HARRISBURG – The American Civil Liberties Union of Pennsylvania today sued the commonwealth for failing to ensure that people who cannot afford an attorney in their criminal cases are provided with effective, free representation, as required by the constitution. The lawsuit was filed in Commonwealth Court on behalf of a number of Pennsylvanians who are currently facing charges in criminal courts around the state.

According to the lawsuit, which names Governor Josh Shapiro and leaders of the General Assembly as defendants, Pennsylvania’s indigent defense system leaves more than 100,000 Pennsylvanians who can’t afford to pay for a lawyer without effective assistance of counsel every year. 

“For decades, we have relied on the criminal legal system to adjudicate and reinforce stigmas related to poverty, race, gender, and many other socio-economic factors. The inconsistent and insufficient funding of indigent defense in Pennsylvania makes us less safe. Excluding the Defender Association of Philadelphia, Pennsylvania is tied with Mississippi for the worst funded state public defender system on a per capita basis,” said Mike Lee, executive director of the ACLU of Pennsylvania. “Governor Shapiro’s budget allocation of $7.5 million is better than zero. But it is nowhere near the amount necessary to solve this crisis.”

Under Pennsylvania’s Public Defender Act, the commonwealth delegates the funding and oversight of indigent defense to each of Pennsylvania’s 67 counties. That creates an inconsistent patchwork of counsel depending on the county in which a person is charged with a crime. 

ACLU of Pennsylvania Legal Director Witold Walczak, a veteran of litigation efforts to improve indigent defense, noted that, “The U.S. and Pennsylvania constitutions give people a right to counsel if they face jail time. That right means more than a warm body with a law degree at your side; it requires an effective professional who has the time and resources to prepare a defense. Pennsylvania’s grossly under-funded system leads to overwhelming caseloads that make effective representation practically impossible, even for the most dedicated lawyers.”

The funding crisis for public defenders impacts more than 100,000 Pennsylvanians each year. Despite all three branches of the commonwealth’s government concluding that state funding is needed for public defenders and appointed counsel, the state has done little to remedy the crisis.  

“This litigation is as much about bringing to light the injustices suffered by our petitioners, and the countless others like them, as it is about acknowledging the nearly impossible task of effectively representing thousands of people each year, which public defenders are routinely expected to do with little to no resources,” said Veronica Miller, senior policy counsel for criminal legal reform at the ACLU of Pennsylvania. “As a former public defender, I was constantly overwhelmed by the immense pressure to meet the standards of representation demanded by my profession and the emotional toll of feeling powerless to change the status quo of the system I was in.” 

The lawsuit asks the court to find that Pennsylvania’s reliance on county funding and oversight for indigent defense is a violation of the Pennsylvania and United States Constitutions. 

“Our courts have stressed that the right to counsel is one of the ‘essential barriers against arbitrary or unjust deprivation of human rights,’ said Ari Shapell, Toll Public Interest fellowship attorney at the ACLU of Pennsylvania. “But when the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania fails to provide for the right to counsel, through adequate funding and oversight, indigent Pennsylvanians, who are presumed innocent in their criminal cases, are left to face the full force of the state without an effective advocate.” 

You can read the full lawsuit at aclupa.org/defenders.