No joke

If you’re an indigent person accused of a crime in Wayne County, come April Fool’s Day you’ll want to pay special attention to that section of the Miranda warning that advises: “If you cannot afford an attorney, one will be appointed for you before any questioning if you wish.”

The county will continue providing attorneys for those too poor to pay for one, but, as of April 1, defendants must pledge to reimburse the court for at least part of the cost.

According to Wayne County Circuit Court Chief Judge Mary Beth Kelly, the county currently provides a court-appointed attorney to all those who simply say they can’t afford to hire their own lawyer. It cost the court about $17 million to provide the public legal counsel last year. After a case is resolved, the court can attempt to collect legal fees from defendants, but hasn’t been very successful, says Kelly.

Under the new plan, the chief judge says that those who need a court-appointed attorney will be required to sign a legal document promising to pay back the cost of the service, as well as provide personal information such as a Social Security number. The amount the court attempts to collect (using an outside firm) will depend on a person’s earnings.

Kelly says that the court expects to recoup about $3 million annually with the new system. But Jim Neuhard, executive director of the State Appellate and Defender Office, says such programs “often spend more money than they bring in.”

He says that the court would be better off determining up front who can pay in full or partially and who can’t.

Otherwise, says Neuhard, “It’s sweating blood out of a turnip.”

Ann Mullen is a Metro Times staff writer. E-mail [email protected]

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