Published March 14, 2011
The governor’s budget proposal to restructure the Committee for Public Counsel Services, which provides legal defense for poor people, has drawn an outcry of criticism from attorneys around the state.
The proposal seeks to eliminate the 3,000 contracted private attorneys in the CPCS and replace them with 1,000 public defenders over a five-month period. There are currently 250 public defenders.
Gov. Deval Patrick said his proposal would save $48 million in fiscal year 2012. In 2011 the public counsel program cost $210 million.
Since 2004, 40 percent of the CPCS budget growth has been due to increasing the private counsel rate from $30 per hour – then the lowest in the nation – to $50 per hour for district court representation, $60 per hour for superior court, and $100 per hour to represent defendants in murder cases.
These old rates made the normal quality of life unreachable for attorneys just starting out, said Michael Brennan, a Needham-based private attorney in the program.
“I started at $21,780 per year in 1990, and I worked a second job at Filene’s in Chestnut Hill Mall,” Brennan said.
Rates were supposed to increase over three years starting in April 2005, reaching up to about $120 per hour for murder cases, though the attorneys only saw one year’s worth of raises.
Rather than produce savings, Anthony Benedetti, the public defenders’ chief counsel, worries Patrick’s plan would end up costing the taxpayers more.
His office now pays the 3,000 private lawyers an average of $51,195 per year, with no fringe benefits or reimbursement for office space and supplies. However, hiring 1,000 public employees would cost a total of $85,304 per full-time lawyer each year with benefits, space and equipment reimbursement, and possible future salary increases through collective bargaining.
Benedetti and Brennan also worry the program would lose the experience base that private defenders provide.
“It improves the effectiveness of both groups (public and private defenders) by sharing resources and ongoing peer development,” Benedetti said. “Nationally, the experts in this area say that a mix of public and private is the best way to go.”
Taking a two-thirds personnel cut would also mean a reduction in manpower available for more advanced cases at the superior court level.
“Where are we going to find 1,000 attorneys?” Benedetti said. “They make the assumption everyone would be paid at the district court salary level, which will not be efficient to attract the level of experience to handle the varied caseload, such as felonies, murder cases, and parental rights cases.”
If the state lays off 3,000 private attorneys, MetroWest area constituents would suffer a lack of efficient representation, as well as an economic dip because of the rise in unemployment, Brennan said.
“There are 3,000 lawyers that are small business people in our communities,” he said. “They pay rent for office space; they buy food at restaurants in the community.”
Benedetti and Brennan, speaking at an editorial board meeting with the Daily News, said the state would better save costs and streamline the judicial system by reforming other areas of the program.
They said the state now loses money because defendants who could afford a private lawyer lie to get subsidized representation from the state.
While potential defendants sign a document acknowledging they are subject to perjury, financial backgrounds are seldom checked.
“It’s self-reporting,” Benedetti said. “There’s no independent verification of any kind.”
Creating an independent agency to do that verification would save approximately $24 million, Benedetti said.
The two attorneys also recommended decriminalizing a handful of first-offense minor offenses such as shoplifting, disturbing the peace, larceny by check, trespassing and driving without a license. This would cut back on cases assigned to public defenders, allowing them to concentrate on other clients’ cases.
“There’s almost nothing in Massachusetts you can be charged with that you cannot go to jail for,” Benedetti said. “And if jail is a possibility, you get a lawyer.”
Redefining these misdemeanors as civil infractions and doubling fines for these offenses would save the state money, as well as bring in more money, Benedetti said.
Between fiscal years 2000 and 2004, CPCS projected that it could have saved $8.5 million if the misdemeanors were decriminalized.
“We care about quality but also recognize this is taxpayer money, and that we have to be careful with it,” Benedetti said.
The governor’s press representative did not respond to calls for comment before deadline.
Read more: Lawyers balk at Gov. Patrick’s budget proposal – Framingham, MA – The MetroWest Daily News http://www.metrowestdailynews.com/archive/x1664569999/Lawyers-balk-at-Gov-Patricks-budget-proposal#ixzz1GYreCNfK