Adam Liptak has a fascinating piece in today’s New York Times that includes discussion of an experimental “Gideon Voucher” system to be tried in Comal County, Tex with funding from the Texas Indigent Defense Commission. The article contrasts it to the remedy orders for a county in Washington State ordered by a Federal judge after a finding of constitutional violation in defense representation. (The Comal County project is based on an idea first described in an article in 1999.
The voucher idea, revolutionary in the US, but standard practice in most other industrialized common law countries, is that criminal defendants without means get to choose their own lawyers, who are then paid by the state. The project is described in more detail than in the article in the Minutes of the County Commissioners Court. The project appears to have the support of the bar, the judiciary and the prosecution. The voucher payments will continue to be a range for a case,with the ability of the lawyer to request more in particular cases. Research, at least at the time of the meeting (May 23, 2012) was to include the usual satisfaction surveys and interviews, as well as formal outcome metrics and jail population over time.
Any anxiety about the project should be dispelled by the fact that long-time defense expert Norman Lefstein is one of the project’s advisers.
Some of us have long found an irony is the US rejection of client choice for indigent defendants. It will be absolutely fascinating to study whether attorney client relationships are different in such a system, whether it changes the plea rate, and/or in what kinds of cases, as well as the appeal and collateral attack on convictions rate. It will also be interesting to see if the system results in more lawyers being part of the indigent defense system (they will still have to meet certain requirements, including accepting the surely relatively low payment), and whether that in turn changes the political environment with respect to funding these services.
Given how new this is in the US, and what a unique research opportunity this provides, lets hope that the resources can be found to get as much data as we can about what happens. This could be a historical moment, for both criminal and civil access to justice services.