‘93 pct. of fed court defendants can’t afford attorney’

Much higher percentage in CNMI

U.S. District Court for the NMI Chief Judge Ramona V. Manglona hands over a symbolic award to Michael Dotts to honor his long service to the Criminal Justice Act panel during the district court’s 24th Annual District Conference held at the Kanoa Resort’s Seaside Hall last Saturday. Also in the photo are CJA Committee chair Bruce Berline and Magistrate Judge Heather L. Kennedy. (Ferdie de la Torre)

Nationally, about 93 percent of defendants in federal court cannot afford to hire their own attorney, according to Criminal Justice Act Committee chair Bruce Berline.

That percentage is much higher in the CNMI.

That means that Criminal Justice Act Committee panel members handle most criminal cases in federal court, Berline said, adding that CJA panel members are the ones who handle federal indigent defense work here.

In the CNMI, Berline said, there is no federal public defender so all indigent criminal matters are handled by CJA panel members.

The role of the CJA panel was one of the subjects taken up at the U.S. District Court for the NMI’s 24th Annual District Conference at Kanoa Resort’s Seaside Hall last Saturday.

When the U.S. Congress created the CJA in 1964, it was initially thought that the program would cost about $250,000 nationwide, with an average attorney spending one hour in the office and one hour in court.

Today, Berline said, there are 81 federal and community defender offices serving 91 judicial districts. In 2016, those offices handled 161,540 cases and CJA panel members handled another 80,535 cases.

Berline said that attorneys are paid $132 an hour.

The CJA program’s total budget (federal defenders and CJA panel members) is expected to exceed $1.1 billion in 2017.

Berline said their CJA panel is overseen by U.S. District Court for the NMI Chief Judge Ramona V. Manglona and Magistrate Judge Heather L. Kennedy along with the CJA standing committee.

Berline said the judges and committee work together to ensure that the attorneys serving on the panel meet certain eligibility requirements, have adequate federal criminal experience, have ample training opportunities, and resources to do their job.

He said attorneys Timothy H. Bellas and Michael Dotts recently resigned from the CJA panel, leaving the panel with nine members.

Right now, Berline said, it is a bit of a slow start for the year as CJA has about four criminal cases filed to date.

Given those unusually extreme low numbers, he said, they are evaluating what size their panel should be.

“Apparently there is very little crime in the CNMI these days,” he said.

Berline encouraged other lawyers to join the panel.

Being on the panel provides a unique opportunity to learn and practice criminal law in the district court.

It also means excellent training opportunities in the U.S. mainland.

Berline said that last year, the panel received some excellent training from experienced defenders on topics such as using theories and themes, writing technique, pretrial practice and evidence, along with other topics.

Ferdie De La Torre | Reporter
Ferdie Ponce de la Torre is a veteran journalist who has covered all news beats in the CNMI. Born in Lilo-an, Cebu City in the Philippines, De la Torre graduated from the University of Santo Tomas with a bachelor’s degree in journalism. He is a recipient of many commendations and awards, including the CNMI Judiciary’s prestigious Justice Award for his over 10 years of reporting on the judiciary’s proceedings and decisions. Contact him at ferdie_delatorre@saipantribune.com

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