Public Defense System

Public defenders fight back against budget cuts, growing caseloads, By Teresa Wiltz, November 21, 2017, Stateline: “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. Overwhelmed public defenders also 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…”

Public Defender System – Tennessee

TN high court urges change, better funding to protect legal rights of the poor, By Jamie Satterfield, October 9, 2017, Knoxville News Sentinel: “The Tennessee Supreme Court announced last week it is going to try to ratchet down the costs of providing attorneys for poor people, recommend a boost in pay for those lawyers, and lend its voice to a push for money to reform a broken system. The high court in a news release detailed changes it wants to see in ensuring poor people are afforded legal representation that pass constitutional muster. Nearly all require buy-in from Tennessee lawmakers, who hold the purse strings…”

Public Defender Fees – Los Angeles

L.A. County ends public defender ‘registration fee’, By Nina Agrawal, June 6, 2017, Los Angeles Times: “The Los Angeles County Board of Supervisors voted Tuesday to eliminate the $50 ‘registration fee’ that the public defender’s office and other court-appointed counsel may charge defendants before providing them with legal services…”

Public Defender System – Louisiana

Class-action status sought for Louisiana indigent defense lawsuit, By Ken Daley, May 4, 2017, New Orleans Times-Picayune: “Civil rights advocates hoping to force a rebuild of Louisiana’s indigent defense system on Thursday (May 4) sought class-action status for a lawsuit filed in February against Gov. John Bel Edwards and the state’s Public Defender Board. The motion for class certification argues that Louisiana has allowed the system meant to provide constitutionally mandated legal aid for poor criminal defendants to buckle under excessive caseloads, inadequate staffing and deficient funding mechanisms. Supporters said that if the class action request is certified, rulings in the case would apply to nearly 20,000 indigent defendants in the state, likely making it the largest indigent-defense case of its kind…”

Public Defender System – Missouri

Missouri sued over low funding for public defender system, By Margaret Stafford (AP), March 9, 2017, St. Louis Post-Dispatch: “Missouri’s public defender system is so badly underfunded and understaffed its lawyers are unable to provide even rudimentary representation for indigent clients, who often languish in jail or appear in court without attorneys, according to a class-action lawsuit seeking to force the state to increase funding…”

Public Defender System – Louisiana

La. Governor sued over state’s alleged failure to provide lawyers to poor defendants, By Rebecca Hersher, February 7, 2017, National Public Radio: “Louisiana Gov. John Bel Edwards was sued Monday over his state’s public defender system, which plaintiffs say violates the U.S. and Louisiana Constitutions by denying effective representation to poor people accused of crimes.  The lawsuit filed in U.S. District Court describes defendants kept in jail for months before seeing a lawyer, public defenders who are so overworked they cannot provide adequate counsel and multiple instances in which people accused of minor crimes did not receive an attorney at all…”

Public Defender System – Indiana

Indiana’s public defender system flawed, study says, By Fatima Hussein, October 24, 2016, Indianapolis Star: “The state’s public defender system is not only woefully underfunded, legal experts say, the Sixth Amendment right to a fair and speedy trial is routinely violated in Indiana.  Lack of oversight of the public defense system, inconsistent funding and subpar representation contribute to the problems, the experts said…”

Public Defender System – Louisiana

On the defensive, By Dylan Walsh, June 2, 2016, The Atlantic: “Concordia Parish extends tall and narrow along the Mississippi River, where the ankle of Louisiana meets the instep. Almost one-third of its 20,000 residents live below the federal poverty line. Strip malls dominate Vidalia, the parish seat. Smaller satellite towns are home to Pentecostal mega-churches, defunct gas stations, and tin-sided shacks selling crawfish for $2 a pound. State highways run through low fields once flush with cotton that was picked by slaves and sold across the river to Natchez.  Near the river is the parish courthouse, a low-slung building made of concrete and set behind a grassy berm. The court opens at 9:30, but the halls fill before then. People sit on the floor outside the double-doors of the courtroom entrance, crowd together on benches, wander around to find the offices where they can get the documents or signatures that they need…”

Public Defender System – Louisiana

In Louisiana, the poor lack legal defense, By Campbell Robertson, March 19, 2016, New York Times: “It was arraignment morning at the Vermilion Parish courthouse, the monthly catalog of bad decisions, hot tempers, hard hearts and hard luck. Natasha George, who until recently was one of 10 lawyers defending the poor of the parish, stood before the full gallery of defendants. ‘I’m the public defender in Vermilion Parish, right now the only public defender,’ she said. ‘Due to a lack of funding for our district and our office, today we will be taking applications for our service but you will be put on a wait list.’ Over the next hour, a steady stream of people left the courthouse and headed out into the rain, nearly all holding a sheet of paper explaining that as the poor and accused of Vermilion Parish they were, for now, on their own…”

Public Defenders – Missouri

Missouri public defender director warns his department is in crisis, Associated Press, February 21, 2016, St. Louis Post-Dispatch: “The director of Missouri’s public defenders is warning that the state’s chronically underfunded system for representing poor people has become a ‘house of cards’ that could face a federal lawsuit if it’s not improved. The Office of the State Public Defender is asking for a funding boost of more than $25 million for the fiscal year that starts in July, but Gov. Jay Nixon’s budget proposal calls for a $1.5 million increase to the department. Most of it slated for ‘representation costs,’ though he isn’t proposing to add more full-time employees…”

Public Defenders and Legal Aid

  • Some public defender offices turning away clients, East Baton Rouge ‘treading water’ during budget crisis, By Bryn Stole, February 16, 2016, Baton Rouge Advocate: “Public defenders in East Baton Rouge Parish are, for the time being, weathering the deepening funding crisis better than some other district offices elsewhere in Louisiana. Unlike public defenders in other parishes such as Lafayette, Vermilion, Acadia and Orleans, Mike Mitchell, the chief public defender in East Baton Rouge, said his office hasn’t yet been forced to turn away clients…”
  • $1 hike in court fees aimed at boosting Legal Aid, By Zack Pluhacek, February 17, 2016, Lincoln Journal Star: “A bill to raise state court fees by $1 would provide much-needed funding for Legal Aid of Nebraska, supporters said Wednesday. State Sen. Adam Morfeld of Lincoln, who sponsored the legislative measure (LB1098), says it would raise an extra $355,000 a year for the nonprofit law firm that provides free legal help to low-income people in non-criminal cases. Seven in 10 low-income Nebraskans deal with a significant legal issue each year, Morfeld said…”


Public Defender System – Missouri

Missouri could face legal challenge for shortfalls in public defender system, By Dave Helling, July 19, 2015, Kansas City Star: “Anthony Cardarella represents dozens of clients accused of crimes who are considered too poor to pay for the legal help the U.S. Constitution guarantees them. The public defender is busy, so busy he’s reminded of the classic ‘I Love Lucy’ episode in which a conveyor belt of candy passes far too quickly for the comic to keep pace. ‘It’s a lot like that,’ he said. Cardarella’s heavy workload isn’t unique. Each of Missouri’s public defenders will average more than 200 cases this year, everything from murders and serious felonies to juvenile cases and probation violations. That’s about four cases a week…”

Sequestration Cuts and Safety Net Programs

  • Head Start eliminated services to 57,000 children in U.S. as a result of sequester, By Michael Alison Chandler, August 18, 2013, Washington Post: “Head Start programs across the country eliminated services for 57,000 children in the coming school year to balance budgets diminished by the federal sequester, cutting 1.3 million days from Head Start center calendars and laying off or reducing pay for more than 18,000 employees, according to federal government data scheduled for release Monday…”
  • Head Start hit with worst cuts in its history, By Adrienne Lu, August 19, 2013, USA Today: “Last year about 1 million of the nation’s poorest children got a leg up on school through Head Start, the federal program that helps prepare children up to age five for school. This fall, about 57,000 children will be denied a place in Head Start and Early Head Start as fallout from sequestration. New estimates about the automatic budget cuts were released Monday by the federal government. The cuts have slashed over $400 million from the federal program’s $8 billion budget…”
  • Pa. taxpayers end up paying more as public defenders laid off, By Brian Bowling, August 18, 2013, Pittsburgh Tribune-Review: “In Western Pennsylvania, budget sequestration measures are pushing the federal court system to rely on $125-an-hour private attorneys instead of public defenders who typically cost taxpayers $75 or less for hourly work on criminal cases. That 67 percent increase in providing legal services to indigent criminal defendants is just one way that budget ‘cuts’ will end up costing taxpayers more, while undermining the Sixth Amendment’s guarantee of fair and speedy trials, legal experts contend…”

Public Criminal Defense System – Michigan

Indigent defense: Michigan looks to overhaul system for low-income criminal defense, By Jonathan Oosting, June 14, 2013, “Michigan lawmakers on Thursday took a major step towards overhauling the state’s public criminal defense system, which critics say has been broken for years and failed to protect some residents who cannot afford their own attorney. The Senate and House on Thursday approved identical bills, setting the stage for them to be finalized and sent to the governor as early as next week, to create the Michigan Indigent Defense Commission. The 16-member body would be tasked with researching, developing and enforcing minimum standards for constitutionally-guaranteed legal representation in jurisdictions around the state…”

Public Defender Caseloads – Missouri

Rule will cap public defender caseload, By Scott Moyers, September 19, 2012, Southeast Missourian: “A new rule set to begin Oct. 1 will permit the state’s public defender system to defer certain criminal cases in a move that proponents say should give the state’s low-income defendants quality legal representation that has been lacking during a decade of swelling caseloads and dwindling resources. But a number of skeptics, including Cape Girardeau County Prosecuting Attorney Morley Swingle, believe the rule’s new formula ‘greatly exaggerates’ the time that is being estimated for the defender caseloads and also suggest that the change is really a thinly veiled attempt to pressure the state for more dollars. But a July 31 Missouri Supreme Court ruling says the Missouri Public Defender Commission, which oversees the state’s 150 public defenders, has the authority to set maximum caseloads if the defender’s office asserts that the caseload capacity was exceeded…”

Legal Defense for the Poor – Iowa, Michigan

  • Iowa’s costs for defending poor rise, By Vanessa Miller, June 28, 2012, Cedar Rapids Gazette: “Just a handful of basic questions stand between accused criminals claiming to be indigent and trained attorneys willing to fight for them in court. Do you have a job? How much do you earn? How much are your monthly bills? Most of the time, according to legal experts and court officials, accused offenders applying for court-appointed attorneys answer truthfully – they are signing the paperwork under penalty of perjury after all. But, according to officials within the state’s judicial system, there is no systematic procedure in place to verify that recipients of court-appointed counsel are being honest about their finances. That means some of the accused could be taking advantage of an indigent defense system that is largely supported by taxpayers and already spread thin, with the gap between what is spent on public defense and what is paid back by accused offenders widening…”
  • Poor people aren’t getting equal shake in court, governor’s panel warns, By Pat Shellenbarger, June 26, 2012, “Fridays in Ottawa County’s courts — when criminal defendants often are arraigned without legal representation — are referred to as ‘McJustice Days.’ In Sault Ste. Marie, attorneys representing the poor have little time to prepare and wait in line to meet with their clients in the courthouse’s unisex bathroom. In Wayne County, court-appointed attorneys haven’t received a raise in decades and say they often take on more cases than they can handle. And in a report approved June 22, the Michigan Advisory Commission on Indigent Defense urged the Legislature and Gov. Rick Snyder to increase funding and implement statewide standards for the state’s system of providing attorneys for indigent criminal defendants — a system that has been criticized as one of the worst in the country…”

Public Defender System – Michigan

ACLU: Michigan’s public defender system among worst, By Doug Guthrie, May 18, 2011, Detroit News: “Michigan’s system of appointing lawyers to represent criminal defendants who can’t afford to hire their own is among the worst in the nation, according to a report issued today by the American Civil Liberties Union. Using numerous prior studies by others that condemned the state’s dependence on a patchwork of dissimilar systems run separately by 83 counties, the report blasts a lack of oversight, funding, training and failure to meet national standards…”

Legal Aid for the Poor

  • Residents of Los Angeles County’s poorest areas to get help in keeping their homes, By Victoria Kim, May 2, 2011, Los Angeles Times: “Thousands of residents in Los Angeles’ poorest neighborhoods will get new legal help in fighting high-stakes eviction cases involving slumlords and foreclosures under a pilot project approved by the state’s judicial leaders Friday. The new Eviction Legal Assistance Center at Los Angeles County Superior Court’s downtown civil courthouse will provide legal representation to about 15,000 people facing eviction over three years, according to legal aid groups, which will be jointly running the center…”
  • State’s chief judge pledges more aid for poor in courts, By Thomas Kaplan, May 2, 2011, New York Times: “New York’s chief judge, Jonathan Lippman, on Monday called the state’s routine failure to provide lawyers for poor criminal defendants being arraigned in local courts a problem that ‘can no longer be tolerated,’ and pledged to remedy the situation within a year. Judge Lippman, in a speech at the State Court of Appeals, said too many New Yorkers were needlessly spending nights in jail after appearing without legal counsel at criminal arraignments in small-town and village courthouses. He vowed that the state would spend $10 million in an effort to improve the availability of legal defense provided to the poor…”

Legal Aid – Massachusetts

State’s bills soar for legal aid to poor, By Milton J. Valencia and Matt Carroll, February 14, 2011, Boston Globe: “The state last year paid private lawyers $155.6 million to represent poor clients, almost 25 percent more than anticipated under a 2005 state law that was passed to make their pay more equitable with other states, according to a Globe analysis of the spending. At the same time, the state has failed to take several other actions recommended in 2005 that would have limited the state’s dependence on private lawyers – and the fees they received – and better defined who qualifies as an indigent defendant…”