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Inequities impact Indiana courts’ affordability

Court costs

David Williams | News 8 at 5

INDIANAPOLIS (WISH) — Some people in the state’s justice system can’t afford to pay for an attorney or court costs.

On Tuesday, state lawmakers on a study committee heard from court leaders about setting up a statewide standard for people who can’t pay court fees, fines and costs that can reach hundreds or even thousands of dollars in criminal cases.

Michael Moore, assistant executive director of the state government’s Indiana Public Defender’s Council, said Tuesday, “It’s expensive to be poor in Indiana.”

In some counties, people can be re-arrested and thrown in jail for not paying court fines, fees and costs.

“You’re removing people from their families, from their communities, from their jobs,” Moore said.

According to Moore, it’s up to the judges in each county to decide the threshold of whether or not someone can pay for an attorney or court costs in a criminal case.

“There’s no consistency,” Moore said. “It’s all over the map, literally 92 counties. In one county, almost every person’s deemed indigent; in another one, they’re not.”

That inequity is impacting the system.

“So, you see some counties overappoint, some underappoint public defenders,” Moore said. “People are going months without ever having representation. Or they’re overrepresented, meaning the system’s overburdened. So, public defenders in that area have too many cases and are providing ineffective assistance because they can’t keep up with the volume.”

That’s a big reason state lawmakers and other government leaders talked Tuesday about creating statewide uniformity — especially when it comes to being appointed a public defender.

On average, the Indiana Public Defender’s Council represents 75% of people charged with crimes in Marion County.

“What we’re proposing and what’s being considered is some threshold — so, determined by income, determined by what programs a person may qualify for,” Moore said.

The Public Defender’s Council argued consistency among counties and courts would keep attorneys from being stretched too thin and help keep people out of jail.

“Increase their likelihood of a positive outcome in the case,” Moore said.

Andrew Cullen, the public policy and communications specialist with the state government’s Indiana Public Defender Commission, said all Hoosiers should care about the inequities.

“Everyone in our state has in some way been affected by crime,” Cullen said. “You’re either paying for it as a taxpayer or you’ve been a victim or maybe you’re a person who has been convicted or accused of a crime. We should all really care about the direction our state takes in providing lawyers for those folks.”

The next meeting of the legislature’s Interim Study Committee on Corrections and Criminal Code will be 11 a.m. Sept. 18 at the Statehouse.