(this post is in response to "You want fries with that?" by Ernie Lewis

Cost.  I agree it’s hard to see how a state that is paying $250 per case—and that’s Kentucky, a GOOD state—will find good lawyers to defend people for that kind of money.  We used to have a county that paid $800 per felony.  Some of the lawyers in that county loved it:  pick up 5 clients on Tuesday, wait a week, enter the pleas, collect $4,000.  I worked hard to abolish that system, and “vouchers” sounds like bringing it back.  Am I wrong?  Please advise.

Beyond that, there’s the economy of scale.  In my old courthouse, a misdemeanor pre-trial conference was set for half an hour.  I would do 5 or 6 in an afternoon.  I knew a private lawyer who would do one: he would bill for half a day.  Does it make sense for 5 or 6 lawyers with vouchers to each work a half a day doing one of the pre-trials I used to do?

Training.  We ran an 8-day DNA Institute for 30 of our lawyers.  How does the client walking around with a DNA case and a voucher, get a lawyer who has had that kind of training?  Or any training?  Do we trust lawyer advertising to get the client to an attorney who knows what she needs to know?   

Team defense.  Will there be vouchers for co-counsel?  Time spent in case brainstorming? Social worker? Immigration consultant?  Law clerk?  Forensic unit lawyer?  We provide these right now through a defender agency—it has been a lot of work to build in these services and to lose them would be just awful.

Leadership.   We have had a ton of training on “public defender leadership.”  Includes how to have a community-based office, a client-centered work force, a holistic approach:  is the invisible hand of the marketplace going to make all this happen under a voucher system?   

Court operations.  Before we got a p.d. system going, the judges and prosecutors did all the planning.  When we became a state agency, we got a seat at the table, to talk about calendar management, jail conditions, how to run drug court, whether kids have to wear shackles.  The first drug court started because the public defender in Miami had time, not based on a voucher, to talk to the prosecutor. Who is going to give a lawyer a voucher to go to a meeting about addiction, or kids wearing shackles?

Justice policy.  I’m just back from 6 meetings with legislators about a bill with 8 parts, all of which reduce collateral consequences for juveniles.  Been working on it for a year.  When the system is boiled down to clients |PLUS| vouchers |PLUS| free-range lawyers, who’s going to do that?

I just met with a chief defender who has been planning a multi-agency conference on the needs of Somali clients—will there be vouchers for that?  She is also working on a national committee writing standards for responding to mentally ill clients:  she is a public defender from a public defender office, and she gets a salary, not a voucher.

So—to speak frankly—I think a public defender agency contributes more than just providing a lawyer for each case.  The potential is there to change the court system, change the law, change the meaning of justice; but there aren’t any “vouchers” to pay for that work.

Thanks for listening, friends.  I’m ready to lighten up now.