Inconsistencies in Administration of the Criminal Justice Act

GGD-83-18: Published: Feb 8, 1983. Publicly Released: Feb 8, 1983.

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GAO reviewed the implementation of the Criminal Justice Act (CJA) to determine the adequacy of the guidelines and directives provided to the district courts for implementing the act, the consistency with which the act is being implemented, and the adequacy of financial controls over funds provided by the act.

The act enables the government to provide legal representation for defendants in federal criminal cases who are not financially able to obtain representation. The government provides for this legal representation either through a federally employed public defender, a community defender organization, or a private court-appointed attorney. In the absence of clear guidance from the Judicial Conference, each judicial district and often individual judges have had to devise their own policies for administering the act. As a result, there is no assurance that defendants are receiving adequate representation, and determinations of defendants' financial ability to reimburse for attorneys' fees are inconsistent. Further, GAO found a wide range of criteria used for selecting attorneys to represent criminal defendants. Many convicted defendants who were not required to reimburse the government for legal expenses were in a similar or better financial condition than those convicted defendants ordered to reimburse. To date, the Judicial Conference has not: provided the district courts with specific guidance concerning the reimbursement of panel attorneys fees by defendants; ensured that panel attorneys adhere to guidelines requiring them to submit well documented claims for compensation; or ensured that the most efficient system for disbursing grant funds to community defender organizations is used. The Judicial Conference has legislation pending in Congress that would increase the maximum attorney fee levels and provide it the authority to establish maximum hourly attorney fee rates.

Matters for Congressional Consideration

  1. Status: Closed - Not Implemented

    Comments: During testimony before the House Committee on the Judiciary in June 1983, GAO revised its position on the recommendation regarding congressional oversight of panel attorney hourly rate increases.

    Matter: If Congress decides to enact legislation giving the Judicial Conference the authority to establish the hourly rates that attorneys could receive for representing CJA defendants, it should add the following provision to the legislation because of the potential budgetary impact that will be caused by raising the hourly rates: "Any hourly rate increase shall not take effect until it has been reported to Congress by the Chief Justice at or after the beginning of a regular session thereof but not later than the first day of May, and shall not take effect until 90 days after the rate increase has been reported."

  2. Status: Closed - Not Implemented

    Comments: Congress recently made several amendments to CJA, none of which addressed the GAO recommendation of making reimbursements a condition of probation.

    Matter: To eliminate the inconsistent interpretation regarding the legality of making reimbursements a condition of probation and to enhance the collection of reimbursements from convicted defendants, Congress should amend the Probation Act to specifically allow reimbursements, when the court determined that a defendant has the ability to repay court-appointed counsel, as a condition of probation.

Recommendations for Executive Action

  1. Status: Closed - Implemented

    Comments: This is now done by the courts with the Administrative Office's monitoring court's compliance.

    Recommendation: The Judicial Conference should establish procedures requiring each clerk's office in each court to record all reimbursement orders, whether through formal court order or as a condition of probation, by establishing an account receivable indicating the amount owed and the frequency with which payments must be made.

    Agency Affected: Judicial Conference of the United States

  2. Status: Closed - Not Implemented

    Comments: The Judicial Conference decided that, if the judges are provided accurate financial data, there is no need for probation officers or pretrial services agencies to make recommendations to the judges on a defendant's financial ability to reimburse for CJA expenses.

    Recommendation: The Judicial Conference, through the Administrative Office of the United States Courts, should improve the implementation of the act by instructing district courts to require probation officers and pretrial services agencies to include in their reports recommendations on a defendant's financial ability to reimburse the court's CJA expenses.

    Agency Affected: Judicial Conference of the United States

  3. Status: Closed - Implemented

    Comments: This is included in the Administrative Office's guidelines as a result of the report. Specifically, data should be reviewed from probation reports and the presentence report and discrepancies followed up on.

    Recommendation: The Judicial Conference, through the Administrative Office of the United States Courts, should improve the implementation of the act by requiring district courts to ensure that financial information is obtained on defendants and to resolve inconsistencies where the financial data provided by the defendant differs from that otherwise obtained by the court.

    Agency Affected: Judicial Conference of the United States

  4. Status: Closed - Implemented

    Comments: In discussions with the Administrative Office, GAO agreed that this is not practical. However, the Judicial Conference reemphasized that judges review the financial eligibility of the defendant at the conclusion of the case and recapture expenses when more financial data is known about the defendant. This is now included in the guidelines.

    Recommendation: The Judicial Conference, through the Administrative Office of the United States Courts and judicial councils, should improve the implementation of the CJA by encouraging district courts to establish specific criteria when reimbursement of act expenses should be ordered.

    Agency Affected: Judicial Conference of the United States

  5. Status: Closed - Implemented

    Comments: The Administrative Office developed a model plan for administration and management of attorney panels and included it in its guidelines to courts.

    Recommendation: The Judicial Conference, through the Administrative Office of the United States Courts and judicial councils, should improve the implementation of the CJA by establishing overall criteria for use by the district courts in developing specific screening procedures for selecting attorneys to serve on panels and, where practical, institute multitier panel systems to match attorney qualifications with case complexity.

    Agency Affected: Judicial Conference of the United States

  6. Status: Closed - Implemented

    Comments: The Administrative Office is currently working with the Executive Office of the Department of Justice in writing procedures for the courts and Justice to follow in recording and collecting delinquent payments.

    Recommendation: The Judicial Conference should establish procedures requiring each clerk's office in each court to bring delinquent payments to the attention of the judges, magistrates, probation officers, and U.S. attorneys in order that follow-up action can be initiated.

    Agency Affected: Judicial Conference of the United States

 

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