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If You Can’t Afford an Attorney, One Will Be Appointed. And You May Get a Huge Bill

In Iowa, people too poor to pay for a lawyer are on the hook for big fees they can’t afford.

A person walks down the steps of a looming courthouse, while hundred dollar bills that are the same size and scale as the courthouse columns fly off to the right.

On a Sunday evening in November 2015, Lori Mathes was in the kitchen of her gray and blue bungalow in Onawa, a small town in western Iowa. She was talking on the phone with her mother, she recalls, when four police officers barged in with their guns drawn. They said they were looking for her ex-husband, who had stopped by for a visit.

During the raid, police found a small amount — two grams — of marijuana belonging to Mathes, according to a police report. They charged her with felony drug possession; a conviction could land her in prison.

Mathes, who was 56 at the time, wanted to fight the charge; she says the police entered her home illegally. But she couldn’t afford to hire a lawyer — her alimony and Social Security disability payments together totaled $1,391 a month.

So, she applied for a court-appointed lawyer. “I understand I may be required to repay the state for all or part of my attorney fees and costs,” read a declaration typed in small bold print at the bottom of the application. Mathes signed.

Two years later, the district attorney agreed to drop the case as long as Mathes paid court fees, including reimbursing the state for the cost of her lawyers. She was reluctant, she says, but agreed to pay $500.

But when her paperwork arrived in the mail, the price was far higher: almost $3,000 to repay her attorney fees.

This article was published in partnership with The Des Moines Register.

On television and in the movies, police officers read people their Miranda rights and tell them they will be provided a lawyer if they cannot afford one. But in reality, legal representation is rarely free. The Supreme Court has found the Constitution guarantees the right to counsel but allows states, in most cases, to try to recoup the cost. More than 40 do so, according to a 2022 report by the National Legal Aid and Defender Association.

Iowa takes these efforts to the extremes, an investigation by The Marshall Project found. Not only does Iowa impose some of the highest fees in the nation — affecting tens of thousands of people each year — it also charges poor people for legal aid even if they are acquitted or the cases against them are dropped. The practice is “definitely an outlier,” said Lisa Foster, co-executive director of the Fines and Fees Justice Center, an advocacy organization that tracks court debts.

When state judges impose fees, “they follow the Iowa Code, which sets forth applicable amounts,” Steve Davis, director of communications for the Iowa Judicial Branch, wrote in an email.

But fees vary widely from county to county, The Marshall Project found. People who live in the mostly rural parts of the state that do not have public defender's offices face the highest costs, according to our analysis of court data.

Those bills are rarely paid, however — the state recoups just a small fraction of the attorney fees it has paid out from its Indigent Defense Fund.

For poor people who can’t pay, the effects can be devastating. Among other things, they can lose their driver’s licenses and the ability to register a vehicle. Their wages, bank accounts, and tax refunds can be garnished. If they are on probation, failure to pay can help put them back behind bars. Debtors report damage to their credit scores and harassing phone calls from collection agents.

Some people told The Marshall Project the aftermath of exercising their right to counsel was so bad they wished they had refused the services of a lawyer altogether.

Sixty years after Gideon v. Wainwright, the Supreme Court’s landmark ruling guaranteeing the right to counsel, the systems that provide poor people with lawyers in criminal courts are crumbling. Public defenders flounder under impossible caseloads. Private lawyers don’t want to take low-paying court appointments. Poor people languish in crowded jails or take plea deals to avoid incarceration. Problems with public defense have become so dire that the U.S. Department of Justice has been hosting listening sessions across the country about problems with access to lawyers.

But there is also a less-known issue: So-called “free” lawyers aren’t free. This summer, the American Bar Association released guidelines recommending that poor people shouldn't have to pay for a lawyer in criminal cases. But in Dothan, Alabama, for example, people charged with Class C and D felonies, which commonly include low-level drug charges, must pay a flat fee of $2,000. In rural Anderson County, in East Texas, people are charged $750 to plead out to a third-degree felony. If they choose to go to trial, they must pay $750 a day for legal counsel.

“Imposing fees on individuals for exercising their Constitutional right to free legal representation is not only illogical, it is also cruel,” said Marea Beeman, an author of the 2022 fee report. “It inflicts enduring harm on people who find themselves trapped in lengthy payment plans that carry consequences, which can outlast any jail or probation sentence.”

Iowa legislators recognize they have a constitutional obligation to cover indigent defense, which is paid for by budget appropriations, said state Rep. Brian Lohse, a Republican who chairs the Justice System Appropriations Subcommittee. But the fees are meant to deter repeat offenders, he said. “I think the purpose of that is simply to kind of hold them accountable a little bit,” he said of defendants. “So they just don't see it as a kind of gift.”

David Carroll, executive director of the Sixth Amendment Center, an organization focused on indigent defense, disagreed. “The right to counsel is both a foundational American value and a 14th Amendment obligation of states owed to each and every defendant — it is not a ‘gift.’”

But in Iowa, attorney fees are used to persuade lawmakers to give public defense more money and to allow for a broad interpretation of who qualifies for a court-appointed lawyer, said State Public Defender Jeff Wright. Last year, the legislature set aside roughly $72 million for indigent defense, including higher rates for court-appointed lawyers.

“One of the primary reasons that we get funded is the idea that well, you know, it does end up as being something that the defendant is going to have to pay back,” Wright said.

The state never recoups most of the money poor people are charged for legal aid. A decade ago, more than $150 million in fees were outstanding. Since then, courts have imposed another $150 million in attorney fees, but payments have totaled only $46 million, The Marshall Project found.

“It is a cruel system, harmful system, not just for individuals, but for communities,” said Rita Bettis Austen, legal director of the ACLU of Iowa, after reviewing The Marshall Project’s findings. “And it’s ineffective.”

Between 2012 and 2022, Iowa sent bills totaling $30 million to poor people who were acquitted or whose charges were dropped, according to our analysis of court data. The figure amounts to one-fifth of the total the state charged poor defendants during that decade.

When the debts are imposed on such defendants, Iowa does not require judges to consider how much defendants can afford to pay or give them a way to challenge the fees — rights that Iowans who are convicted have.

So people in these situations can end up paying more than those who were convicted and are serving time, said Alex Kornya, the general counsel for the nonprofit Iowa Legal Aid, describing it as a “perverse situation.”

Others said that people should repay the state for their lawyers’ work, especially if these legal efforts resulted in dismissed charges.

On a July afternoon in Des Moines, a dozen people sat outside Courtroom 230 waiting for their probation-violation hearings. Because repayment of court debt is a condition of probation, failure to pay can lead to a violation. Defense lawyers say that judges typically don’t revoke probation solely for nonpayment, but people can end up back behind bars when that’s paired with another violation, such as failing a drug test or not reporting to a probation officer.

Simon Muhoza Mugisha scrolled through his phone while he waited for his name to be called. He took a plea deal for driving under the influence in 2022 while another charge, for marijuana possession, was dismissed. He owed the state $539 for his lawyer, but didn’t realize when he applied that he would have to pay. “I thought attorneys were free,” he said, adding that he hoped to get on a payment plan to climb his way out of debt.

Rachel Coleman took a plea deal for disorderly conduct last year. She also said she didn’t know she would have to pay for her lawyer, which has cost her $165. Fifteen people on the docket that day were listed as having had attorney fees totaling $8,000; Coleman was the only one who had paid hers off.

In an interview, Chief Judge Michael D. Huppert dismissed concerns over high fees, saying they were evidence lawyers worked hard on a case. “I would think it’s a good thing they are doing what they’re supposed to,” he said.

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After Cindy Ehrenhard’s mother died and she lost custody of her children, her life began to spin out of control, she said. At first, she shoplifted from Walmart and Kohl’s, basking in the cheap high that came from the thrill of a successful theft. Searching for more, she started injecting herself with methamphetamine. She quickly racked up criminal charges, most related to driving violations, drugs, assault or theft.

She had no income, according to her applications for public defenders in her hometown of Ottumwa. Though she signed the acknowledgements that she might have to repay the state for her lawyer, she said she was living in a haze and was desperate to do whatever it took to avoid incarceration.

“I would have said anything they wanted me to say not to go to prison,” Ehrenhard said as she sat in an Ottumwa park last summer.

A person in a pink cardigan and green shirt stands in front of a large cashier's machine, while a long receipt spools out and surrounds the person.

Finally, one of her lawyers recommended she try drug court. It worked. Ehrenhard got clean, regained custody of her kids, and was hired as a production manager at a grocery chain. But she owes more than $5,000 in attorney and debt collection fees for 15 cases over two decades. Nearly half of those costs were assessed in three cases that ended in dismissals. In one of them, for stealing $678 of merchandise from Walmart, she owes $2,174. Ehrenhard said she had no idea how much she’d be charged.

After she found out she could not register her car unless she started paying off her debt, she started sending the court $100 each month. The state also takes all of her state tax refund, and she has done community service picking up trash for the minimum wage of $7.25 an hour to try to make a dent.

She said she would not have asked for a lawyer had she known how much she would be billed by the state.

“I might have just represented myself,” she said.

Across the U.S., the amounts people are charged for lawyers are often determined at the county level. Usually, judges are responsible for deciding how much people must pay and whether they can afford the bills. Some places charge a flat fee, and others make defendants pay by the hour.

Out of Iowa’s 99 counties, just 13 have public defenders, who receive a state salary. Their offices are located in the state’s most populated cities. Iowa requires clients of public defenders to repay the costs of their defense, but these lawyers say that they often do not charge for all the time they work on a case. Public defenders had much higher caseloads than lawyers in rural counties.

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Residents of the 86 more rural counties mostly rely on private lawyers who contract with the state to perform indigent defense work. Judges can also appoint other lawyers in certain circumstances. Iowans who accept contract lawyers are on the hook for the full amount of their services unless they can convince a judge to reduce the bill by filing a lengthy document within 30 days of sentencing. Current rates for contract lawyers are $73-$83 an hour, depending on the seriousness of the charge; paralegal time costs $25 an hour.

People who live in counties without a public defender are more likely to be assessed higher attorney’s fees, data shows. For example, in the decade between 2012 and 2022, Iowa charged an average of $391 per case. People in counties with a public defender’s office were billed an average of $312; those in rural areas were billed an average of $506.

Wright, the state’s public defender, described himself as disappointed by the findings of The Marshall Project’s data analysis, which showed big differences in how much people were charged for legal assistance. He said he has been talking to lawyers and judicial officials across the state about the issue.

While fees can be influenced by the type of lawyer who is appointed, individual judges also have different approaches to deciding how to evaluate the amount people should be charged. Take the situation in Waterloo, a two-hour drive northeast of Des Moines.

Black Hawk County Judge Melissa Anderson-Seeber, a former public defender, said that she does not usually assess court debt against people who are incarcerated. When someone is free and working, she said, “I may not make them pay the full amount.” For people who are not employed, she makes them perform community service to pay back their court debt.

Another judge in the same county, Joel Dalrymple, has a different approach. A former prosecutor, he said he tends to consider whether people can make payments under a payment plan rather than one lump sum.

Six hands of different skin tones reach for an empty and open wallet.

Many of the lawyers interviewed by The Marshall Project said that Iowa is experiencing an indigent defense crisis because there aren’t enough private attorneys who will represent poor people. Since 2015, the state has lost almost half of its contract attorneys, a problem attributed to long hours and poor pay.

Last year, Associate U.S. Attorney General Vanita Gupta visited Iowa to announce the creation of a new position in her office focused on state and local indigent defense. She also raised concerns about Iowa’s high fees, citing the 2022 defense-lawyers report.

State officials have been dealing with issues related to indigent defense fees for years, said state Rep. Steven Holt, chairman of the Judiciary Committee, after reviewing The Marshall Project's findings. These “will be part of the discussions" as lawmakers consider whether further legislation is necessary, he said.

Mathes, whose house was raided by police, said she regrets ever applying for a lawyer. When she got the initial bill, she appealed the charges to a higher court with the assistance of another court-appointed lawyer. She lost the appeal and was billed an additional $3,000 for those services. Eventually, Koryna, the Iowa Legal Aid lawyer, took on Mathes’ case and successfully argued for clearing the second fee.

But Mathes still owes the original amount — nearly $3,000. And even though Iowa passed a law shortly after her case was dismissed that would have allowed her to expunge her charge, she’s not eligible because she hasn’t paid off her debt. As the lawyers’ fees hang over her, Mathes said she is struggling to pay her electric bill.

“It’s a lot of money I don’t have,” she said. “And if I did have it, I would have a lot better uses for it than giving it to the courthouse.”

Lauren Gill is an independent journalist covering issues in the criminal justice system. Her work has been published by ProPublica, The New York Times, Rolling Stone, and The Nation, among others.

This project was completed with the support of a grant from Columbia University's Ira A. Lipman Center for Journalism and Civil and Human Rights in conjunction with Arnold Ventures.

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Weihua Li Twitter Email is a data reporter at The Marshall Project. She uses data analysis and visualization to tell stories about the criminal justice system. She studied journalism and comparative politics at Boston University and graduated from Columbia University with a master's degree in data journalism.