A new yearlong NPR investigation has found that costs of the United States criminal justice system are increasingly being levied against poor defendants and offenders, and that the poor who cannot pay face ever-increasing charges. While the report focuses on the criminal side of the court system, some of the trends spill into the civil courts – where some “offenders” facing non-payment of things like parking tickets can enter the criminal system.
A state-by-state NPR survey shows that “… in at least 43 states and the District of Columbia, defendants can be billed for a public defender… in at least 41 states, inmates can be charged room and board for prison stays… in all states except Hawaii and the District of Columbia, there’s a fee for the electronic monitoring devices defendants and offenders are ordered to wear.”
The report notes that jailing people for, in effect, non-payment of fines can create financial challenges as governments pay for that incarceration. Read and hear the story via Vermont Public Radio here: As Court Fees Rise, The Poor Are Paying The Price
New Mexico judges are suing after Gov. Susana Martinez vetoed their 8 percent pay increase. They are making some of the same arguments we hear from other states, especially when they express funding as a percentage of the state’s total budget – in California, for example, advocates for increased courts funding like to point out that the total courts funding is less than one percent of state spending, and at two percent they would be fully funded.
In a column for the New Mexico News Service, longtime reporter Sherry Robinson noted that “… even though the National Center for State Courts declared New Mexico judges to be the nation’s lowest paid, Martinez sees it as a fairness issue. Other state employees got only a 3 percent increase, she has said, while judges got the 5 percent increase intended for them plus the 3 percent for all state employees.”
Robinson also notes that “… I don’t remember an occasion when judges as a group went after a governor, but then this governor spends a lot of time in court. In poking her finger in the court’s eye, it seems like the governor is also saying her lawyering days are over because she’s bound for bigger things.”
The president of the American Bar Association is embracing the idea of providing lawyers to people facing civil lawsuit in a way similar to the criminal justice system. Known as “civil Gideon,” a reference to the landmark case that guarantees legal representation in criminal courts, the idea is that people who cannot afford attorneys are relatively helpless against those who can. In particular, the idea is that people facing family court or housing issues are facing injustice.
After a speech this week in Memphis, ABA President James Silkenat explained that “…look at how long it took us to recognize Gideon on the criminal side. This next step will be a difficult one. But I am encouraged the more I see how much lawyers and other leaders of society recognize the problem for everyday citizens just living their lives without legal advice on the most important legal issues – they are left at sea.”
Our recent mention of Civil Gideon – the idea that citizens should have a right to an attorney in some civil cases just like they do in criminal cases – brought some requests for more info. We would refer to the National Coalition for a Civil Right to Counsel (link below) and note the milestone New York Times
op-ed by Matthew Desmond, an author and assistant professor of sociology and social studies at Harvard.
Desmond wrote in 2012 about the problem of housing evictions: “… in many housing courts around the country, 90 percent of landlords are represented by attorneys and 90 percent of tenants are not. This imbalance of power is as unfair as the solution is clear. When tenants have lawyers, their chances of keeping their homes increase dramatically. Establishing publicly funded legal services for low-income families in housing court is a cost-effective social policy that would prevent homelessness and uphold our ideals of fundamental fairness.”
Desmond acknowledged that his research indicated we have many fair, honest and hardworking landlords but also noted that many people keep their homes when they have lawyers. Research newest trends, like Ohio’s move to provide lawyers in eviction cases, here: Civil Right to Counsel
Most of us know that we have a right to an attorney if we’re arrested, but a movement is afoot to provide a similar provision for those facing civil lawsuits. In particular, cases involving “human need” like child custody and shelter would qualify for the “civil Gideon” program. “Gideon” is the name of the court cases that created the “right to a lawyer” in criminal court.
In Pennsylvania, the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette reports that “… a statewide coalition of leaders from the Allegheny County, Dauphin County, Philadelphia and Pennsylvania bar associations, as well as other related groups, held public hearings on the idea of expanding the Gideon ruling to civil cases. It is recommending the Pennsylvania Supreme Court establish an Access to Justice Commission, similar to those in 32 other states, which would further explore how to implement such a measure”
In addition to establishing a commission, the newspaper noted, a recent report recommends the Pennsylvania Legislature appropriate $50 million for civil legal services and work toward establishing a right to counsel in civil legal matters where “fundamental human needs are at stake.”
You can read the report here.