Criminally Defenseless: When Free Defense Isn’t Free


Alec Killoran
Staff Writer

In all but seven states, you can spend time behind bars, or have an existing sentence lengthened, just for being impoverished.

According to a recent investigative piece by National Public Radio (NPR), defendants in criminal cases can be and are billed for various procedural services, such as court fees and public defender fees. Legal in 43 states, fees that go unpaid lead to longer jail time and greater difficulty reintegrating with society.

It is a rare case where it is not sufficient to argue that the fundamental problem at work here is the commission of a crime. While it is true that those who never turn to any kind of crime will never have to deal with these laws, it is also true that an impoverished person will face more systematic roadblocks than a more affluent person for the commission of the same crime. This itself is inherently classist and makes the consequences of equal crime unequal—a pressing problem worth addressing. A just society punishes equal crimes with equal repercussions.

Perhaps the most ridiculous aspect of these laws is the stipulation that defendants pay some amount of money for an appointed attorney. Public defenders exist, in theory, to provide every defendant in the country fair access to legal counsel. The sixth amendment to the United States Constitution deals with the rights of the accused. In the landmark Supreme Court case Gideon v. Wainwright, it was determined that any defendant unable to afford an attorney would be provided one.

Having the defendant pay for the attorney he or she cannot afford defeats the entire purpose of that decision, and it violates the spirit of the sixth amendment. The entire purpose of the law is to ensure that in a scenario where a citizen is wrongly accused of a crime, that citizen will not be found guilty due to procedural disadvantages.

It is wrong to have the accused foot the bill on court proceedings and public defender fees. These services exist to serve every American equally, and, like other universal benefits such as roadways and the postal service, they should be paid for with tax dollars. Regardless of how you feel about tax rates or their applications, it should be agreed upon that universal services such as this fall under a minimum baseline to keep our society functioning.

Lastly, it does the country no good to have citizens behind bars for additional time periods for petty crimes. Jails are far too crowded as it is, and there are worse things in the world than shoplifting. Shoplifting certainly deserves repercussions, but prison time just does not seem justified in such cases. Also, NPR notes that a combination of jail time and hefty fees left unpaid makes it difficult for impoverished members of society to find jobs, fulfill daily functions, or raise families, among other things. In turn, this often leads to a return to crime, which certainly is not advantageous to the community.

In just seven states, every citizen accused of a crime gets a fair shake in a court of law. So think twice the next time you consider rolling through a stop sign—it could cost you.