Op-Ed: Repeal of Smart Legislation Would Cost Shelby County

This article was originally published in the Commercial Appeal on February 26, 2015.  Republished with permission from the Commercial Appeal. 

Stephen Bush, Shelby County Public Defender
Shelby County Public Defender

Memphis lawyer Bill Haltom recently published “The Other Fellow Might Be Right,” a delightful account of Senator Howard Baker that celebrates the Tennessee lawyer’s civility and commitment to building systems of governance that stand the test of time and serve our communities well.

Too often in our public policy discourse we fail to recognize the merits of healthy debate, the potential of compromise and the benefits of incorporating different opinions. Sen. Baker appreciated each of these things and understood that good government requires civility, and it values contributions from all sides. In that spirit, I encourage our state lawmakers to move with careful deliberation before repealing a law that has safeguarded the integrity of our local justice system for more than two decades.

House Bill 241, sponsored by Rep. Curry Todd, would eliminate the requirement that Shelby County increase funding to the public defender at 75% of increases for the prosecution.

I understand why our District Attorney General would want the requirement repealed.  Finding revenue sources for the work of both our staffs is an ongoing challenge and is increasingly frustrating as both sides strive to ensure the integrity of the criminal justice system for all citizens of Shelby County.

Dist. Atty. Gen. Weirich has a point. There are deep, systemic problems with the way our criminal justice system is funded. Frankly, I wish our state lawmakers were debating bold criminal justice reforms like those enacted in so many Southern states; the resulting legislation has reduced demand on overwhelmed and costly criminal justice systems. Tennessee lawmakers should be looking to our neighbors in Kentucky and Georgia and even to Texas and Florida. These states have enacted cost-saving criminal justice reform measures that have reduced the size of jail and prison populations, while they continue to experience falling crime rates, just like the rest of the country.

Instead, we are left with a proposal to erase a sensible law that has worked for 23 years to maintain some balance between public defenders and prosecutors and control criminal justice costs.

The real problem, however, is that spending on criminal justice systems has been gradually shifted from the state to local taxpayers. This has never been more evident than with prosecution and defender services in Shelby County. The General Assembly should fix this by providing adequate resources to both sides. Repealing the 75% Rule will only make things worse.  There are consequences to consider before proceeding with such a one-dimensional response.

It is a near certainty that passage of this bill will lead to significant new local funding for the prosecution. Additional prosecution resources will inevitably lead to increased demand on our court systems and local jails. Public defenders play a critical role in meeting those demands.

To grow one side of this equation while simultaneously shrinking the other is a recipe for rapidly escalating costs elsewhere in Shelby County. Jail costs will go up; courts will slow down.  And the quality of our justice system will suffer.

I believe Senator Baker would have insisted that the quality of our justice system is paramount – that there must be balance. There is a growing mandate to confront what even the United States Department of Justice acknowledges is a national crisis in public defense, and advocates as diverse as Koch Industries and the MacArthur Foundation agree that well-resourced and properly functioning systems for public defense are essential.

Rather than simply deciding whether House Bill 241 should be passed, I encourage Tennessee lawmakers to further study these funding disparities and determine the real costs of dismantling a long-standing, smartly designed rule that preserves some balance and fiscal restraint. I oppose passage of HB241 as a narrow solution to a broad problem, but I am not opposed to careful consideration of what it might take to build a better, more cost-effective criminal justice system.

Stephen Bush is the Shelby County Public Defender.

 

Statement on Tennessee HB 241

Proposed State Legislation Would Repeal Local Funding Rule

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FOR IMMEDIATE RELEASE

Memphis, TN, 2/20/2015 – Tennessee lawmakers have introduced legislation that would repeal T.C.A. 16-2-518, the so-called “75% Rule” for local public defender funding. The rule was established in 1992 and requires that local government provide funding to the public defender at 75% of any funding increase to the district attorney general.

The Shelby County Public Defender’s Office opposes passage of House Bill 241 and Senate Bill 1324, which would dismantle fiscally sound legislation that has served our community and state well for more than 20 years.

The 75% Rule helps ensure fairness in a necessarily adversarial system. Repeal of this longstanding and sensible check on spending would alter the balance that must exist when life and liberty are at stake, as they are daily in the criminal justice system.

Local government helps fund public defense in Tennessee’s urban centers, while the State is the primary funding source for public defenders elsewhere. The 75% Rule has worked for more than two decades to keep costs down for both State and local government. Repeal of this rule is a solution looking for a problem. It is unclear how this community and the State of Tennessee would benefit from the removal of this smart and fiscally responsible mandate.

What is clear is that removing this mandated balancing mechanism has the potential to drive up costs for the State, destabilize the funding structure of our local criminal justice system and trigger a dangerous imbalance in our courtrooms.  A weakened public defender system exposes the community to more wrongful convictions, unfair sentences and, ultimately, a more expensive County Jail.

The 75% Rule is the kind of policy that Tennesseans should be proud of. It should not be repealed.  We urge our state lawmakers to uphold this commitment to fairness, justice and good stewardship by voting against HB 241 and SB 1324.

Media Contact: Josh Spickler at 901.216.2024 or josh.spickler@shelbycountytn.gov

Download Statement PDF Here

New Report Shows Outdated System Failing Lawyers, Indigent Clients in Tennnessee

tba-logoAnyone facing criminal charges that could result in imprisonment has the right to an attorney — if he cannot afford an attorney, one will be appointed and paid for by the government. That right was established in 1963 by the landmark Supreme Court case Gideon v. Wainwright.

But a study just released by the Tennessee Bar Association (TBA) reveals that fewer private attorneys say they are willing to accept this work, because the pay is too low and paperwork too burdensome.

That’s bad news for communities across Tennessee, because it results in fewer private attorneys willing to accept appointed cases. In turn, those attorneys still willing to accept cases may have even less time to spend on appointed cases as a result of the burden of additional clients. In addition, some appointed attorneys may be unwilling to spend adequate time on a case for which there will be inadequate compensation. Of course, the person facing criminal charges bears most of the burden in a system like this as poor advocacy results in more time spent awaiting disposition, longer sentences and more wrongful convictions.

A 2013 study released by the National Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers (NACDL) ties compensation to fair representation: “The attorney’s right to fair compensation and the defendant’s rights are ‘inextricably linked’ and ‘[t]he relationship between an attorney’s compensation and the quality of his or her representation cannot be ignored.'”

appointed compensationIn Shelby County, appointed counsel are more often than not, public defenders.  In fact, the Shelby County Public Defender’s Office handles more than 35,000 cases each year. But in cases of conflict (for example, when two defendants are jointly charged with a crime or the victim in the case was a former client of the public defender) a judge may appoint a private attorney to defend an indigent client.

Private attorneys in the Memphis area are also appointed in the majority of the cases involving children, as the Shelby County Public Defender’s new, specially-trained Juvenile Defender Unit only has the capacity to handle a portion of the approximately 4,000 children facing delinquency charges in Juvenile Court each year. In a poor, urban community like Shelby County, a healthy appointed counsel system is a critical part of the criminal justice system.

The TBA report reveals an appointed counsel system in Tennessee that is far from healthy. The TBA is currently working to raise the compensation rate from the current $40 per out-of-court hour for non-capital cases, $75 per hour for out-of-court on non-capital cases. The rate has not changed since 1994 and according to the TBA, this makes Tennessee court-appointed attorneys among the lowest paid in the country.

A national study of compensation for appointed counsel shows that Tennessee is among the states paying at the bottom end of the fee scale.

“The average rate of compensation for felony cases in the 30 states that have established a statewide compensation rate is less than $65 an hour with some states paying as little as $40 an hour” — from the National Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers (NACDL) study Rationing Justice: The Underfunding of Assigned Counsel Systems

 

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Bar graph from TBA.org

Not only are Tennessee appointed counsel paid at an unusually low rate — lawyers in the survey also cited state-mandated limits on the total fee that are too low to provide adequate counsel.  The Tennessee Supreme Court’s Rule 13, which contains the rules for appointed counsel, caps maximum compensation on most non-capital cases at $500-$1,500, depending on the type of offense.  Nearly 60% of the survey respondents reported that they “frequently” or “always” reached the compensation cap.

In addition to limited compensation for their legal work, respondents to the TBA survey reported spending an unreasonable amount of time preparing and submitting their fee claims to the state — some as much as 5 hours on compensation paperwork and submission.  In fact, more than 75% of the attorneys admitted that they had not even bothered submitting claims for payment, because it took too much time to file.

Given the low fee and administrative burden, it’s not surprising that one-third of the survey respondents said they have stopped taking appointed cases. A vast majority of that group said it was directly related to low compensation.

The TBA will be using the results of this study to continue to push for changes to Rule 13, and how private, appointed counsel is compensated.

Full reports here: 

You can read the results of the TBA survey here.

Click here to read the TN Supreme Court’s Rule 13, which sets the rate for appointed counsel.

Find the entire NACDL report “Rationing Justice:The Underfunding of Assigned Counsel Systems” by clicking here.

CORRECTION: The original post stated that non-capital case rate was a blanket $40 per hour. The actual rate is $40 per hour for out of court, trial preparation and $50 per hour for in-court work.