Committee would overhaul screening process, fee collection for indigent defense
The Mohave County Board of Supervisors are expected to appoint a committee Monday to look into revamping the screening process that determines whether indigent court defendants can actually pay for county-appointed attorneys.
The 15-person committee would consist of one private citizen, two individuals who are lower income, one person from county management, one Superior Court judge and one Justice Court judge, the public and legal defender, a representative from the county attorney's office and two private attorneys, Public Defender Dana Hlavac said.
Rounding out the committee would be four people from the county court staff, including one each from Superior Court, Kingman/Cerbat Justice Court, Lake Havasu Justice Court and Bullhead City Justice Court, Hlavac said.
One issue the committee would consider is more strictly imposing a $25 fee that all criminal defendants would pay to the county public or legal defender's office for administrative functions, Hlavac said.
The fee, which is not currently imposed consistently, would cover the cost of time and expenses for attorneys and staff in opening a case file, obtaining disclosures and making future court dates for the defendant.
Superior Court does not have a standardized screening method used to determine a defendant's ability to pay.
Some judges simply ask if the defendant can afford an attorney and usually defendants say they cannot, Hlavac said.
Hlavac recommends that the defendant file a financial statement accessing their true income status.
At a defendant's sentencing, judges usually do not assess a standardized reimbursement fee, making it difficult to project court revenue.
About $150,000 a year could be generated to the county if the $25 administrative fee is more strictly imposed on defendants, even if the fee is imposed on 80 percent of the cases in the public or legal defenders office.
Defendants who are truly indigent would have their $25 fee waived, Hlavac said.
In a review of about 15 percent of all cases assigned to the public defender's office, about 20 to 30 percent of the defendants could afford reimbursing the county $400 or more during their probation.
Another 30 to 40 percent could afford a minimal fee of $150 to $250.
That leaves 30-50 percent of the defendants who actually cannot afford legal services, he said.
With the collection of attorney fees on misdemeanor and felony cases, an additional $150,00-$500,000 per year can be recovered back to the county.
An average court case costs the county about $700, Hlavac said.