The public defender’s office closed 8,768 cases in fiscal year 2012 between July, 1, 2011, and June 30, 2012.
It obviously takes money to operate the legal justice system and 10th Judicial District Public Defender Richard Hughes said in a recent interview that possible changes should be discussed to make the system more cost effective.
One of those possible changes would be to assess an attorney fee to defendants using a public defender, court-appointed attorney or others used in a defense funded by taxpayers.
“I think most people would be in favor of people using the system, should certainly participate in paying for the system,” Hughes said.
“I would like to see us do a better job of defraying that cost by making a judgment of partial indigence to help fund public defenders and court-appointed attorneys,” Hughes said.
Hughes proposed directing the fee to the Public Defender’s Conference, the organization that overall sees public defenders in all Tennessee judicial districts. The money would not fund offices, but it would go into a fund to pay for public defenders.
“For awhile now, I have believed the people who use the judicial system; the defendants who appear in general sessions court, criminal court, who have cases on appeal that are represented by the public defender’s office or other court-appointed attorneys, should be required to pay for that service. I would think that most citizens would agree,” he said.
“If you are going to be in the court; if you’re going to have a court-appointed attorney represent you; if you’re going to be the focus of other participants in the system that are being paid by the state, including the judge, you should — if you can, be required to pay for that service.”
In every criminal case, whether it is general sessions or criminal court, the court is required to assess an administrative fee. According to Hughes, the minimum is $50. The maximum is $200. Court clerks receive 5 percent and the remainder goes into the state’s general fund in Nashville.
“A lot of people think that’s an attorney’s fee. It’s not. It’s an administrative fee. The clerk receives 5 percent. My concern is, that administrative fee does not fund public defenders or court-appointed attorneys,” he said.
Hughes said he tries to understand the economic realities of people facing a judge. The large majority of defendants in the system are economically disadvantaged, but there are many who are not totally indigent. Those people have enough money to post bond, but do not have the money to retain a lawyer. Those people should be declared “partial indigent” and be required to pay $50.
“The statute specifically allows the judge to defray part of the cost if the court makes that finding,” he said.
In the 10th judicial District in the 2011 fiscal year, $15,000 was collected as a partial indigent fee.
“I would like more than that. I think that amount should be more than that,” Hughes said. “I think there should be a change to designate it as an attorney’s fee.”
Criminal defendants are entitled to discovery, which means that under the district attorney’s open file policy, the public defender’s office is allowed copies of the discovery.
“There are costs involved with that and it is paid by the state,” he said. It would not be realistic to assess the fee if the defendant is and will remain incarcerated.
“If at anytime they are released on probation, community service or drug court, obviously, that fee could be collected.”
10th Judicial District Public Defender Richard Hughes has been involved in the legal system in the four counties it contains since 1989. He began as an assistant to Charles M. Corn, who resigned Dec. 31, 2004.
Former Tennessee Gov. Phil Bredesen appointed Hughes in January 2005 to finish the remainder of Corn’s term. Hughes was elected in August 2006 to an eight-year term.
District public defenders fulfill the state’s obligation under the U.S. Constitution to provide a lawyer to persons accused of crimes who cannot afford a lawyer. District public defenders are attorneys elected in each judicial district who serve, as appointed by the courts, to represent indigent persons facing deprivation of liberty in criminal matters.
The statewide system of public defenders was created by the General Assembly in 1989 as an alternative to the practice of court-appointed private attorneys.