Indigent defense

The Nevada Supreme Court has instructed Clark County District Court judges to start charging fees to defendants represented by the public defender’s office or otherwise represented by lawyers paid by taxpayers — on a sliding scale based on their ability to pay.

Charges will range from a minimum $250 if the case is resolved at the Justice Court level, to a maximum $750 if the case nears trial or goes to trial. The more work put into a case, the higher the fee.

The new fees go into effect Tuesday.

Nevada law addressing public defenders clearly states their clients will be represented “without charge.” But another statute allows judges to assess fees based on a defendant’s ability to pay, though judges rarely did so in the past.

Clark County Public Defender Phil Kohn said he wants to make sure a defendant’s failure to pay the fees will never result in the imposition of a jail sentence or probation revocation. Doing so would be a violation of a defendant’s guaranteed right to appointed counsel, Mr. Kohn said.

Nevada Supreme Court spokesman Bill Gang said people who are truly indigent might not be assessed the fee.

If this all seems rather odd, it’s because the courts are trying to deal with a constitutional guarantee.

Former County Commissioner Mary Kincaid Chauncey famously presented herself to the courts as an “indigent” defendant when she went on trial on corruption charges, though no one had previously thought of her as a shopping-cart lady.

It’s getting awfully pricey for taxpayers to fund the defense of a vast group of defendants who may indeed have some assets. But the courts are understandably reluctant to undertake determining the net worth of each defendant and what they can “afford to pay.”

Is the way we now pay for legal “indigent defense” mererly a demonstration of where health care will be, a few years hence? Taxpayers who never get arrested pay for the defense of those who do — defendants who pay no taxes at all, in most cases.

Similarly, it’s now proposed that those who are young and healthy should pay for the “health care” of the elderly and the ill. So long as someone else pays, anything can be made to appear “free.” But it never seems to work for long.

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