Report calls for changes in legal representation of Tenn. poor

Apr 11, 2017

MEMPHIS, Tenn. (AP) — A report has found that Tennessee's system of providing court-appointed attorneys for the poor pales in comparison to the state's power and resources.

The Commercial Appeal (http://memne.ws/2o09NpX) reports a task force appointed by the state Supreme Court released its findings Monday, saying that the current programs fail to adequately protect those who cannot afford legal fees for things like representation in criminal cases and protecting children's and parents' rights in juvenile court proceedings.

"What we are talking about are programs designed to protect the liberties of people from inappropriate interference by the government," said former state Supreme Court Justice William C. Koch Jr., who chaired the task force.

The report recommended several changes, including increased funding and pay for attorneys. After the Supreme Court ruled in 1963 that the U.S. Constitution guarantees the right to an attorney, Tennessee developed a hybrid system for representation.

A separately funded public defender's office provides the primary means of legal defense to the poor. Private attorneys handle the overflow on a case-by-case basis and are currently paid $40-50 per hour. This rate has remained unchanged for more than 25 years.

Memphis defense attorney Mike Working said the lack of pay and delay in remuneration attracts few attorneys to the work except for "brand-new, baby lawyers."

Inexperienced private attorneys— whose payments are also capped per case— and an overburdened public defender's office has created what the task force calls "an assembly line" of the poor from court to prison. The report revealed that 94 percent of state court convictions resulted from guilty pleas.

The report was generated after 18 months of listening tours and research. The findings will now go to the court, which will decide which recommendations to pursue.

The report noted that proposals regarding money must be enacted by state lawmakers.

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Information from: The Commercial Appeal, http://www.commercialappeal.com