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Mass. gov. wants to end private lawyers for poor


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 defend about 90 percent of the Committee for Public Counsel Services’ annual case load. He 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, retirement 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.

Associated Press

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