How to be indigent in Georgia

This blog is about being “indigent”, which, as far as I can tell, is a word that only comes up in legalese.  Most people just say “poor”, or use other, less politically correct adjectives.

I complain about being poor right now.  I’m unemployed, I’ve got loans coming due, and rent and food to pay for, etc, etc.  But I’ve definitely been in worse situations.  For one thing, once I get my bar results, I have a pretty marketable set of skills.

There was a time that I had no car, took public transit everywhere I went, had no credit card, and got eviction warnings on a monthly basis because I could never pay my rent on time.  It sucks.  Trying to break out of it sucks even more.  You can’t afford internet, so you have to wait in line to use crap computers at the public library just to check your email and job listings.  You have no scanner or fax, so every kind of written communication you send or receive takes forever and runs the risk of getting lost in the morass of junk mail that has taken over the U.S. postal service.  You find out about everything too late to do anything about it. You deliberately overdraw your bank account by three dollars, taking the thirty dollar fine, just so you can eat or buy a bus pass to get to an interview that may go nowhere.  It takes you two hours to get between locations that are a twenty minute drive if you own a car.

Remember this number: $50.00 was food for two weeks.

I did not have to contend with some of the other issues facing a lot of our clients at the Conflict Defender, including neighborhood violence and the resulting relations with the police; ignorance, and nasty habits passed down by generation.

I’m not going to spend a lot of time ranting about handouts and budgets.  There’s been about enough of that on the internets lately.  I want to point out an interesting juxtaposition that I was exposed to yesterday morning.

First, understand that you have to be really up the proverbial creek to be able to qualify for the public defender.   But that’s why the public defender is here, right?  So that those who cannot afford an attorney have their constitutional right to represented.  So that liberty is not abused, and money is not wasted incarcerating innocent people.  So that we as a society maintain a standard of fairness for all of our citizens, even the ones we don’t like very much, or would prefer to ignore.

I love this equality under the law ideal, by the way.  I think the ideal, even if we are not always able to rise to meet it, is extremely noble.  I think as long as we at least hold that ideal out as something to aspire to, we’re going in the right direction.

There is actually a law in Georgia that requires that people using the services of the public defender pay a $50.00 fee.

The wording is interesting; the fee “shall” be waived if the court finds that the applicant is unable to pay the fee or that the fee would cause “measurable hardship”.  A lot times, nobody mentions the law.  I’m not sure why.  Possibly other judges just assume that if you’re at the poverty line required to qualify for public defender services, $50 constitutes measurable hardship.

On other hand, all the public defender offices in the state are really strapped for resources right now, which could be why yesterday, I was in a court room where the judge required that the defendants pay the fee before the public defender could do any work for them.

Consequently, we spent hours explaining the system of payment (go to this office with these forms, stand in line, get this piece of paper, bring it to this office, call this different phone number etc. etc.) to people who are not allowed to officially be our clients until they have climbed back on the bus, scrounged up $50 (which is a LOT of money if you’re only making $400 a month), taken another day off work, climbed back on the bus back to the courthouse, and completed the paper run around.

In addition to making it difficult to give our clients the kind of counsel that is supposed to be their constitutional right, it seems like the state could be wasting a lot of money by making lawyers do a lot work that could be done by an organized administrative assistant (or even a computer program).  This not only cuts into the time the attorneys can spend doing the actual legal work, it puts a more expensive employee on a task that could be done by a less expensive employee.

Basically, in order to be represented by the public defender in Georgia, a defendant must have  1.) No money and 2.) $50.00.

I don’t get it.  But it’s the kind of law that makes me wish the people who voted for it all lose their jobs and let their insurance lapse, and then get pulled over on the way home from an interview for looking vaguely hispanic and having a taillight out.