The National Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers contends that the federal government’s system for defending poor people needs to change. NPR says a new study by the group said judges who are supposed to be neutral arbiters too often put their fingers on the scales. The report said defense lawyers for the poor who work in the federal court system need more resources to do their jobs. That means money, not just for themselves, but to pay for experts and investigators. “Having good, fully-resourced defense counsel with access to ancillary services is an absolute must in a society that is arresting 14 million people a year,” said the group’s director, Norman Reimer.
In an adversary system, lawyers for poor defendants say they need to operate on equal footing with prosecutors. But the study, the first of its kind in more than 20 years, found the source of most concern rests with judges who exercise too much control over the process. Bonnie Hoffman, a deputy public defender in Virginia, chaired a task force that produced the report. “There’s some significant ways we feel the federal system is not measuring up — most importantly, in the area of independence,” she said. Judges have a role in selecting the defense lawyers for poor clients who appear in court. They act as umpires during a plea hearing or a trial. The same judges approve or reject the defense lawyers’ fee requests. There is no way to appeal.