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The real cost of "free" legal counsel

Hollywood has educated the public about what are known as Miranda Rights. Many TV cops have been heard advising suspecfts they have the right to remain silent. They are also obliged to tell suspects they have the right to consult with a lawyer, and if they cannot afford an attorney, one will be appointed for them. But here in Virginia, the Legal Aid Justice Center says poor defendants end up getting a bill.

Pat Levy-Lavelle is a senior attorney with the Legal Aid Justice Center
UVA School of Law
Pat Levy-Lavelle is a senior attorney with the Legal Aid Justice Center

“Low level misdemeanors might get charged $120 up to $1235 for certain types of felonies, and folks might have multiple criminal charges brought against them as part of the same case, so those fees can add up,” says Senior Attorney Pat Levy-Lavelle. That might not sound like much money to you, but for low-income defendants, it can be a disaster.

“People who are trying to juggle court debt bills have to decide, in a lot of cases, what not to pay," says Levy-Lavelle. "Whether that’s getting behind on their housing payments or other consumer debt, that also can have spillover effects onto credit reports.”

The bill even follows some people to prison, where the state deducts from their earnings of less than 50 cents an hour.

“This debt is not frozen while people are behind bars," he explains. "One of the gentlemen featured in our report was earning 45 cents per hour, and the courts were taking a portion of even that 45 cents per hour towards court debt.”
The state ends up collecting just over a third of what is due – often paying collection agencies much of the money. Legal Aid Justice is calling on the legislature to fully fund public defenders and stop sticking poor people with bills they can’t afford.

This report, provided by Virginia Public Radio, was made possible with support from the Virginia Education Association.

Sandy Hausman is Radio IQ's Charlottesville Bureau Chief