HAVE YOU had a salary increase in the last 13 years? Some professionals in this city who perform difficult and socially useful work have not. They are the lawyers who represent indigent criminal defendants in the city's courts, and they are paid out of public funds according to a formula in the Criminal Justice Act that hasn't been changed since 1970.
If your idea of a criminal lawyer's work has been drawn from Perry Mason reruns, you may think this life is glamorous. Perry has a nice office, a hard- working investigator and clients who not only are always innocent, but who also never fail to pay their bills. Unfortunately this is not the case in the District of Columbia. Ninety percent of all criminal defendants are indigent. Lawyers appointed to represent them do not, by and large, have fancy offices. And the rates they are paid for this work make it difficult to hire investigators and even clerical help. In order to make a living representing the poor, these lawyers take on more cases than they can properly handle. Full days are spent in court, often running between courtrooms juggling three or four cases at a time; finding and interviewing witnesses, consulting with clients and preparing evidence and court documents are usually squeezed into evenings and weekends.
The Criminal Justice Act provides that these court-appointed lawyers can be paid $20 an hour for work done outside the courtroom and $30 an hour for court appearances. Total payment, though, may not exceed $400 for a misdemeanor case or $1,000 for a felony. This may sound like a decent amount of money, but many hours are lost waiting while cases are rescheduled or postponed or are uncompensated because, while necessary for the preparation of a case, they exceed the maximun for which compensation is provided. After submitting, justifying and waiting for bills to be paid--this can take as long as a year from the time a case is assigned--the lawyer must pay for overhead and provide for his own health insurance, pension, sick leave, vacation time, Social Security and all the benefits most employed people take for granted. At the end of the year, most CJA lawyers have cleared a great deal less than Public Defender attorneys employed by the public agency that handles about 15 percent of the criminal indigent cases; many earn considerably less than nonprofessional support personnel at the court.
D.C. Bar president David Isbell has led those concerned in this city in urging an increase in fees for CJA lawyers. It is simply unfair that these fees have remained unchanged during a period when median income in the area has risen over 180 percent. The Sixth Amendment guarantees every person charged with crime--rich or poor--the right to the effective assistance of counsel. Society must pay for that service when the accused cannot, and the process should be as fair to the attorney as it is to the client.