More funding recommended for poor in TN court system

After 18 months of study, a task force set up by the state Supreme Court has provided its recommendations on changes needed to provide appropriate legal representation to the poor – including higher pay for the lawyers who serve them.

From the News Sentinel’s report:

“What we are talking about are programs designed to protect the liberties of people from inappropriate interference by the government,” said former Tennessee Supreme Court Justice William C. Koch Jr., who served as chairman of the Indigent Representation Task Force.

…The report recommends sweeping changes. They include:

–Raising the rates for private attorneys who agree to represent the poor from $40-50 per hour to a minimum of $75 and as much as $125 per hour;

–Eliminating caps on how much time a private attorney can spend working on a poor person’s case and still get paid;

–Increasing funding for public defenders whose sole jobs are representing the poor to boost staffing and lower caseloads;

–Creating a training and certification process for new lawyers to ensure they have the legal ability to defend the poor with as much as skill as private attorneys hired by the rich;

–Creating a commission to manage the entirety of the system of providing legal counsel for the poor in all judicial arenas, particularly juvenile court, instead of the piecemeal approach in place now;

–Boosting pay and crafting standards for the use of experts as witnesses

…Although the high court could carry out some of the recommendations on its own, including raising the rates of pay for court-appointed attorneys, it is the state Legislature that controls the purse strings, so buy-in by both Gov. Bill Haslam’s administration and state legislators is key, the report’s authors noted.

The task force members were careful in the report not to cast blame on the Legislature or the governor’s office for the underfunded indigent representation system.

“The current circumstances are not the result of deliberate indifference on the part of Tennessee’s decision-makers,” the report stated. “Rather, they reflect the dramatic increase in the ratio of cases to the justice system’s capacity during the 20th century.”

Note: The Administrative Office of the Courts press release on the task force recommendations is HERE.  The full report is HERE.

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