Acton Institute Powerblog

Perverse Incentives Hurt Poor Defendants

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public+defenderSince the landmark Supreme Court decision Gideon v. Wainwright (1963) every state has developed a system of public defense. The decision guaranteed that those accused of felony offenses are entitled to a lawyer under the rights outlined in the 6th Amendment, which include, the right to a jury trial, a public trial, and pertaining to Gideon, “to have the assistance of counsel for his defense.” In the wake of the Gideon decision each state was required to develop a system of public defenders to represent those who did not have a legal counsel, and especially those who could not afford a lawyer. Because of low funding for public defense, and the increasing number of cases filling courtrooms, more states are requiring defendants to pay a fee for their assigned defender—whether they are found guilty or not.

An April 2016 New York Times article Fordham University Law professor John Pfaff, highlights more weaknesses in the public defense world and in the odd funding mechanism. Forty-three states now require defendants to pay for a public defender, even though the only reason they have a public defender in the first place is because they cannot afford a lawyer. The Times article highlights the current policy in South Dakota where a defendant is required to pay $92 dollars an hour regardless of the verdict. The result of this policy is that the defendant might have to pay hundreds of dollars a day to be proven innocent for a crime for which he or she was mistakenly arrested.

The State of Louisiana funds much of its indigent defense through court fees. A June 2016 Atlantic article highlighted in detail some of the problems in the public defense system in Louisiana. They found that local revenues from court fees actually fund 70 percent of the public defense systems budget, a majority of which were tickets for traffic violations. A violation of any law besides a parking violation warrants a $45 court fee, sent to the district’s public defense office. The system relies on the flow of money from criminal activity. Districts that collect more traffic tickets, specifically districts with heavy interstate traffic, have an advantage over those without a natural place to collect a significant amount traffic fines. This creates perverse incentives: more crime means more money.

The Louisiana system works differently than the South Dakota system. Instead of everyone paying court fees, only the guilty pay in Louisiana. The problem with this system is that it leaves lawyers in the morally difficult place where they are paid by the guilt of those they defend. Innocent verdicts mean less money for the district office because only the guilty pay the $45 court fee. This sets the stage for perverse incentives for prosecutors to do whatever is necessary to achieve a guilty verdict.

The whole system of defense in both states reveals common problems in the system: the poorer you are the more likely you are to receive a lower quality, the more likely you are to serve time or pay a fine, and the more likely you are to have system that is incentivized against you. The poor suffer most from the compounding effects of the requirements surrounding goverment defenders, and the urban minority and lower class white populations are even more likely than the suburban populations to feel the effects of these policies and their perverse incentives.

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Anthony Bradley Anthony Bradley, Ph.D. is Associate Professor of Theology and Ethics in the Public Service Program at The King's College in New York City and serves as a Research Fellow at the Acton Institute. Dr. Bradley lectures at colleges, universities, business organizations, conferences, and churches throughout the U.S. and abroad. His books include: Liberating Black Theology: The Bible and the Black Experience in America (2010),  Black and Tired: Essays on Race, Politics, Culture, and International Development (2011),  The Political Economy of Liberation: Thomas Sowell and James Cone of the Black Experience (2012), Keep Your Head Up: America's New Black Christian Leaders, Social Consciousness, and the Cosby Conversation (2012), Aliens in the Promised Land:  Why Minority Leadership Is Overlooked in White Christian Churches and Institutions (forthcoming, 2013). Dr. Bradley's writings on religious and cultural issues have been published in a variety of journals, including: the Atlanta Journal-Constitution, the Detroit News, and World Magazine. Dr. Bradley is called upon by members of the broadcast media for comment on current issues and has appeared C-SPAN, NPR, CNN/Headline News, and Fox News, among others. He studies and writes on issues of race in America, hip hop, youth culture, issues among African Americans, the American family, welfare, education, and modern slavery. From 2005-2009, Dr. Bradley was Assistant Professor of Systematic Theology and Ethics at Covenant Theological Seminary in St. Louis, MO where he also directed the Francis A. Schaeffer Institute.   Dr. Bradley holds Bachelor of Science in biological sciences from Clemson University, a Master of Divinity from Covenant Theological Seminary, and a Doctor of Philosophy degree from Westminster Theological Seminary.  Dr. Bradley also holds an M.A. in Ethics and Society at Fordham University.

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