Florida is latest US state to charge for public defender

Florida has become the latest in a growing list of US states to introduce fees to those defendants poor enough to qualify for public representation.

From the beginning of this year, the state has charged indigent defendants who seek public representation a $40 evaluation fee.

In recent years, many other states, including South Carolina, California, Colorado, Connecticut and New Jersey have implemented similar evaluation fees, ranging from $10 to $100.

The states of Wisconsin, Kansas and Virginia have taken this trend further by making those who are eligible for public defence pay for representation. Wisconsin introduced its fee system in August 1995. It now charges $200 for a misdemeanour and $400 for a felony unless the defendant can come up with $50 within 30 days of qualifying for a public defence.

None of the states will deny representation to anyone who cannot afford to pay, but Wisconsin is the only state that charges fees whether the defendants are proved guilty or not. The state will also refer defendants to collection agencies if they do not pay.

Speaking to the local legal press, Waring Fincke, a board member of the Wisconsin Association of Criminal Defence Lawyers and a former staff lawyer for the public defender's office, fiercely criticised the state's stance.

“The public defender's office was assailed by right-wingers in the legislature who fail to see a need for state public defenders in the first place,” he said. “They think to themselves: 'Why spend so much on criminals?'”

Fincke added that when public money is tight the defender's office is always “ripe for the picking”.