Gideon Alert: understanding Alabama's "perfect storm"

BY David Carroll on Tuesday, February 9, 2010 at 1:32 PM

When elected judges have the authority to give out big payments for assigned cases without being fiscally responsible for doing so, a state like Alabama creates the “perfect storm” of characteristics that virtually guarantees ineffective assistance of counsel to the poor.  A great newspaper series from Mobile’s Lagniappe is starting to highlight these issues and – perhaps – kick start reform in much the way the Las Vegas Review-Journal spotlight series did in Nevada two years ago.  The title of the article is something you would not find anywhere else in the country: Indigent Defense Still Lucrative in Mobile.

The state of Alabama pays for all indigent defense services - no county money at all - out of a fund that combines state general fund monies and revenues collected on a $50 civil filing fee.  The state is statutorily required to fill any gap between actual costs of services and revenue raised by the civil filing fee.  Because the counties do not contribute any money at all to indigent defense and there is no state oversight of how the money is spent, there is also no local accountability for how the money is spent.  This means judges can reward attorneys who move dockets quickly and/or who kick back money to judges’ re-election campaigns.  One attorney featured in the story earned over $260,000 by handling 523 cases (or, opening and closing more than 1.4 case every day -- weekends and holidays included! -- including those that go to trial).

The “perfect storm”: judges are happy, defense providers are happy, counties are happy, district attorneys are happy …. The only problem is that clients’ rights are being trampled on every day.  Read Part II of the series: Legal Expert Calls Mobile County's Indigent Defense System the "Perfect Storm".