Helping People and Defending the Indigent: The Other Infrastructure

As elected Democrats decide how to invest in the nation's infrastructure, they should remember this: bridges and roads and trains and buildings are all important, but so are drug and alcohol treatment programs, shelter and service providers for the abused and homeless and mentally ill, and reintegration services for newly released inmates.

The nation's infrastructure is more than a collection of the things we build and the surfaces we pave. Governing Democrats need to recognize that people are part of our infrastructure. Bridges are more easily repaired, but restoring productivity to the citizens we now discard will yield a better return on our public investment.

Democrats should also remember that the criminal justice system is part of our infrastructure. They should restore meaning to the phrase "equal justice for all" by helping states improve their woefully underfunded public defender services. [more ...]

Public defenders’ offices always have been underfinanced and overburdened. With state revenues in free fall, the problem is reaching crisis proportions and creating a legal and moral challenge for the criminal justice system, state legislatures and the legal profession.

Statewide public defenders in Kentucky and Minnesota and in cities such as Miami and Atlanta have been forced by budget cuts to fire or furlough lawyers. In at least seven states, public defenders’ offices are refusing to take on new cases or have sued to limit them. They argue that budget cuts and rising case loads undermine their ability to provide adequate representation.

These Miami-Dade statistics are insane:

Over the past three years, the average number of felony cases handled by each lawyer rose from 367 annually to nearly 500. Misdemeanor case loads rose from 1,380 to 2,225.

This is not how we should treat a vital organ of our infrastructure.

Public defenders’ offices all over the country are reporting similar problems. The immediate result is that innocent defendants may feel pressure to plead guilty. There also is an increased risk of wrongful conviction, which means that the real offenders would go free.

The linked editorial has good cause to fear that "states struggling to come up with financing for schools and hospitals" will continue to neglect their responsibility to fund indigent defense. They'll find money for their prisons and their marijuana eradication programs, but public defender offices will continue to face rising caseloads and declining budgets. In any states where Democrats make a difference, they should give immediate attention to the spreading crisis.

The editorial makes the obligatory pitch for more pro bono work, presumably by criminal defense lawyers. Believe me, we know we need to help. But that's a stopgap measure, not a solution.

The editorial also calls for states "to increase the registration fees charged to lawyers." Hello? Did lawyers cause this problem? You want lawyers to defend clients pro bono but still pay more to retain the privilege of practicing law for free? Why shouldn't New York Times editorialists have any responsibility to fund legal representation for the nation's poor?

Finally getting real, the editorial says:

Ultimately, government must take responsibility. All defendants, rich or poor, have the right to competent legal counsel.

Exactly. If our Democratic president and representatives and senators take a broad view of infrastructure investment, they will direct some infrastructure money to states that are willing to spend it on indigent defense, with appropriate strings (caseload limits and other standards) attached. If the Clinton administration could spend liberally to fund state and local law enforcement officers, the Obama administration can spend liberally to help states pay for indigent defense.

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    there is an intrinsic (5.00 / 1) (#2)
    by cpinva on Fri Nov 21, 2008 at 03:27:17 AM EST
    relationship between the physical & intellectual (for lack of a better term) national infrastructure. both have been allowed to decay, with easily forseeable results: bridges and people ignored, until tragedy strikes. lots of noise, attention briefly focused, then the tv cameras leave.

    in fairness to the current administration, while it's true they've done little or nothing to correct the situation, neither has anyone else since at least carter. broken bridges and people aren't noteworthy, until some "good" citizens are harmed. however, the present administration has managed to squander billions, that could have been applied, to both these problems.

    fixing the physical would certainly provide jobs to some of those who might otherwise end up looking for that public defender. is the country willing to pay the cost?

    Involuntary Appointment List (5.00 / 1) (#3)
    by Molly Bloom on Fri Nov 21, 2008 at 07:20:56 AM EST
    Hey Chris, you may want to read this

    ... What has developed in Manatee County is a perfect storm: Too few lawyers to provide services to clusters of defendants charged in gang-related cases. After appointment of the public defender, regional counsel, and the five remaining registry attorneys, the system breaks down when the number of attorneys needed to represent indigent co-defendants in Manatee County exceeds seven."

    What Judge Haworth did was first declare the fee limitations passed in 2007 unconstitutional, including the ban on interim payments and the $75 hour cap. Then he went looking for additional defense attorneys.

    When he couldn't find enough, Haworth created "an Involuntary Appointment List."

    "Attorneys placed on the Involuntary Appointment List by the Chief Judge were not vetted for experience, expertise, or with regard to whether the appointment would create a financial hardship. In fact, their particular competence or fitness to represent defendants charged with first degree felonies was not a consideration for eligibility," the judge wrote in his order in Hagopian's case. "Attorneys who limit their practice to traffic and misdemeanor matters and never tried a case to a jury were lumped together with lawyers experienced in the most complex criminal matters."

    Public defenders (none / 0) (#1)
    by 1980Ford on Fri Nov 21, 2008 at 03:10:15 AM EST
    Are right up there with firefighters, only they fight a different fire: the burning of the Constitution.

    We had a PD scheduled to start three (none / 0) (#4)
    by JSN on Fri Nov 21, 2008 at 07:48:03 AM EST
    trials on the same day (two were continued) and aborted hearings because the PD has a conflict of interest are too frequent. But we are in better shape than many jurisdictions.

    There are all kinds of limiting factors the PDs' are just one. If I could change one thing to make an improvement it would be to add more staff to the Clerk of Court Office.

    So much to do.... (none / 0) (#5)
    by kdog on Fri Nov 21, 2008 at 09:38:03 AM EST
    so little cash on hand.  Lots of prioritizing to do, and I'd certainly put preserving one of our most precious rights, the right to a defense regardless of your ability to pay, right near the top of the list.

    I'm positive there is room for cuts in law enforcement agencies and DA offices nationwide to pay for it...the playing field of justice has been tilted for too long.

    Not just public defenders (none / 0) (#6)
    by DancingOpossum on Fri Nov 21, 2008 at 11:06:25 AM EST
    We need better funding of programs that provide legal help in civil cases to poor people. These are where the majority of poor (and, increasingly, middle-class) people find themselves in the legal sytem without the ability to pay for a lawyer. Think divorce, housing, landlord-tenant, adoption, etc. etc. The Legal Services Corp. which provides grants to these programs recently got a much needed financial boost but the need still greatly outweighs the funding.

    Public defenders and legal aid lawyers are the unsung heroes of our justice system and they definitely need help. PDs need to be paid more, too, but that's a whole 'nother can of worms to open up, I guess.