Auditor faults judiciary on collecting public defender fees
MONTPELIER — Vermont's court system has failed to collect millions in fees from criminal defendants who are represented by public defenders because it does not pursue them aggressively enough, according to a report issued Monday by the state auditor of accounts.
Doug Hoffer said defendants racked up $3.1 million in such fees — often called "co-pays" — from 2012 through 2014, and that as of November, the state had collected less than a third of them. Most of those collections were done by the Tax Department, which docked refunds of people who owed the fees.
"We found that the state's processes to collect court-ordered payments are not effective," Hoffer wrote in a cover letter accompanying his report. "The courts have been remiss by not applying all available remedies" to the problem, he added.
Court Administrator Patricia Gabel released a statement saying the courts are working to improve their collections system.
"While the Judiciary prides itself on following proper financial and operational practices, it is critical that these practices be routinely examined to ensure they are sufficiently strong and working properly," Gabel said. "At the same time, it is critical that these practices are consistent with constitutional protections."
In a formal response to Hoffer, Gabel and Chief Superior Judge Brian Grearson elaborated on the constitutional concerns, saying a defendant can't be denied representation by a public defender for failure to pay an up-front fee.
They took objection to Hoffer's description of the constitutional issue as a "constraint" on collecting a co-pay from the defendant before the public defender's work begins.
"The ramifications of denying counsel for nonpayment of a public defender fee are significant," Grearson and Gabel wrote. "To characterize this as a simple 'constraint' is a serious understatement."
The judiciary officials also suggested that the duty of chasing down debtors be given to the defender general's office.
Defender General Matt Valerio said he did not support that idea.
"Simply, it would likely be unethical for the ODG (Office of the Defender General) to collect the co-pays, as constitutionally an indigent client is entitled to public defense representation at the expense of the state, and the ODG must provide its services irrespective of means," Valerio said in an email to The Associated Press.
The judicial officials also objected to the title of Hoffer's report — which was "Public Defender Fees: Judiciary's Efforts Yielded Collections of Less Than One-Third of Amounts Owed" — noting that the individuals who owe the fees bear much of the responsibility.
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