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LA County drops $50 public defender fee for criminal defendants

The Clara Shortridge Foltz Criminal Justice Center.
Jim Winstead/Flickr Creative Commons
The Clara Shortridge Foltz Criminal Justice Center in downtown Los Angeles, where some indigent clients are charged a fee to be represented by a public defender.

In response to growing concerns about fees that can burden poor people accused of crimes, the Los Angeles County Board of Supervisors Tuesday voted to eliminate the $50 registration fee charged to people who need a public defender because they can't afford to hire their own lawyer.

Supervisors Sheila Kuehl and Mark Ridley-Thomas spearheaded the effort to eliminate the fee, which was created to bolster the county budget.

"Though this isn’t the biggest move ever, this is important" to remove what can be a barrier to justice, Kuehl said before the 4-1 vote. San Francisco and Santa Barbara counties also have stopped charging the fee.

The public defender’s office only collected about $300,000 in fees last fiscal year. The Public Defender’s budget is over $280 million.

Supervisor Kathryn Barger voted against removing the fee, citing a tight county budget. "I believe we should address this as it relates to making sure people understand they don’t have to pay the fifty dollars,” she said.

An activist who once faced the fee praised the board’s decision to do away with it.

“We already carry a lot of weight to pay our bills,” said Devon Williams of the Youth Justice Coalition.

The county has charged the fee since 1996, despite a U.S. Supreme Court ruling that states must provide criminal defendants legal counsel free of charge if they cannot afford an attorney themselves.

The fee is supposed to be waived for people who can't afford it. But that often doesn't happen, according to officials with the public defender’s office.

"In some courts, the bailiff comes out before the court is even in session" and tells defendants they must pay the fee to get a public defender, said Bruce Brodie of the Alternate Public Defender’s office, which also represents indigent clients for the county.

The fee can have a "chilling effect," leading some defendants to decide to represent themselves, he said. 

"While $50 may not seem like much money to us, it is a tank of gas to get to work, a utility bill gone unpaid, or even food on the table for poor people," said Brodie.

Other clients feel pressure to pay the fee because they fear they won’t get good legal representation if they don’t, Assistant Public Defender Candis Glover told the supervisors. 

"No matter what the lawyer says, the client still has that doubt," said Glover, noting that defendants are meeting their public defender for the first time in court minutes before their arraignment.

"This fee is a symptom of the growing problem of criminal justice fees that seek to fund courts on the backs of people least able to afford it," said Michael Kaufman of the American Civil Liberties Union of Southern California.

Brodie of the Alternate Public Defender’s office paraphrased U.S. Supreme Court Justice Hugo Black, who authored the 1963 decision that affirmed people’s Sixth Amendment right to counsel free of charge in Gideon v. Wainwright.

"The noble ideal of fair trials cannot be realized if the poor man charged with a crime has to face his accusers without a lawyer to represent him," said Brodie.