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NJ Gov. Phil Murphy, Lawmakers Work to End Public Defender Fees

New Jersey has long billed criminal defendants who use public defenders because they cannot afford legal representation. Those fees could soon end. Lawmakers are working to end public defender fees charged at the state level while also voiding liens imposed on clients who cannot afford to pay their public defender’s fees, according to News From the States. The plan has the backing of Gov. Phil Murphy, who proposed ending public defender fees when he announced his budget plan in February. While the specifics vary, most states charge public defender fees, though New Jersey neighbors New York, Pennsylvania, and Delaware do not. New Jersey law has required the Office of the Public Defender to bill clients since its 1967 inception. Since 2014, the office has charged its clients from $150 to more than $1,000 depending on the severity of an alleged crime, whether the case makes it to trial, and how long the trial runs. The money collected, about $4 million annually, goes into the state’s general fund and does not directly fund the Office of the Public Defender. “It sounds like a lot of money, but in the grand scheme of things, it’s not very much money,” said Marleina Ubel of the progressive think tank New Jersey Policy Perspective. “It’s a drop in the bucket for the budget of the Office of the Public Defender, and it is nothing in the state budget.”

Unpaid fees can follow people represented by public defenders, eventually becoming property liens that can damage their credit or stall the purchase of a home, among other things. Such liens last for 10 years. A bill sponsored by Sen. Nellie Pou would void those liens and any outstanding fees. It would also throw out any warrants issued solely over unpaid public defender fees. In a separate bill, Pou seeks to expand the Office of the Public Defender’s mission by allowing public defenders to represent parolees during parole revocation hearings. Annual state budgets routinely bar using state funds to provide legal representation to parolees. Instead, parolees who cannot afford a lawyer must obtain pro-bono representation from a list of lawyers maintained by the judiciary. There’s no guarantee their assigned attorney will have any experience in criminal law or that their assignment will be timely. A series of draft recommendations released in May by a Supreme Court panel staffed by judges, attorneys, and court officials said the system is “not effective in matching willing and skilled attorneys with economically disadvantaged clients facing consequences of magnitude.”


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