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State Indigent Legal Costs Hold Steady at $2.3 billion in Past Year

State-paid expenditures for indigent defendants’ legal fees held steady in fiscal year 2012, the last year for which statistics are available.  In 2012, according to the newest report by the Bureau of Justice (BJS) statistics, compiled by the U.S. Department of Justice, state governments spent a total of $2.3 billion nationally on the criminal defense costs of people unable to pay their own legal fees.

According to the report, “The Sixth and Fourteenth Amendments to the U.S. Constitution guarantee that people accused of crimes who cannot afford an attorney have the right to appointed counsel.” The U.S. Supreme Court has also mandated indigent legal defense in a series of decisions. Most indigent legal costs are paid by state government, with Pennsylvania, the only state that leaves that task to county governments.

In the past four fiscal years, from 2008 to 2012, annual state legal costs were between $2.2 billion and $2.4 billion according to BJS data.  The U.S. Census Bureau’s Indigent Defense Services (IDS) studies, which compiled statistics from not only government-funded public defender offices, but also all spending on indigent defense, which included contract attorneys, assigned counsel, as well as public defender offices.

The different data points in each set of studies resulted in fairly wide discrepancies in total amounts spent on legal defense, with IDS figures generally but not always higher than the BJS study, generally in the rage of about 10%.

The BJS study also tracked total judicial-legal expenditures by state governments, which showed spending on indigent legal defense held steady between 9.% and 10% of state budgets between 2008 to 2012. This mirrored the relative stability of such expenses during the same time period.


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