Date of this Version
In January 2001, a three-year Indigency Screener pilot project was initiated in Lancaster County for the purposes of assessing:
1) The advisability of a uniform rule developed to clarify defendant eligibility for courtappointed counsel.
2) A standardized form for documenting eligibility for appointed counsel.
3) The use of dedicated county court staff to obtain financial information from a defendant and verify the information submitted by a defendant in support of his/her claim of indigency.
This report is a Preliminary Evaluation of the project. The Preliminary Evaluation is based primarily on information obtained from interviews with key stakeholders, courtroom observations of indigency determinations, and examinations of basic screener program data (statistical information and archival records) relevant to indigency determinations.
The interviews revealed that those involved in the court system are virtually all positive about the uniform rule, primarily because it is believed the rule has resulted in greater uniformity and consistency in indigency appointments. The standardized form is useful, although some minor modifications regarding what data should be collected are recommended. The primary benefit of the form is that it helps direct the collection of useful financial information judges need to know in order make the decision whether to appoint counsel. Overall, there were mostly positive reactions to the screening staff and their activities. Judges and attorneys like having the Screener obtain financial information prior to the court hearing. There appears to be significant savings of time for judges and attorneys.
The benefits of verification are less clear. On the one hand, verification allows people to feel that defendants will not receive benefits (court-appointments) at taxpayer expense to which the defendants are not entitled. On the other hand, verification does not appear to fulfill its promise. It is our opinion that defendants are not more honest simply because there is a court employee who will verify financial information. It is not clear that verification efforts succeed in uncovering financial information that results in a denial of public defender appointments that, but for verification, would have otherwise occurred. We do not believe verification detects very much false or inaccurate information. Part of the problem is it is hard to uncover the negative; thus, it is quite difficult for the verification process to find that a defendant is employed when s/he claims not be working or to find a savings account when the defendant does not indicate s/he has one. Even when verification uncovers dishonesty, the dishonesty can be so minimal that it does not actually affect the defendant’s indigency status. Finally, in most instances, it does not seem to be good practice or policy to either stop judicial proceedings or prosecute defendants in those rare instances in which inaccurate or false information is uncovered.