By WGBH News
Dec. 21, 2011
BOSTON — Auditor Suzanne Bump is hoping that her office's new report will spur improvement in the agencies that determine a defendant's eligibility for a court-appointed lawyer.
People were outraged this summer when a judge determined that James “Whitey” Bulger — who was captured in a house that contained $800,000 in cash — was in fact indigent and thus eligible for a taxpayer-funded public defender. The government had seized Bulger’s assets, his provisional lawyer explained.
It turns out that bigger problems were brewing in the system.
In theory, Massachusetts provides a court-appointed lawyer for any defendant who can’t afford their own. But in reality, Bump said on “Greater Boston,” the state has also been providing attorneys for plenty of people who could afford to get their own. Her office released a report (pdf) on the subject on Dec. 19.
The budget for public defenders is $200 million per year — and the auditor's office had been receiving calls about rising costs, Bump said. The office found that 27 district courts had "virtually no compliance with the requirement that they do an initial assessment, that they assess 60 days out and then 6 months later to find out if people’s financial circumstances really warrant the provision of a free attorney."
At least $48 million dollars spent on state-funded defense lawyers between 2007 and 2011 was, Bump said, “unsupported and questionable.”
In the report, Bump recommended that the Office of the Commissioner of Probation “immediately” create standard procedures to verify eligibility, and connect with other state agencies to access any necessary data.
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