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Boston — State Auditor Suzanne Bump today announced the findings of an audit of the state system for funding legal services to indigent individuals, revealing the state has spent at least $47.9 million in legal counsel services on individuals without verifying their claimed indigency.
“This finding is another element in the sorry legacy of misplaced priorities at the Office of the Commissioner of Probation,” said Auditor Bump.
The Committee on Public Counsel Services (CPCS) is the public agency charged with providing certain legal services to the poor, but the Office of the Commissioner of Probation (OCP) is the agency responsible for verifying that a person claiming to be indigent meets the definition established by the Supreme Judicial Court. Assessments are used to determine whether defendants are eligible for free legal services, able to contribute to their cost, or able to pay for their own lawyers.
While OCP personnel provide this function in all the courts, including Superior and Probate, the Auditor’s office sampled the process just in the district courts, which represents 49% of CPCS’s total budget. A review of the fiscal year 2010 records at 27 district courts found near total noncompliance with the indigency verification laws, rules, and regulations. None of the 27 courts performed any verification of documentation at an applicant’s initial screening. In the sample of cases pulled from these courts only 1.7% contained adequate documentation that court officials performed the required 60-day indigency reassessment, and only 0.8% had any evidence that the required 6-month reassessment had been conducted.
Probation employees at 18 of the 27 district courts reviewed stated that their courts routinely do not verify any information provided by defendants nor do they conduct the required reassessments.
“The public has no assurance that district court defendants are properly contributing to the costs of their legal representation,” said Auditor Bump.
Since the deficiencies identified in today’s audit existed in all of the reviewed courts, Auditor Bump noted that it is reasonable to question the entire $82.3 million expended during fiscal year 2010 to aid clients at all 70 district courts statewide.
Auditor Bump recommended that OCP immediately develop and implement standard policies and procedures for all courts, especially policies for verifying indigency and the documentation required for verification. In addition, Auditor Bump recommended that the Administrative Office of the Trial Court should further train probation employees on compliance and that the probation department should establish a system with other state agencies to access information for verification purposes.
“It isn’t fair that taxpayers bear so much of this burden. The Office of the Commissioner of Probation’s continued noncompliance with the rules is not an option,” said Auditor Bump. The Auditor noted that the CPCS budget required supplemental appropriations during each of the three years audited and expended over $200 million in FY 2010.
In response to the audit, OCP has indicated to Auditor Bump that it has entered into a Memorandum of Understanding with the Department of Transitional Assistance and the Department of Revenue to create an electronic system probation officers can use to verify an individual’s claim of indigency.
Today’s audit also noted that findings of a prior audit have since been resolved by CPCS. A 2006 review by the Office of the State Auditor found CPCS’s system for processing bills from private attorneys did not have proper safeguards to prevent improper billings. Today’s report found CPCS has adopted OSA’s recommendations and implemented appropriate internal controls to its bill processing system.
The Committee for Public Counsel Services and the Office of the Commissioner of Probation’s Administration and Oversight of State-Sponsored Legal Services to Indigent Individuals in District Courts audit is available here.