June 6, 2017 – The ACLU of Southern California applauds the Los Angeles Board of Supervisors’ decision Tuesday to end the collection of public defender “registration fees.” Until today, defendants who could not afford to hire a lawyer were charged a $50 upfront fee to register for the services of a public defender.
Devon Porter and Michael Kaufman, attorneys at the ACLU, both testified in support of the board’s motion. “The right to a lawyer at government expense if you can’t afford one is a bedrock constitutional protection,” said Porter, a Liman Fellow. “The board’s vote will help protect this fundamental right and ensure equal access to justice for indigent defendants.”
In a report released today, the ACLU of Southern California detailed the many harms that public defender registration fees cause in counties across California.
“The registration fees are part of larger system of court fees that attempt to fund the courts on the backs of those who are least able to afford it,” said Kaufman, the Sullivan & Cromwell Access to Justice Senior Staff Attorney.
The fees, typically collected by public defenders at the first meeting with a prospective client, create distrust between attorney and client and frustrate effective representation. In addition, in many counties, the fees are collected by private companies that use onerous debt practices that can drive low-income residents and their families deeper into poverty.
“California should follow Los Angeles’ lead, eliminate registration fees statewide, and create a more equitable criminal justice system that safeguards defendants’ constitutional rights.”
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The Board of Supervisor’s action Tuesday eliminated the public defender registration fee for both adults and juveniles charged with crimes. For juveniles, the public defender registration fee was the last remaining court fee charged to families of children accused of crimes. Now, Los Angeles joins Santa Clara, Alameda, and Contra Costa as counties that do not require payment of juvenile court fees.
Some counties, such as San Francisco County, have never charged a registration fee for public defenders. “The fundamental right to a lawyer cannot be compromised by requiring the poor accused to pay a fee in order to have access to justice,” said Jeff Adachi, the head of the San Francisco Office of the Public Defender, in a statement provided to the ACLU. “I applaud the Los Angeles County Board of Supervisors’ action removing this impediment, which will help to ensure that any Los Angeles residents charged with a criminal offense have access to a free lawyer.”
The ACLU of Southern California’s report on “registration fees” can be found here: https://www.aclusocal.org/sites/default/files/pdfees-report.pdf