Public defenders could soon be free for minors

By: - January 5, 2022 7:00 am

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Assembly lawmakers are set to advance a bill Thursday that would make New Jersey minors eligible for free representation by state public defenders.

Under existing law, the state’s family courts decide whether underage criminal defendants qualify for representation from the Office of the Public Defender, weighing whether they can afford to hire attorneys on their own.

“The bottom line is we want to make sure they get first-class representation,” said Assemblyman Benjie Wimberly (D-Passaic), one of the bill’s prime sponsors. “Many complaints you hear — and particularly in urban areas — are that they weren’t represented by qualified people or people who had genuine concern in their defense.”

Though the Office of the Public Defender represents residents who otherwise could not afford an attorney, that representation isn’t free. The fees range between $150 and $250 for family court cases that are resolved without going to trial, depending on the severity of the alleged crime.

If a case goes to trial, juvenile defendants or their families are responsible for paying $500 or $750 for the first five days of the trial, depending on the degree of the alleged offense, and $500 for every three trial days thereafter.

The Office of the Public Defender represents individuals in state courts. State law requires municipalities to appoint at least one municipal public defender, whose services can also carry fees set by the municipality.

The State Senate, where the bill was first introduced by Sen. Nellie Pou (D-Passaic) last year, approved the measure in a party-line vote in August 2020. If the bill clears the Assembly Appropriations Committee Thursday, the full chamber could send it to Gov. Phil Murphy’s desk Monday.

Wimberly anticipates the governor will sign the bill if it gets that far.

“Through the year, we’ve spoke about it. Recently, it seems like we’ve gotten to the point that we’re in a good position to get it signed into law,” Wimberly said, adding it was among his lame-duck priorities.

A spokesperson for the governor declined to comment.

In a fiscal note, the Office of Legislative Services said it could not determine how much the expanded availability would cost the Office of the Public Defender, noting an increased caseload was likely but adding the office believed it could absorb the increased load without additional resources.

The bill doesn’t include an appropriation, and the matter hasn’t been discussed, Wimberly said, though he suggested funding could be added in the future to account for rising costs.

“That’s a reality,” he said. “And with a shortage of everything, from lawyers to judges, there is going to be an increase I could foresee. “

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Nikita Biryukov
Nikita Biryukov

Nikita Biryukov most recently covered state government and politics for the New Jersey Globe. His tenure there included revelatory stories on marijuana legalization, voting reform and Rep. Jeff Van Drew's decamp to the Republican Party. Earlier, he worked as a freelancer for The Home News Tribune and The Press of Atlantic City.

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