Defendants get a bargain

published Thursday, October 14, 2010

A study released last week by the Brennan Center for Justice raised concerns that assessing convicted criminals fees for their public defenders would somehow dissuade them from exercising their constitutional rights or unfairly burden those who are broke.

More than 95% of crimes are prosecuted by locally elected prosecutors,
called district attorneys in most states. We live and work in the community alongside both the victims and the defendants. We are well aware of the tough economic times, which hit the victims of crime much harder than those who prey on them. And the poor are much more likely to be victims of crime.

When the citizens are asked to bear the cost of providing a lawyer for anyone who can't afford one, it is not unreasonable to ask those found guilty to pay at least part of that cost. In Oregon, that means about $300 for a misdemeanor and rarely more than $1,000 for a felony.

Given the value of the excellent legal representation many defendants receive, they are getting a bargain. Anyone who hired the same lawyers would be expected to pay a retainer several times that amount. And, unlike many of the portrayals on TV, public defenders usually offer outstanding representation.

Prosecutors have also come up with innovative early disposition programs, recognizing that most crimes don't need a sentence of jail or prison. These programs are under fire by some defense attorneys because the defendants choose not to avail themselves of a court-appointed lawyer. Often, the prosecutor offers community service, or even reduction of the charge, so the defendant ends up without any criminal record whatsoever.

The offender and the community benefit when people are held accountable, but not punished so severely that they can no longer work. The "broken window theory" — which says pay attention to the little things and they won't become bigger crimes — has proved a success. Americans are much safer now than they were 20 years ago.

We should never expect the justice system to be a revenue center for local or state government, but that doesn't mean that those who violate the law should get a free ride.

This opinion was solicited as a response to a USA Today Editorial Board View.