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December 15, 2019

"The progressive prosecutor movement is great — but without funding public defenders it won't work"

The title of this post is the headline of this new Salon commentary authored by Premal Dharia.  Here are excerpts:

This growing support for public defense funding highlights a glaring missed opportunity: the inclusion of this issue on the policy platforms of the growing number of so-called progressive prosecutors. In counties and cities around the country, campaigning and newly elected prosecutors have highlighted plans to end cash bail, increase diversion programs, stop prosecuting certain drug or minor cases, and stop seeking the death penalty.  These policy changes are all important. But many of them won’t have nearly the impact they could because a critical piece of the infrastructure is missing: resourced public defenders.  If prosecutors truly want to bring about meaningful change, they must make the funding of public defenders a centerpiece their platforms. Indeed, the failure to include indigent defense funding in platforms for progressive change lays bare the failure to envision what is actually needed for change to happen.  Public defenders are essential to implementing the policy changes proposed by so many prosecutors. They are the other half of the adversarial system; for every lever set up by prosecutors, they are necessary for pushing or pulling it....

Public defenders are on the front lines of the devastation wrought by our system of mass criminalization and they are guided by an unwavering dedication to the very people being devastated.  The failure to fund them is part and parcel of the very same culture that allows excessive fines and fees to be imposed on the poor and money bail systems to flourish in courthouses around our country.  It’s time that the people claiming to want reform — including a new wave of prosecutors and hopeful prosecutors around the country — advocate for the resources that are essential to making real change happen.

December 15, 2019 at 07:23 PM | Permalink


“Public defenders are on the front lines of the devastation wrought by our system of mass criminalization and they are guided by an unwavering dedication to the very people being devastated.”

Statements like these are why articles like these convince no one to change their view. Yes, PD’s are on the front lines but most people do not accept the idea that the system over criminalizes or that defendants by and large are instead victims. A pointless article, in Salon no less. Sometimes I wonder why it is that lawyers are so singularly unwilling or incapable of persuasion given that it is supposed to be our strength. The author is a former PD; arguments along these lines to a jury would do her clients no favors.

Posted by: David | Dec 15, 2019 8:08:22 PM

I think the marijuana reform movement and the election of progressive prosecutors in many cities suggest that a lot of people believe "that the system over criminalizes." In addition, all of the leading Dems running for Prez have released criminal justice reform plans that are largely based on the premise "that the system over criminalizes." That said, David, you may well be right that the sermon in this article is preaching to those already converted. But, critically, the author is hoping specifically to reach the ears of progressive prosecutors and their voters to get pubic defense funding on their wish lists.

Posted by: Doug B. | Dec 16, 2019 12:31:01 AM

The problem is that voters want a lot of incompatible things -- low tax rates; a good education system, good roads, etc. Most states require balanced budgets and, after complying with federal mandates and state constitutional requirements, there is little left for discretionary spending. So while talking about the need to better fund the justice system -- enough judges, real pay for jurors, enough prosecutors, enough public defenders, enough police officers, adequate funding for rehabilitation programs -- is easy, getting an agreement on what to cut to pay for that added funding (or what taxes to raise) is the hard part.

Posted by: tmm | Dec 17, 2019 10:33:49 AM

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