adapted from PARADE’s Intelligence Report column (April 26, 2009)
The Supreme Court ruled in 1963 that criminal defendants who cannot afford a lawyer must be provided with legal representation, but shrinking state and county budgets are undermining this constitutional right.
Lack of funding for public defenders could become a public-safety issue, since "every wrongfully convicted defendant leaves a real criminal on the street," says David Carroll, director of research at the National Legal Aid & Defender Association. "Indigent defense services have never been a priority, even in good economic times," Carroll says. "In bad times, it moves to a crisis state." Public-defender services are among the first to be cut when budgets are tight, and a tough economy brings higher crime rates and more unemployed defendants who cannot afford representation.
In Kentucky, the Department of Public Advocacy is scrambling to come up with the $4.7 million it will need to operate through the end of the fiscal year. "And that won't do anything to help with the overwhelming caseload," says Mary Ann Palmer, the DPA's general counsel. The American Civil Liberties Union has brought lawsuits in Connecticut, Washington, Montana, and Pennsylvania, all resulting in improved indigent public-defense services.
In Georgia, five defendants have filed a class-action suit demanding that felony charges against them be withdrawn because they were held for months without access to a lawyer. It's not unusual for public defenders to be forced to represent 400 or more clients per year, a caseload that increases the risk of wrongful convictions and unnecessary incarcerations that end up costing taxpayers even more, says Robin Dahlberg, a senior attorney at the ACLU. "States are realizing they have to deal with this," she says. "By reforming the way crimes are prosecuted, they can cut the costs of trials for indigents and save on incarceration."
What do you think?
Why is it important for public-defender offices to have enough funding?
How should states fund public-defender services?
What are some consequences of public defenders having high caseloads?