More on the poor in our prison system

Posted: Wednesday, August 02, 2000

I enjoyed your recent article about why our jails are full of poor people, but I would like something clarified.

In the article I am quoted as saying that court-appointed lawyers who work for $40 an hour are incompetent. I made the remark in the context of comments about death penalty cases in death penalty states, where most of the defense lawyers are court-appointed at a rate of $40 an hour with a cap of a few thousand dollars. Often, the lawyers that accept death penalty appointments are inexperienced or incompetent. Some of them have fallen asleep at trial or come to trial drunk (and the U.S. Supreme Court has upheld convictions in those cases). The Justice Department has investigated, and recommends raising rates significantly to attract more experienced and competent counsel, and provide a budget for defense-related expenses.

Alaskans rejected the death penalty after the last poor and minority defendants were hung in downtown Juneau prior to statehood. However, we imprison more poor people, per capita, than any developed country in the world.

In Juneau, where we have an excellent criminal defense bar, public defenders make less than some police officers. Other court-appointed lawyers sometimes work at a rate of $40 an hour with a $500 cap on fees and case-related expenses, handling city misdemeanor cases.

Those cases are a far cry from the complex death penalty cases I mentioned in my discussion with the Empire, and the lawyers that handle them generally do an excellent job considering there is virtually no money for expenses. The budget for fees and expenses, set in the 1980s, is ridiculously inadequate and in need of a substantial increase in order to guarantee fair trials for accused persons in our community - regardless of their ability to pay, and regardless of their factual guilt or innocence.

By the way, anyone who doubts that nearly all of the people prosecuted and locked up in our local prison are financially poor should observe the prison's family visitor parking area. Some families own a car, but you won't see any Cadillacs or Rolls Royces.

Dan Wayne


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