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The Cost Burden of Criminal Defense Representation

If you’re accused of a crime and can’t afford an attorney, you have a right to court-appointed counsel.

Unfortunately, it’s up to each county to determine whether or not a defendant can afford an attorney. And the criteria varies widely by jurisdiction.

Many courts use outdated metrics, which means that many people who don’t qualify for court-appointed counsel can’t afford to hire a criminal defense attorney. There are 118 different standards for determining indigency across Texas’ 254 counties.

That means in one county, an income that could qualify a defendant for court-appointed counsel would be too high in another county. It can come down to what a particular judge considers to be an undue hardship. In 2019, researchers found counties across Texas that reported not a single misdemeanor defendant was appointed a free lawyer that year.

Meanwhile, the process for proving indigency is extremely laborious and complicated during a time when the defendant is already dealing with the hardship of a legal proceeding.

Austin’s median household income is $78,964. Just 18.5% of Austin households earn less than $35,000 per year. A two-person household earning $36,620 is considered 200% of the federal poverty level.

That leaves a huge segment of our community left completely without access to legal services. When an individual from a household with that income is charged with misdemeanor offenses they must go through the process without representation.

The core of ACLC’s mission is to make legal services radically more affordable, so that everyone can have access to justice. We charge sliding-scale fees based on our clients' income.


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