When he was charged with murder in 1996, James Thomas, an impoverished day laborer in Baton Rouge, became like many other criminal defendants: With no money to hire a lawyer, he had to rely on the government to provide him with one.
He then spent the next 8½ years in jail, waiting for his case to go to trial.
It never did.
This interesting piece offers a critique of many public defenders, and just as clearly, a cry for help. Across the USA, examples of an overburdened, underfunded public defender system abound:
• In Virginia, caps on fees paid to court-appointed lawyers are the lowest in the nation, Carroll says. Fees on a felony that carries a sentence of 20 years or less are capped at $428, while defenders whose clients face felonies with a sentence of more than 20 years can be paid no more than $1,186.
• In Wisconsin, more than 11,000 poor people annually go to court without representation because anyone who makes more than $3,000 a year is considered able to afford a lawyer, says Ellen Berz, head of the Madison public defender's office.
• Nevada caps defenders' fees in death-penalty cases at $12,000, and it is the only state that does not allow the payment limits to be waived in such cases, Carroll says.
• In Mississippi, the NAACP Legal Defense Fund and the Southern Center for Human Rights in Atlanta sued the city of Gulfport last month. They accused the city of operating a "modern day debtor's prison" by jailing poor people who are unable to pay their fines and denying them the right to lawyers.
• In Louisiana, the Lake Charles public defender's office was sued by nine defendants who say they have waited years to go on trial.