Monday, August 17, 2009

The Looming Crisis in Public Defenders' Offices

I listened to this NPR story on the way home from work. It asserts that there's a nationwide problem of underfunded public defender programs. In Detroit, the story's focus, there aren't enough defenders to go around, they're so poorly paid that they attract the least qualified attorneys, and those on staff don't get paid for basic activities related to representing their clients:

Kelly asks him if she should plead guilty. He doesn't tell her what to do, but it's very clear he has little interest in taking this case to trial. Critics of the system say a lot of appointed defenders, at this point, will urge their clients to plead guilty because they aren't paid enough to really prepare for trial. A defender in Detroit receives $180 for a basic full-day felony trial. Eaman says that doesn't even come close to covering trial costs.

"The system does not provide the lawyers with the tools they need to defend their clients," Eaman says. "Investigators are very important, expert witnesses are very important. In an appointed case, you need permission of the court. You don't always get permission of the court, or if you do, you get such a small amount of money that you can't find anybody to do the work for you."

I would gladly pay higher taxes to ensure that this very basic function of government -- criminal justice -- is carried out properly.


kaflick said...

Do you really think that if they got any more money they would use it on something they were supposed to be doing? Or would they spend it on something that let them buy more votes?

John said...

Well, that might be a problem among public defenders who are elected. Not that unelected government officials are all that clean, either.

But even if there is some graft, or a lot of it, in a public defender's office, some money will be spent on indigent defense.

I do, however, like encountering someone even more cynical of government efficacy and integrity than I am.

Larry B said...

The problem to me seems to be how to define quality. Merely having a large case load and trying to get clients to plead out does not necessarily mean it is an inadequate defense. How do you measure the adequacy of the defense? The article vaguely points at the idea of pleading out to avoid trials as being bad lawyering (if that is a word), but is it really? I don't know.

And I would really question your premise that expending more money improves quality. That is rarely if ever the case in any government system.

zeraygazette said...

That's good thinking. Simply throwing money at a problem won't necessarily solve it. There are also legal changes that are necessary, especially as the Exclusionary Rule is slowly being eroded. But when a public defender wants to hire an investigator, but can't afford to -- and the prosecutor can -- that's a funding issue.