published Sunday, September 29th, 2013

Indigent Alabama defendants paid $4 million in 2012

ANNISTON, Ala. — Despite being too poor to afford attorneys, records from the Alabama Department of Finance show indigent defendants paid nearly $4 million in legal fees in Fiscal Year 2012.

The figure is only a fraction of what indigent defendants are charged for legal representation, state officials say, and defendants aren't required to pay until being released from jail or prison.

Some attorneys say they wonder if the state tacking on additional fees for public defenders makes sense if their clients are already too poor to hire their own lawyer.

The fees that indigent defendants pay for legal representation in counties with a public defender's office vary from county to county. There are caps in Alabama on how much the state will pay for indigent defense, which can be high as $3,500 for serious felonies.

"It's a much smaller rate than you'd pay a private lawyer, but you're paying," Anniston lawyer Bill Broome told The Anniston Star. Broome is the president-elect of the Alabama Criminal Defense Lawyers Association.

"You can rack up $4,000 to $5,000 worth of fines and costs in a heartbeat," said Calhoun County Circuit Judge Bud Turner. "People have no idea."

Defendants are required to repay the state if they're found guilty. Although, those who are found guilty of the most expensive cases -- capital cases -- are unlikely to ever pay since they usually end up in jail for the rest of their lives.

The newspaper reports there were 5,402 unpaid circuit court fees in Alabama in fiscal year 2012 that were given to district attorney's offices for collection.

"If you haven't had a job since you got out of high school, and don't have a relative who can give you some money, how are you going to pay it?" asked Mickey Womble, a public defender who practices law in Monroeville, the town that the book "To Kill a Mockingbird" is based on.

In some jurisdictions, indigent defendants who don't pay the fees are sent back to jail.

State officials say judges are given the discretion to waive fees for people who show they are truly unable to pay for representation.

Lauren-Brooke Eisen, an attorney at the Brennan Center for Justice at New York University, said courts across the country are struggling to fund themselves and have turned to court fees as a revenue source.

In 2012, Alabama lawmakers approved a set of increased court costs in hopes of raising more than $20 million for the state's court system.

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