States Allow Public Defender Charges: “Poor People Can Afford Something”


Wrapping up its series on increasing fees and fines in the criminal-justice system, NPR says 43 states plus the District of Columbia allow a defendant to be charged for a public defender. sometimes it’s just an upfront administrative fee, such as $10 in New Mexico and up to $400 in Arkansas, and sometimes it’s a debt for more money. The courts have justified this, says corresponent Joseph Shapiro, by saying, “Look, even poor people can afford something. Maybe it’s that small administrative fee. Or maybe they’ll get a good job tomorrow, or they’ll win the lottery. And you can charge them, and they’ll owe you for that later…sometimes people just say, OK, I won’t use a lawyer. Then they get in trouble. They go into court, and they don’t have a lawyer. Or they just carry this debt forever.”

NPR also profiled a former Washington State inmate who left prison owing $10,000 in fines and fees. “For someone who doesn’t have a job, who’s just coming out of prison, $10,000 is crushing,” NPR says. If ex-prisoners are “constantly in fear of falling behind on their payments and going back to jail, then that’s counterproductive.” Colorado this month passed a law telling municipal judges they can’t send someone to jail just because they don’t have the money to pay court fees.

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