Dozens of Virginia courts are undercharging guilty offenders for the cost of being represented by taxpayer-funded public defenders, forcing the state to foot the bill, according to a new audit.
Virginia law requires defendants who enlist the services of a court-appointed attorney to pay a fee based on the charge and the time spent on the case, if they're found guilty. However, a recent report by the Virginia Auditor of Public Accounts found 44 district courts were undercharging convicted criminals for those services and "not maximizing cost recovery" for the state.
"We found clerks and judges who do not know how to handle certain transactions properly," the report said. "Further, in many courts, we found public defenders were not turning in timesheets, and when requested to do so they submitted timesheets with only nominal time per case."
Time sheets are supposed to track how many hours public defenders work on each case, which is then used to determine how much the guilty parties are charged.
Those fees are supposed to help offset the cost of public defenders on the state.
"Sometimes you have a lot of cases and your intention is to turn it in later in the day," said David Johnson, executive director of the Virginia Indigent Defense Commission, the state body that oversees public defenders. "But ultimately, the lawyer should be turning in time sheets."
The audit could not determine how much the state loses out because it only reviewed a sample of cases in each Virginia district court -- although about 13 percent of them had problems. Court-appointed attorney fees from district and circuit courts netted the state about $14.2 million in 2011.
The U.S. Constitution requires the state to provide attorneys for individuals who cannot afford one; however, Virginia charges for that service. Fees start at $120 and could exceed $1,000 based on the crime and the time put into the case.
State auditor Walter Kucharski said slapping a smaller fee on guilty offenders may be easier than trying to track them down later to pay the full amount after all the paperwork has been completed.
"For them, getting some money is better than having you wait and go home and then us try to get you back in court once everything else is done," Kucharski said. "To some degree, I understand why they do it."