States Create Special Commissions to Study Flat-Fee Indigent Defense

States Create Special Commissions to Study Flat-Fee Indigent Defense

By Joe Watson

Some states may soon be doing more to guarantee the Sixth Amendment right to counsel for indigent criminal defendants.

Special commissions have been convened in Nevada, Idaho, Michigan, and Pennsylvania to investigate how flat-fee contracts with private defense attorneys are failing defendants who can’t afford to hire counsel. Meanwhile, some courts are weighing whether the practice of flat-fee indigent defense is unconstitutional.

According to Stateline, the news service of The Pew Center on the States, more than a dozen states use flat-fee contract attorneys to represent indigent defendants in order to save money and provide relief to swamped public defenders’ offices. However, critics argue that such “contract counsel” tend to be young, inexperienced, penurious, and overwhelmed by their own caseloads; thus, the supposed savings effectively subsidize backlogged appellate courts and state prisons filled with poorly-represented defendants.

“This type of contract creates a direct financial conflict of interest between the attorney and the client,” said David Carroll, research director at the National Legal Aid and Defender Association. “Because the lawyer will be paid the same amount, no matter how much or how little he works on each case, it is in the lawyer’s personal interest to devote as little time as possible to each appointed case.”

In Jackson County, Michigan, for example, contract attorneys are paid a paltry $600 flat fee per case to defend indigent clients accused of second-degree and Class A through D felonies and only $350 per case for lesser felonies. In Lyon County, Nevada, 200 indigent defense felony cases and 400 misdemeanor cases were contracted out to a first-year lawyer who had passed his bar exam only a few weeks earlier.

One of the most egregious examples cited by Stateline occurred in Washoe County, Nevada. Washoe Legal Services, a nonprofit law firm, agreed in August 2011 to a six-month $80,000 contract to handle all cases adjudicated through the county’s early resolution program. County officials estimated there were as many as 1,000 such cases, meaning the firm was being paid as little as $80 to handle each case.

States and counties that utilize flat-fee contracts for indigent defense have been accused by critics of running “plea mills” – and those critics include members of the American Bar Association (ABA).

In February 2002 the ABA issued a report titled “Ten Principles of a Public Defense Delivery System,” which set forth basic standards for indigent defense systems. The report recommended that “Contracts with private attorneys for public defense services should never be let primarily on the basis of cost; they should specify performance requirements and the anticipated workload, provide an overflow or funding mechanism for excess, unusual, or complex cases, and separately fund expert, investigative, and other litigation support services.”

Michael A. Cherry, associate chief justice of Nevada’s Supreme Court and chair of the state’s Indigent Defense Commission argued that the criminal justice system will remain inequitable so long as flat-fee attorney contracts are used.

But poor rural counties, he acknowledged, aren’t willing to spend more on indigent defense.

“With the economic times, there’s no money to get counties to do anything different,” Cherry said. “Flat-fee contracts may have to be a reality.”

Nevada set up a state public defender’s office in 1971 after the U. S. Supreme Court’s landmark Gideon v. Wainwright decision requires the appointment of free counsel to represent indigent criminal defendants. The state covered 80% of the costs and the counties paid the rest. However, the budget for the public defender’s office was cut considerably over the years, and in order to get more return for their indigent defense dollars, counties began awarding contracts to lawyers willing to accept a flat fee.

The Nevada Supreme Court’s Indigent Defense Commission issued a final report on November 20, 2007, based on a “statewide survey of indigent defense services.” The Commission made a number of suggestions for improvements, including establishing caseload standards and ensuring the “independence from the judiciary of the court-appointed public defense system,” as the role of judges in appointing counsel “creates an appearance of impropriety and the opportunity for abuse.”

PLN previously reported criticism of Alabama’s indigent defense system, which operated with little oversight in terms of judges appointing contract counsel – including attorneys who had donated to the judges’ election campaigns. [See: PLN, Sept 2010, p.28]. On June 9, 2011, Alabama created a statewide Office of Indigent Defense Services to oversee criminal defense systems on the county level and to set caseload standards, attorney qualification standards, and standards for the “performance of appointed counsel, contract counsel, and public defenders.”

Michigan is one of only a few states that provide little or no state funding for criminal defense services on the county level; consequently, most counties use contract attorneys rather than public defender offices.

Michigan ACLU legal director Mike J. Steinberg noted that contract counsel “have to encourage their clients to plead guilty and keep the docket moving in order to generate the volume that they can make a living. So the incentive is to get your client to plead guilty as quickly as possible doing the least amount of work as possible.”

Criticism of Michigan’s indigent defense system came to a head in March 2012, when the U. S. Supreme Court decided Lafler v. Cooper, 132 S. Ct. 1376 (2012), which alleged the quality of plea advice given by contract counsel to an indigent defendant was legally ineffective. The Court held that defendants have a Sixth Amendment right to effective assistance of counsel during plea negotiations. [See: PLN, Sept. 2012, p.18].

The petitioners in another case, Duncan v. Michigan, 780 N. W.2d 843 (Mich. 2010), are seeking injunctive relief from what they allege are practices that violate their rights as indigent defendants; the suit seeks to compel the state to provide funding for indigent defense services.

These cases prompted Michigan Governor Rick Snyder to issue an executive order on October 13, 2011, establishing an Indigent Defense Advisory Commission.
The Commission issued its final report on June 22, 2012; among numerous findings, it noted that the state’s indigent defense system consists of “an uncoordinated, 83-county patchwork quilt of service delivery systems, with each county’s ‘system’ dependent on its own interpretation of what is adequate and on its own funding availability.”

The Commission further found “that Michigan’s current system of providing legal representation for indigent criminal defendants lacks procedural safeguards to ensure effective public criminal defense services.” Recommendations in the report included ensuring that “Each local system must take affirmative steps to avoid the creation of economic disincentives or incentives that threaten to impair the provision of effective assistance of counsel.”

In Pennsylvania, the Task Force and Advisory Committee on Services to Indigent Criminal Defendants issued a report in December 2011 that examined indigent defense systems in a number of states; the Committee wrote that “Pennsylvania [is] the only state that does not appropriate or provides for so much as a penny toward assisting the counties in complying with Gideon’s mandate.”

Quoting from a 2003 report that reached similar conclusions, the Committee noted that “Most counties pay assigned counsel a flat fee (per year in most counties and per case in Philadelphia), creating a disincentive for counsel to devote time to a particular case. As a result, attorneys are not taking the time to visit clients in jail, file motions, conduct effective investigations, or respond to mail from clients.”

“It is really penny-wise and pound-foolish to use a flat-fee compensation system that doesn’t pay lawyers what they need for investigations and casework,” noted Virginia Sloan, president of the Constitution Project, a Washington, D. C.-based right-to-counsel organization. “You end up with a trial that is not done right, which can lead to potentially costly appeals, and you may have to retry the case, which is bad for the victims and very expensive.”

A small contingent of states is moving in a different direction from flat-fee indigent defense contracting and its inherent flaws, according to the Constitution Project. Iowa and Washington State have banned contract counsel altogether. Oregon enforces limits on its flat-fee system at the state level and reevaluates caseloads for contract counsel every six months. And in Tennessee, both the Tennessee Bar Association and the Chattanooga Area Criminal Defense Lawyers vocally resisted a 2011 proposal that would have allowed flat-fee contract counsel in that state.

Sources:,, Report of the Michigan Advisory Commission on Indigent Defense (June 22, 2012),,,,,

(First published by Prison Legal News and used here by permission)