Monday, December 16, 2013

County Catch 22: Pay for lawyers or pay for incarceration

For a county paying through the nose to house jail inmates they can't afford, this seems like an odd and counter-productive choice; from the Waco Tribune-Herald (Dec. 14):
An ongoing McLennan County Sheriff’s Office investigation into indigent defense fraud resulted in an arrest Friday.

James Tyrone Johnson, 40, was arrested just after 1 p.m. on charges of falsifying or tampering with a government document, Chief Sheriff’s Deputy Matt Cawthon said.

The McLennan County Commissioner’s Court this year approved the creation of a new position to investigate false claims of indigence, because the county must provide an attorney for any defendant who cannot afford a lawyer.

Cawthon said this is just the first arrest and he expects the investigation, which has been led by Detective Eric Carrizales since early November, to uncover how much money the county is losing on false indigence claims.
I've not heard of other counties employing someone full-time to verify indigence applications - much less prosecuting people over false claims of indigence - but given that the McLennan County Commissioners Court has been chomping at the bit to reduce jail costs from pretrial detention, it's hard to see how this makes financial sense. They may save money on attorneys for the indigent but if those folks wait in jail longer while their relatives scrape together money for lawyers, or don't, it's going to cost a lot more than it saves: Almost the definition of penny wise and pound foolish. Grits would bet that county commissioners end up scratching the new position once it begins to rack up extra jail costs.


Will Yablome said...

Maybe Tyrone liquidated all of his shares of stock and trust accounts before he went to jail!

J said...

There are at least a few counties out there who find a defendant indigent, appoint an attorney, then assess attorney fees as court costs.

Anonymous said...

My guess is they want to intentionally crowd the jails. So to scream, 'BUILD A NEW ONE.'Surely the powers that be in McLennan County's Sheriff's Office are capable of forecasting that this would be a monetary burden. : On second thought...

DLW said...

Not all of the people who fill out affidavits are confined in jail. Many folks all over the state get out on bond by paying a bondsman and then go to the Courthouse and swear they have no way to hire a Lawyer. That oath should be taken as seriously as any other oath.

When word gets out that all you have to do is fill out a form and get a free Lawyer, people take advantage of that. If they are not in fact indigent, the taxpayers are hit with a bill they don't deserve.

Gritsforbreakfast said...

That's fine to say, DLW, but it's all but certain the new policy will cause jail costs to go up, which will hit taxpayers with an even larger bill. OTOH, at least it will be one they "deserve" since the commissioners court will be responsible. Will that make them like higher taxes more?

Lee said...

my question for Chief Sheriff’s Deputy Matt Cawthon is way do they need to be rearrested and shoved through the system again? Does the state really need its piece of flesh that badly to where more money must now be spend on a whole additional criminal case? Unless someone got a papercut or some other devastating injury from the very dangerous crime of falsifying a government document, this seems to be a waste of resources.

If they are found not to be indigent just throw them out and append the bill for the costs incurred for the lawyer to their lapel.

If the government did a better job of picking their battles and not attempting to overcriminalize and arrest their way out of every problem we would not be in this mess.

DLW said...

The Fair Defense Act had some consequences that may not have been unintended. Prior to passage of the Act, folks who were in jail and unable to make bond were presumed by most Judges to be indigent and were assigned counsel. Those who made bond were presumed to have sufficient resources to hire private counsel and were generally not going to receive a taxpayer supplied Lawyer.

Those presumptions are no longer used and there are folks that are not indigent taking advantage of the system to avoid hiring counsel.

One of the former Judges in the area used to set arraignments for all unrepresented Defendants. When he called the first name and a person responded, he would ask if he had a Lawyer. If the answer was no, he would ask if he had talked to a Lawyer. If the answer was no, the Judge would say "I'm going to find your bond insufficient. Bailiff, place Mr. Jones in the lockup." Every other defendant in the room would hear that and see it happen. As their names were called and the inquiry made about having a Lawyer, they would always say no Judge I don't have one but if you will give me a couple of weeks I believe I can make a hire. After all cases were called, he would get guy number one out of the lockup and tell him that he let everybody else have time to hire a Lawyer and that he could have the same opportunity.

The taxpayers weren't having to pay for a full jail and they weren't having to pay for a Lawyer for folks who were not indigent.

Gritsforbreakfast said...

What jurisdiction was that, DLW? Nice anecdote, but I wonder if the aggregate data in that county supports your conclusions from it?

DLW said...

Grits, many if not most of the Jurisdictions in the area around Abilene did similar until the Fair Defense Act caused them to quit. Ask any veteran Lawyer old enough to remember. That system worked.

The Domestic Relations Judges learned it first in Child Support Contempt cases. A spouse would come in and testify that he/she had no money to pay support and further, no source for the money. The Judges learned that if they held them in contempt and ordered them to jail, family members would show up in short order and reduce the back child support if not pay it off completely.

Indigence didn't just mean that paying support would be difficult in light of all your bills. It meant that, not only did you not have the money, you had no way to raise it.

Folks financial circumstances have a way of improving drastically when their are unpleasant consequences.

The secret always was to have a quick safety net for the folks who were actually indigent and not just deadbeats.

Gritsforbreakfast said...

Ah, so your suggestion would be illegal under current law. Got it.

Have any actually viable suggestions, or are we just here to reminisce?

Anonymous said...

BTW the lawyers aren't getting paid. Lawyer payment for indigent defense has been withheld twice in the last 5 weeks due to insufficient funds. The county has drastically reduced the amount that will be paid to the lawyer for indigent defense. Bond amounts are set so incredibly high in this county. If you can't make bond, the first thing that happens is you lose your job. Check out the on-line dockets for each court. The last column to the right shows how many days an inmate has spent in jail. You do the math on the housing costs. I don't think they will find enough fraudulent indigent applications to off-set the salaried position to investigate the fraud.

capt coors said...

Shoot BTW I thought that was just in Johnson County

rodsmith said...

nice DLW

"Not all of the people who fill out affidavits are confined in jail. Many folks all over the state get out on bond by paying a bondsman and then go to the Courthouse and swear they have no way to hire a Lawyer. That oath should be taken as seriously as any other oath."

All I can say is "Works for Me"

IF I say IF they apply the same policy to testilying govt agents as well.

Otherwise they can SHOVE IT!

DLW said...

Grits, my suggestion going forward to be for the Counties to make an actual inquiry into the financial circumstances of those folks who are asking for a tax payer supplied Lawyer and provide counsel to the indigent and do not provide counsel to those who are not indigent.

During the 78th Legislature, “indigent” was defined statutorily to mean an individual who earns not more than 125 percent of the income standard established by applicable federal poverty guidelines. Sec. 133.002,L.G.C.

Gritsforbreakfast said...

DLW, jail costs more than the lawyers, is their problem. The only counties that'll take you up on it are folks like in McLennan who aren't very good at the maths.

Anonymous said...

Just because family member(s) or friends help bond someone out that couldn't afford to otherwise, why should should the same family members or friends be expected to foot a lawyer bill also. If the person arrested cannot afford an attorney then they have all rights to have one appointed. They also should have all rights to have a decent court apponted attorney that's willing to fight for them, not just try to get them to accept a plea! Which is all most court appointed lawyers do.

Anonymous said...

Wellll, we gonna have to round up a bunch of them now that the judge pissed off thousands of dollars because he can not run his friggin' court.
This Judge is why the indigent defense costs are off the charts.