Public Defender System ‘A Huge National Failure’

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Public defenders have complained for decades they’ve got too many cases and not enough money or time to do their clients justice. Now, more public defense advocates are suing states for more funding, Stateline reports. Overwhelmed public defenders are increasingly trying other tactics: refusing to take on new cases, raising money through crowdfunding, even trying to assign a case to a sitting governor. “It’s been a huge national failure,” said William Leahy, New York’s chief public defender, of the public defense system, which provides legal representation for poor people charged with serious crimes, a right guaranteed by the U.S. Constitution. With declining budgets and crushing caseloads, juggling clients has become a Sisyphean task, public defenders say. In New Orleans, 60 public defenders manage 20,000 cases a year.

As poor defendants languish in jails awaiting representation that’s months or years away, even some conservatives wonder whether it’s time to change the system. “If the government can bring charges against you and you’re unable to have someone represent and defend you, that’s the route to totalitarianism. You’re stripped of your rights,” said Pat Nolan of the American Conservative Union Foundation. The Sixth Amendment guarantees those facing criminal charges the right to a speedy and public trial by an impartial jury and legal counsel. In its 1963 decision in Gideon v. Wainwright, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled anyone charged with a serious crime had a “fundamental” right to counsel, but left funding to the states. Public defense is typically paid for with a patchwork of state and county funding, with the exception of federal public defenders. Public defenders have been pushing back. Last week, public defenders in Massachusetts demonstrated against low pay (average base salary is $47,500 a year) and their lack of collective bargaining power as state employees.

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