Public Defender System in Funding-Shortage Crisis

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With up to 90 percent of criminal defendants in the U.S. qualifying as indigent, the nation spent $5.3 billion on indigent defense systems each year as of 2008, just 2.5 percent of the roughly $200 billion spent on criminal justice by states and local government every year. The depth of the criminal-defense crisis varies in each state, indicative of the complex patchwork of defense systems that are funded and administered differently dependent on jurisdiction, The Guardian reports, in collaboration with the Marshall Project. In Missouri where public defenders are funded entirely at the state level, Governor Jay Nixon has blocked passage of legislation to cap defenders’ workloads and increase their funding. The Missouri system is chronically overburdened.


Ed Monahan, Kentucky’s public advocate and chief defender, said, “We’re in crisis in Kentucky and in America … Public defenders are the pack mules of the system. Pack mules can carry a lot. But you put one more box on an overburdened mule, and it won’t be able to function.” In Louisiana, which has suffered its worst budget crisis in decades, public defenders went into triage, putting thousands of their clients on waitlists for a lawyer. National attention on the crisis has waned, in part because conditions have improved in New Orleans. After receiving a small influx of funds, the public defender’s office there ended its hiring freeze while reducing its waitlist to fewer than 40 defendants.


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