The Problem of the Working Poor, Illustrated

If you're making ten dollars an hour and working full time you need to try to hire a lawyer.

That was a Harris County Criminal Court at Law judge this morning, talking to a young man who was asking for court-appointed counsel. This—"ten dollars an hour and working full time"—and that he worked "for a contractor" is all the judge knew about the young man's financial situation, and all she needed to know. When she last had to work for $20,000 a year, it was worth a whole lot more than it is today.


But, since we are not judges, let's look a little more closely. Ten dollars an hour is $20,000 a year. That's below the poverty level for a family of four. This judge didn't know—and didn't feel any need to inquire—whether the young man (call him "Jose") was supporting himself, himself and a partner, or himself, a partner, and five kids.

Suppose that the judge assumed (because she's an elected Republican in Harris County, so she can assume whatever the hell she wants) that Jose was single, with no dependents. He's above the poverty level.


The federal government is taking a couple grand in taxes, more if (as is likely) Jose is not an employee but a contractor. So he takes home $1500 a month.

Jose needs a place to stay. Let's put him in a dump, or an okay place with a roommate, for $428 a month (per IRS standards). He's down to $1,072 a month.

In Houston, people need cars. The IRS standard is $496 for ownership plus $312 for operating costs, for a total of $808 a month. He's down to $264 a month, and Jose hasn't eaten yet.

He needs health care ($60 a month in out-of-pocket expenses), as well as clothes, hygiene, and so forth, for which we'll give him the IRS's $534 a month allowance. Now Jose is $330 in the red every month.

Jose is going to have to come to court once a month. Every time he comes to court it costs him a half-day of work, or $40, plus $6 to park downtown.

So $10 an hour becomes (-$376) every month, if Jose is single, living within the IRS's guidelines, not eating out, and not paying for entertainment or anything else but the bare basics.

In this particular court the case is going to be resolved or set for trial within one hundred days. If a lawyer takes payments, he is going to expect to be paid within that time.

So Jose needs to try to hire a lawyer. Before he has any money to do so he has to cut back almost $400 on basic living expenses. He has probably already done that—nobody is loaning him money to live on—but at $10 an hour he doesn't have much to play with.

So who benefits from this judge's naive view of the cost of living?

The state does: it doesn't have to pay for the defense of the working poor.

Lots of these guys do. They're sending letters to guys like Jose, promising "reasonable" (code for cheap) legal fees, as low as $50. They benefit from judges pressuring guys like Jose to hire lawyers because Jose sees "$50," and thinks, "I can afford that."

But nobody can make a living taking serious cases—even misdmeanors—for $50 a pop and doing a competent job. The numbers just don't work. If the $50 letter lawyer wants to live as well as Jose, he needs to take in 760 new $50 cases (I figure he's paying $1500 a month to send letters) a year. If every case is pending for an average three months and goes to court once a month, he's got 190 cases pending at any moment and nine cases on his docket every day. He can spend three hours on each case on average. Three hours is okay for talking to the client, reading the state's file, and taking the state's plea offer, but doesn't allow for any investigation or legal research. The business model just doesn't work.

Most misdemeanor cases filed in Harris County should, for one reason or another, be dismissed. But those reasons don't often appear to $50 lawyers—or to $500 lawyers; I don't mean to pick on brother Craig. Lawyers at those rates, as well as lawyers who charge $X-per-court-appearance (for any X), are stumbling into dismissals sometimes, but they are not spending the time working up their cases that is required to convert a case that is marginal or weak for the defense into a dismissal or a not guilty. (So in a sense the state benefits twice.)

But the judges don't see that. What they see is guys like Jose coming in with people who have pulses and law degrees. They see that pressuring someone making $10 an hour to hire counsel works. And they keep doing it.

It's a nasty feedback loop at defendants' expense, and yet another argument in favor of electing judges whose lives haven't followed the high-school–college–law-school–government-job track.


About Mark Bennett

Mark Bennett got his letter of marque from the Supreme Court of Texas in May 1995. He is famous for having no sense of humor when it comes to totalitarianism.
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