City councilors, court staff hope higher pay attracts more public defenders

SPOTLIGHT FILE PHOTO - A recently adopted universal fee schedule approved by the St. Helens City Council now includes city-appointed attorney fees so clients of the court will have a better understanding of what fees might be incurred.In an effort to make fees for St. Helens more transparent to clients and to make rates for attorney fees comparable to other cities, and hence more attractive to public defenders, the St. Helens City Council adopted a new fee schedule.

City Finance Director Matt Brown explained the fees have always existed, but including them on the fee schedule makes it easier for people headed to court to know what to expect.

Municipal Court Judge Amy Lindgren, who began working with the city in August, conducted an informal survey of nearby courts to determine what rates were being paid to defense attorneys for legal proceedings and bench or jury trials.

Lindgren and Brown said the new rates have increased as the city's previous rates were significantly low compared to other courts.

"(Our) rates were considerably low and unchanged for many years, which has caused us to fall behind in getting attorneys to work with the Municipal Courts in the past," Brown stated in an email to the Spotlight.

For example, Columbia County Circuit Court fees for misdemeanor cases is $345, while a probation violation case is $241.

In the new St. Helens court fee schedule, a misdemeanor case is $200 with a maximum of $350 per client in the event of multiple cases, with the court's approval. Probation violations would incur a $125 fee. Additionally, bench trials incur a $400 fee and jury trials incur a $600 fee.

Lindgren explained that by making the fees more comparable to other courts, defense attorneys could be further encouraged to defend clients who have previously not been represented in municipal court proceedings.

"The drawback is that people are not represented. I think people need to have a lawyer represent them and they need to deal with the consequences," Lindgren said of low fees being a disincentive for defense attorneys to take on public defender work. "I mean, you could go to jail, and you should have a lawyer who should be looking out for defendant's best interest."

Anyone who goes to court has the right to be represented, and the lack of representation creates a fairness issue, she said.

"It's not fair for the defendant to go against the prosecutor without having any knowledge of the law," Lindgren said.

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