States and counties struggling to balance their budgets are cutting spending on public defenders, says the Wall Street Journal. Some lawyers say the move is compromising criminal defendants’ constitutional right to counsel. Providing for that right, guaranteed in a 1963 Supreme Court ruling, has grown increasingly expensive amid a dramatic rise in arrests and prosecutions in recent decades. Spending on indigent defense rose from about $1 billion in 1986 to roughly $5.3 billion in 2008, according to a 2010 report from by the American Bar Association.
The increase was partly in response to litigation challenging the adequacy of funding for indigent defense. The austerity moves stemming from funding constraints now include laying off public defenders, holding the line on salaries, and reducing spending on the defense’s case investigators and staff training. “The system is not allowing us to provide competent representation,” said Edward Monahan, head of the Kentucky Department of Public Advocacy, which lost about $500,000, or 1.5 percent, of its funding this year, and faces an additional 2.5 percent budget cut in the coming fiscal year. Other legal services in the criminal justice system have come under the budget scalpel. Some states have fired or not replaced police officers and prosecutors “Across the country, [prosecutors’ offices] have been laying people off, furloughing prosecutors, and encouraging early retirement,” said Scott Burns of the National District Attorneys Association.