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Report: Cost Of Defending Indigents Increases 45%

The cost in Arizona of defending those accused of crimes who couldn’t afford to pay for their attorneys rose 45 per cent between 1998 and 2002, a new report states.

The report, “The Rising Cost of Indigent Defense in Arizona,” also states that the counties pay the largest share — about 80 per cent — of the costs for legal counsel, hitting rural, less affluent counties particularly hard.

The Arizona Criminal Justice Commission released the 15-page report on May 28. The commission, created in 1982 by an act of the Legislature, has two main purposes: to administer grants and to report on issues related to the criminal justice system in the state.

The total state expenditure for indigent defense rose from $55,353,470 in fiscal 1998 to $80,343,726 in fiscal 2002, reflecting a 45.1 per increase over the five-year period and a 9.4 per cent increase from fiscal 2001 to fiscal 2002, the report states.

A previous study, released in 1994, stated that there was a 50 per cent rise in the costs of indigent defense between fiscal years 1989 and 1993.

Chuck Teegarden, spokesman for Pinal County Attorney Robert Carter Olson, said Pinal County is seeing a rise in crime associated with population growth, including more criminal activity by undocumented workers.

“On the positive side of the ledger, we have some real good law enforcement agencies here in Pinal County that do a great job in putting together the evidence we need to prosecute cases,” Mr. Teegarden said. The downside is that better cases mean more prosecutions and more costs for indigent defense, he said.

Pinal County saw its costs for indigent defense rise from $2,366,94 in 1998 to $3,618,059 in 2002, a 54 per cent increase. Maricopa County saw its cost in the same period rise from $29,027,351 to $43,947,968, a 51 per cent increase.

The report includes a number of anonymous comments from officials at the agencies that submitted the cost data. One official said that a reason for the high cost of indigent defense is that some cases get filed with felony charges, but end with the defendants pleading guilty to misdemeanors. Reimbursement is higher to an attorney for defending a criminal case that might have been filed initially as a misdemeanor case in a justice court rather than Superior Court.

Costs likely are to continue rising over the next several years, the report states. One factor is the 2002 U.S. Supreme Court ruling in Ring v. Arizona, which stated that the state’s statute allowing judges, rather than juries, to decide certain factors in death penalty cases deprived defendants of their right to trial by juries of their peers. The cases of about two dozen death-row inmates who had been sentenced by judges may have their cases sent back to trial courts for resentencing, and many of those inmates are indigents. The report makes no specific recommendations for addressing the problems, but notes that several states in the country do bear most, if not all, the costs of defending the indigent in criminal proceedings.

Mr. Teegarden said he anticipates the governor will look at the burdens put on counties for indigent defense, given her background as a U.S. attorney and then as state attorney general.

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