BOSTON — Gov. Deval Patrick on Monday proposed ending the state’s practice of hiring private attorneys to represent most indigent criminal defendants in Massachusetts, a proposal the administration says will save $45 million a year, but is drawing criticism from defense attorneys.
Under Patrick’s proposal, the state would hire 1,000 salaried lawyers who would work for the state’s public defender agency instead of the current system of hiring private lawyers known as “bar advocates.”
Patrick, who unveiled the proposal as part of his Fiscal Year 2012 budget, said that over 3,000 bar advocates currently handle about 90 percent of the Committee for Public Counsel Services’ annual case load. The agency’s full-time staff of about 200 lawyers handles the remaining 10 percent of cases.
Patrick said the state’s use of private lawyers who bill at a rate of $50 to $100 per hour “comes at a significant cost to taxpayers.”
“We need a better, more cost-effective system, and this proposal gets us that,” Patrick said in a statement.
Supporters of the change say private lawyers who are paid by the hour are bound to run up higher costs than salaried lawyers.
But several defense attorneys slammed the proposal and challenged the governor’s claim that it would save the state money in the long run.
Boston attorney Stephen Weymouth, who does bar advocacy work as part of his law practice, said he doubts that 1,000 salaried attorneys will be enough to handle the caseload of the state’s public defenders. The state does not pay for health care, pension plans and other benefits for private bar advocates, but will have to provide those benefits for salaried attorneys, he said.
“I understand everyone’s attempt to save money – I get that – but this is just not the way to do it,” Weymouth said.
“As much as people hate to admit this, the infrastructure in Massachusetts to deliver indigent legal services is one of the best, if not the best, in the country.”
Patrick’s proposal would eliminate the Committee for Public Counsel Services and replace it with a newly created Department of Public Counsel Services, under the executive branch instead of under the judicial branch.
The new department would be responsible for verifying whether defendants are indigent and eligible for free defense services, a task that is currently administered by the Probation Department.
Prosecutors have complained for years that they have high higher caseloads, but receive less funding from the state than the private lawyers who do bar advocate work for the public defender agency.
The state’s district attorneys collectively receive about $92 million a year and handle about 300,000 cases, said Suffolk District Attorney Dan Conley. The Committee for Public Counsel Services receives about $168 million for its criminal defense work and handles about 200,000 criminal cases per year.
“There’s no incentive to assess the value of the case and make a decision on how to resolve the case quickly. The only way these lawyers make money is to bill a number of hours on a case … that drives up the costs,” Conley said.
But Anthony Benedetti, chief counsel for the Committee for Public Counsel Services, said bar advocates bill an average of about nine hours for district court cases and receive $450 for that work.
“I don’t think anybody can suggest that $450 as the average cost is outrageous when you’re talking about somebody who is looking at jail time,” Benedetti said.
“To suggest that they are out there overbilling and getting wealthy is just not accurate,” he said.
Benedetti said states across the country have encountered problems by underfunding and overworking their public defenders.
“We cannot imagine that (the governor’s proposal) will save the money they are suggesting without essentially throwing quality by the wayside,” he said.