenders even when they can’t pay, causing some to go without attorneys, say to two reviews of the nation’s largest state criminal justice systems, reported by USA Today. New York University law school’s Brennan Center for Justice found that 13 of the 15 states with the largest prison populations imposed some charge, including application fees, for access to counsel. “In practice, these fees often discourage individuals from exercising their constitutional right to an attorney, leading to wrongful convictions, over-incarceration and significant burdens on the operation of courts,” the report says.
In Michigan, the National Legal Aid and Defender Association found the “threat” of having to pay the full cost of assigned counsel caused misdemeanor defendants to waive their right to attorneys 95 percent of the time. Three states studied – Florida, North Carolina, and Virginia – have no provisions for the courts to waive some of the fees if defendants can’t pay. In Virginia, defendants may be charged up to $1,235 per count for some felonies, the report says. A separate report of five state justice systems from the American Civil Liberties Union produced similar findings.