Editorial: Fund public defenders more, or pay for unnecessary prison sentences

By The Pitt News Editorial Board

According to the Social Science Research Center, more than 80 percent of people charged with felonies are indigent — or poor. These people cannot afford attorneys, and therefore, must rely on public defenders. However, since Pennsylvania is charging indigent people at such a high rate, 73 percent of county public defender offices exceed the maximum recommended limit of cases set by the American Bar Association — 150 felonies a year.

As per the Sixth Amendment of the Constitution, if you are accused of a crime and don’t have the money to hire your own attorney, the state will assign a public defender to your case in order to ensure that you are given a fair trial — one in which you are viewed as equal to your fellow citizens in the eyes of the law.

This is part of the Miranda Rights that the police officers on TV recite when arresting suspects — i.e., the “if you cannot afford an attorney, one will be provided for you,” part.

In Luzerne County, Pennsylvania, however, three indigent criminal defendants and former chief public defender, Al Flora Jr., argue that the state violated the constitutional right to counsel.

On behalf of the indigent criminal defendants and Flora, the American Civil Liberties Union of Pennsylvania filed a class-action lawsuit in 2012, claiming “the office of the public defender could not adequately represent its clients with the level of funding that it received,” according to the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette.

After going through a series of state courts, the Pennsylvania State Supreme Court has finally agreed to take the case last week.

ACLU attorneys will argue that, because of low funding, the public defender’s office in Luzerne County lacked sufficient resources and time to fully represent its clients, which resulted in defendants being incarcerated for longer periods of time.

This is problematic for states like Pennsylvania because, as the ACLU explains on its website, we are “one of only two states that provide neither state funding nor state supervision for indigent defense,” thus shifting the burden “entirely to the counties, which set their own public defender budgets.”

Our system means that the poorest counties will have public defense offices with the least amount of funding. Consequently, public defense lawyers may not have enough staff, resources or even time to fully represent defendants. Ultimately, this makes it much easier for a person charged of a particular crime in a poor county to go to jail than for a person charged of the same crime in a richer county.

Since poorer counties have such a hard time representing defendants, this only exacerbates their economic situations, as it impedes the employment of their citizens. As the Urban Institute found in 2008, eight months after being released, only 45 percent of former prisoners were employed.

Prison helps to keep counties and the people who live in them in cyclical poverty, as it keeps them from obtaining the opportunities to advance themselves economically.

One way  to help alleviate the pain our poorer counties feel is transferring funding for public defendants to the state, rather than putting it onto the counties. This will ensure that every county will receive an appropriate amount of funding for public defense, rather than just a privileged few — meaning that all defendants, regardless of economic background, receive equal legal treatment.

Of course, politicians in Harrisburg may be wary of spending state money on public defenders. However, more money for public defenders will mean less money for the state prison budget — simply because less people will go to jail or will ultimately serve shorter sentences if the state provides access to adequate legal counsel.

We all have the right to a lawyer, and if that lawyer doesn’t have enough funding to properly execute our case, we shouldn’t have to remain silent.

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