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Massachusetts looks to overhaul indigent defense system

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March 15, 2012

Massachusetts

BOSTON, Massachusetts: Governor Deval Patrick (D), in concert with the state legislature, is seeking to completely revamp Massachusetts’ system of indigent defense. The attempted overhaul is a two-pronged approach that seeks to reduce the number of private contract lawyers that the state works with annually, as well as decrease the number of misdemeanors that legally require the state to provide a lawyer to defendants.[1]

Members of the House Post Audit and Oversight Committee are seeking to pass a law that would cut down on the number of offenses that the state must provide lawyers for, such as trespassing and selling fireworks, which rarely result in jail time. Given the number of private lawyers with whom the state works to provide for indigent defendants, proponents of this change have claimed that it could save as much as $10 million annually.[1]

Additionally, the administration seeks to increase the number of public sector lawyers it has on staff to defend the poor. Currently, about 90% of these cases are handled by private contractors, but by the end of fiscal year 2012, Governor Patrick aims to reduce that to 75%. This change is purported to result in another $9.7 million in savings next fiscal year.[2]

However, it seems as though there may be significant hurdles to overcome in the legislature to pass some of these measures. Senator Gale Candaras (D) spoke out against the administration’s proposed changes, arguing that the state doesn’t have enough experience in dealing with these cases to handle the new case load effectively. In fact, the Committee on Public Counsel Services (the state agency that oversees representation of the indigent), opposes the efforts. Many are skeptical of the claimed savings, and feel that private sector lawyers are in fact cheaper than those employed by the state. Rep. David P. Linsky (D) claimed, “We’re cutting down on demand” for defense lawyers. The state’s annual budget is for the system of indigent defense is $200 million.[2]

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