Oct. 9 2012 12:00 AM

County supervisors to vote on new fee, with little public information


The San Diego County Board of Supervisors will vote today to implement a new $50 "registration fee" for criminal defendants who need court-appointed attorneys.

I'll put it another way.

In TV crime shows, there's always that bit where the officer reads the handcuffed perp his rights, saying  "If you cannot afford an attorney, one will be provided for you."

After today's vote, it would be more accurate to say,  "If you cannot afford an attorney, one will provided for you, but you'll still have to pay $50, and if you can't afford that, well, tell it to the judge and maybe he'll waive it." 

The fee can't be imposed upon people who genuinely can't pay the fee, a determination that would be made in a separate court hearing. The county can't deny legal services to people who refuse to pay or avoid paying the fee, either; the county just has to enforce it like any other civil judgement.

According to the summary attached to the agenda item, the new fee would generate $600,000 per year for the county's Department of the Public Defender, but it's not clear how the math adds up. The office handles approximately 12,500 felony cases and 60,000 misdemeanor and probation-revocation cases per year. If everyone in those cases paid, that would be more than $3.6 million. If it were applied only to felony cases, that would be close to the mark, assuming that only 500 people were too indigent to pay $50.

I sent several emails seeking clarification to Mike Workman, the county's communication's director, who in turn passed me on to his underling Sarah Gordon. I asked for explanations and clarifications and whether they'd looked at the impact on the already-under-funded courts or the ramifications on the right to a fair trial. No answer. 

So, I asked several of the individual supervisors' offices. Only Supervisor Dianne Jacob responded with a formal statement.

"The state has given counties the authority to recover the cost of representation, and requires counties to collect a fee, as long as it doesn't exceed $50," Jacob said via email sent by her new spokesperson, Steve Schmidt. "The money will ease the burden on taxpayers because it will help cover the cost of providing a legal defense. I want to stress that the fee is tied to a defendant's ability to pay and that judges have the discretion to waive the amount."

I also called the ACLU of San Diego and Imperial Counties to see what the folks there think about it.

"It reflects two things," senior policy advocate Margaret Dooley-Sammuli says: "the desperate state of all levels of government because of draconian budget cuts and, second, an ill-conceived trend to shift costs to those least able to afford it and for whom debt becomes a significant barrier to moving on with their lives."

Ironically, county supervisors receive free legal representation from the county in civil matters. Now, if we only had $50 each time one of them needed a lawyer because they violated, say, the Brown Act or the Establishment Clause.


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