Even if you’ve never encountered the criminal justice system, you’re probably familiar with the phrase “You have the right to speak to an attorney. If you cannot afford an attorney, one will be appointed for you.” What you may not know is that, in many states, defendants are being charged for that court-appointed attorney. This increasing trend is leading many poor defendants to waive their legal right to representation and, instead, represent themselves.
A report released by the New York University School of Law’s Brennan Center for Justice found that 13 of the 15 states with the largest prison populations charged some sort of fee to defendants in need of a lawyer.
These charges include application fees and can add up to over $1,000. The study found that in Michigan, many facing misdemeanor charges decided 95 percent of the time to waive their right to an attorney because they couldn’t afford the fees.
It’s no surprise that this is common practice in states with large prison populations. With defendants representing themselves and going up against trained prosecutors, the chances of a conviction are much higher. This could lead to unlawful convictions and overcrowded prison populations.
In an ideal world, anyone accused of a crime would have the means to pay for an attorney. Unfortunately, most of those arrested come from poor communities and don’t have the money—even $1,000—to pay for legal counsel. Charging for that service, in effect, denies them a basic right to representation.
Most of us believe that, on many levels, the criminal justice system is unfairly stacked against poor individuals. This trend of charging defendants for legal services does nothing to challenge those beliefs. States must discontinue this practice and find another way to generate revenue. By charging for public defenders, the system is building yet another pipeline that directs individuals toward prison.
(Judge Greg Mathis is vice president of RainbowPUSH and a member of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference.)