Public-Defender Fees Waived for Those Found Innocent in California

SACRAMENTO, Calif. (CN) – Californians accused of a crime but found not guilty will no longer have to pay for their public defenders, after Gov. Jerry Brown on Monday signed a criminal justice-reform law striking the requirement.

Under a bill authored by a pair of Los Angeles-area state senators, people using court-appointed counsel must only repay courts for legal costs if they are convicted.

State Sen. Holly Mitchell, D-Los Angeles, said the current reimbursement laws are a detriment to low-income Californians and that Senate Bill 355 closes a damaging loophole which punishes individuals who are falsely arrested.

“Under current criminal law, a low-income, homeless or impoverished person who is accused of a crime that they did not commit can still be ordered to pay the costs of a court-appointed attorney,” Mitchell said in a statement. “Together we can bring compassion, reason and greater social awareness about the true costs of a criminal justice system that for too long has followed policies that created and perpetuated a cradle-to-grave prison pipeline.”

Brown signed the proposal three weeks after it cleared the Legislature unanimously.

Supporters of the bill, including the American Civil Liberties Union of California and the Conference of California Bar Associations, noted innocent defendants sometimes plead guilty to crimes in exchange for prosecutors agreeing to waive public defender fees. They claim SB 355 will remove the threat of inducement from pretrial negotiations and relieve stress on poor defendants.

Mitchell’s bill is one of seven making up the Equity and Justice reform package. Other proposals include sealing arrest records of those not convicted of a crime, a minimum age standard for incarcerations, a ban on sentencing minors to life without parole and enhanced Miranda rights protections.

Mitchell and state Sen. Ricardo Lara, D-Bell Gardens, hope to amend current criminal laws that treat minors as adults and promote rehabilitation over jail time for juveniles. They say the package will reduce county costs related to minor drug sentences and remove employment barriers for people accused but not convicted of a felony or misdemeanor.

The remaining criminal justice reforms have cleared the state Senate and are pending in the Assembly.

California is also considering sweeping changes to its bail system, which critics say unfairly imprisons low-income defendants. Senate Bill 10 would require trial judges to consider pretrial reports on each felony detainee’s flight risk and remove bail or set it at “the least restrictive level necessary.”

Opposed by a collection of the state’s district attorneys and law enforcement agencies, the bail reform measure is scheduled for a committee hearing Tuesday.

 

 

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