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May 23, 2019

"Equal justice depends on properly funding public defenders"

The title of this post is the the headline of this notable new Hill commentary authored by Pamela Metzger. Here are excerpts:

Sen. Kamala Harris (D-Calif.) recently introduced the Equal Defense Act, which would boost resources for public defenders across the country.  It offers a $250 million grant program on top of case limits for public defenders.

A longtime prosecutor, Harris understands that a fully functional and adequately funded public defender’s office is essential to the pursuit of justice and for ensuring safer communities and families.  The promise of Gideon v. Wainwright, the 1963 Supreme Court decision guaranteeing everyone a right to counsel, is meaningless without an adequately staffed office of dedicated attorneys to keep that promise.

Right now, New Orleans faces a public defense crisis.... The Orleans Public Defenders Office (OPD) handles 85 percent of criminal cases and is responsible for thousands of municipal and traffic court cases each year.  Yet OPD receives just one-fifth of the local appropriation provided to the district attorney.  This year, the OPD anticipates a $1.1 million deficit. The chief public defender already is cutting back on hiring outside counsel.  Firings and salary reductions could be next.

In 2012, the OPD laid off attorneys because of a budget shortfall. In 2015 and 2016, budget shortfalls led public defenders to withdraw from cases — including that of a defendant charged with murder who has been waiting in jail for five years to go to trial and has had six different defense lawyers.  His case is still pending.  This is what happens when state and local governments do not adequately fund criminal defense....

Elsewhere, public defense is also funded by criminal and civil fines and fees with no coverage for overhead expenses and a financial disincentive to put in extra time or hire experts....  Sen. Harris is correct that public defenders need equal funding to ensure justice is complete.  In an adversarial system, we cannot expect justice when one side has both hands tied.  We know that public defenders work.  It’s an easy investment to make.

Equal justice depends on adequate, equitable resources for public defenders.  The representation of individuals charged with a crime is a serious matter that concerns everyone — communities, families, courts, prosecutors, judges and law enforcement.

May 23, 2019 at 11:13 AM | Permalink


What? More Tax payer money down a rabbit hole instead of making the Judicial System and attorney's accountable for their actions. What is wrong with a Tribunal Court? This Judicial System says to "Tell the Truth, the whole Truth and nothing but the Truth" but attorney's say "just answer the question". Law is about the Truth and how will the Truth be told if no one asks the question? We need real people making decisions without benefits to the pocket book!

Posted by: LC in Texas | May 24, 2019 10:14:10 AM

My concern was this would focus on federal public defenders or something like that, but it appears to be a grant program with conditions, which isn't a bad idea. There are some very well-supported PD systems, others who are more grudgingly supported, and others with no support whatsoever. Hopefully, the ones most in need will best benefit from this.

Posted by: Erik M | May 24, 2019 3:50:40 PM

I think the needed changes are more fundamental. One issue I see time after time is that state-level DA's refuse to reopen even obviously-wrongful convictions. Sometimes, they didn't even involve public defenders. An excellent start, necessary but likely insufficient, would be to take away prosecutorial absolute immunity.

Beyond that, state's attorneys need to have an incentive to fix wrongful convictions. Right now it simply doesn't exist. I can think of some ways financial incentives could be created, but they would involve radical rethinking of our justice system.

Posted by: William Jockusch | May 26, 2019 6:41:35 PM

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