Have you had to have your dishwasher repaired lately? I did. Our Bosch stainless steel, whisper quiet dishwasher just stopped working one day. When I pressed the button to wash, nothing happened, so I had to call a repairman. Did you know that the going labor rate for appliance repair is $125 an hour?
I got to thinking about the labor rate for plumbers, electricians, automobile mechanics and such after reading the report of the Massachusetts Bar Association’s Blue Ribbon Commission on Criminal Justice Attorney Compensation. That report examined the damaging effect inadequate salaries paid to prosecutors and public defenders, as well as the low hourly rates paid to court appointed attorneys, was having on the commonwealth’s criminal justice system
“Inadequate funding for the attorneys handling the prosecution and defense responsibilities within our system presently denies the Commonwealth’s citizens a criminal justice system that functions properly.” That was the conclusion of the Massachusetts Bar Association’s Commission on Criminal Justice Attorney Compensation more than 20 years ago when I was its general counsel. Regrettably, little had changed in two decades.
When I meet with legislators on behalf of our client, the Massachusetts Association of Court Appointed Attorneys, most are surprised to learn that private lawyers, and not full time public defenders, provide representation for 75 percent of all indigent defense cases. They are even more surprised to learn that these lawyers are paid a mere $50 per hour for district court, CHINS and children and family law cases, and $60 per hour for superior court cases.
In Gideon v. Wainwright, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that state courts are required to provide counsel in criminal cases to represent defendants who are unable to afford to pay their own attorneys. The court appointed lawyers who provide that representation do so because of their commitment to the Sixth Amendment. And while they don’t do it to get rich, the current rates are creating a real hardship that makes it difficult for them to continue to take these cases.
For $50 an hour, a court appointed lawyer could mean the difference between freedom and incarceration. For $125 an hour, an appliance repairman means the difference between washing dishes by hand and loading them into a dishwasher. The people of the commonwealth deserve better.