Indigent Defense

The recent disclosure of the nearly $1 million paid to three Los Angeles attorneys for indigent legal defense is shocking and unconscionable, and extremely embarrassing as well to every attorney, including myself, who receives criminal defense appointments. The 101 hours averaged per week over nine weeks claimed by one attorney (out of a total of 168 hours available for seven 24-hour days, neglecting eating ,sleeping and other sundry activities) reminds me of the story about the attorney who died of old age when he reached 40 years because his totaled hourly billings indicated he was really 125 years old.

The gluttony of many of those who feed at the public trough is not amusing, however, and represents a breakdown in professional morality and ethics.

It also illustrates that the present system of attorney appointments for indigent defense is woefully deficient in controls, standardization, and fairness in distribution of appointments and payments thereon. Fees currently span a range of $40-$150 per hour, and certain attorneys receive so many appointments as to be virtually full-time county employees except for the munificent fees collected.

Such conditions are not only improper and contrary to the public interest, but they imperil the entire indigent defense system for the average criminal lawyer, for, faced with such gross improprieties, the county government will inevitably move to adopt the contract office or second public-defender office approach, in which appointments to private attorneys at-large will be severely curtailed, if not eliminated.

As so often happens, the shameful actions of the few can bring shame and harm to the many.


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