More $$$s Needed to End ‘Crisis’ in U.S. Public Defender System: Study

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Illustration courtesy Rick Waller via Flickr

“Underfunding” of indigent defense services is a major factor driving mass incarceration and racial bias in the U.S. justice system, says the Brennan Center for Justice at New York University School of Law.

More than a half-century after the Supreme Court ruled in Gideon v Wainright that every individual accused of a crime is entitled to a lawyer regardless of whether he or she can afford it, the system of legal aid continues to be in “crisis” around the country, the Brennan Center said in a study released Monday.

“Research has shown that only 27 percent of county-based and 21 percent of state-based public defender offices have enough attorneys to adequately handle their caseloads,” the study said.

In New Orleans until recently, for example, the small corps of public defenders were forced to handle more than 19,000 misdemeanor cases a year—leaving them roughly seven minutes to spend on each client’s case.

In another example, the chronic overload faced by public defenders in Kansas City, Mo., left one man sitting in jail for over 13 months before he got legal help for a robbery that it turned out he never committed.

A survey of  indigent defense programs in 29 states found that six states had fewer than 10 full-time investigators on staff in the entire state, said the report, entitled, “A Fair Fight: Achieving Indigent Defense Resource Parity.”

In 19 states, there were fewer than 10 paralegals on staff.

“Many of the issues that affect our criminal justice system today—overly long sentences, racial bias, wrongful convictions—are exacerbated by overwhelmed indigent defense systems,” the study said.

But it noted that the current movement towards justice reform, as well as a changed climate that no longer supports “tough on crime” measures, provides an opportunity for “transformative change” in the public defense system.

The Brennan Study highlighted five areas in which reforms could fulfill the original promise of Gideon v Wainright.

      • Restructure indigenous defense systems to improve court administration;
      • Reduce “unsustainable” workloads along the lines of benchmarks set by the National Advisory Commission on Criminal Justice Standards and Goals to a maximum 150 felonies and 400 misdemeanors per attorney;
      • Increase payments to public defenders to end the stark disparity in salaries between legal aid attorneys and prosecutors (in one Colorado district for instance a junior public defender earns $15,000 less than the most junior prosecutor);
      • Increase the number of support staff in public defenders’ offices;
      • Earmark federal funds for indigent defense.

The study pointed to a bill introduced this year by Sen. Kamala Harris, former California Attorney General and now a candidate for the Democratic Party presidential nomination, to set “reasonable” workload limits for defenders and establish pay parity between public defenders and prosecutors, as a model that states could use to overhaul their defender systems.

“Achieving resource parity does not necessarily mean that prosecutors and indigent defense providers should be granted the exact same amount of funding,” the study said.

“Rather, it means that both the defense and prosecution are adequately resources to participate as equals in the adversarial system of U.S. criminal justice.”

The study was prepared by Bryan Furst.

See also: “Harris Introduces Criminal Justice Plan”

Download the full paper here.

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