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A More Progressive Approach to Legal Representation

Task force examines adequacy of legal services for indigent defendants

This past October, state lawmakers authorized the formation of the Indigent Representation Task Force. This panel, comprised of jurists both past and present, and other distinguished members of the legal community, was tasked with gathering data and examining the overall efficacy of the state's efforts in providing legal representation to impoverished people facing criminal charges.

Specifically, the task force was to determine whether the $19 million currently allocated to provide legal representation to the indigent, much of which goes to private attorneys who cover the many cases that public defender's cannot, is sufficient. 

Interestingly enough, former Tennessee Supreme Court Justice William Koch, the chair of the task force, recently penned a letter in which he concluded that even though the system is indeed underfunded, any proposal calling for an increase in the hourly rate paid to private attorneys appointed to provide representation to indigent defendants "will continue to be dead on arrival."

At a subsequent public meeting, he reiterated this belief and noted that the problem can be traced the stubbornly persistent -- and altogether unjust -- view among some state lawmakers that destitute defendants are almost always guilty and, as such, no additional funding needs to be authorized.

As it stands, the Volunteer State pays private attorneys retained to represent indigent defendants $50 per hour in-court and $40 per hour out-of-court with caps anywhere from $500 to $5,000. To put this in perspective, consider these rates have gone unchanged for over 20 years, even though the state has introduced a multitude of new criminal laws and enhanced the penalties for existing ones.

Consider also that these hourly rates are less than the amount paid to expert witnesses, and the second lowest in the entire nation, trailing only Wisconsin, which has no wage cap.

The task force, which was quick to shoot down claims that it was nothing more than an elaborate charade, indicated at the aforementioned public meeting that raising hourly wages was just one of many issues that needed to be addressed concerning representation for the indigent.

Indeed, attendees argued that such issues as the fairness of the state's bail bond system and the creation of separate appellate division for the public defender's office must be studied further.

While it's encouraging to see these issues being examined and discussed, here's hoping it actually leads to real action to improve legal representation in this area.

If you are under investigation or have already been charged with any sort of felony or misdemeanor, please consider speaking with an experienced legal professional as soon as possible.

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Mathis, Bates & Klinghard PLLC
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Clarksville, TN 37040

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