Indigent Defense Reform

The Sixth Amendment guarantees every person accused of a crime the right to an attorney for his or her defense, regardless of ability to pay. Yet all too often, these rights are violated by indigent defense systems that leave low-income people, including many people of color, without adequate representation. Pennsylvania is consistently ranked at the bottom for indigent defense, and it is the only state in the nation that provides no state funding to public defenders' offices.

You have the right to remain silent. You have to right to an attorney...If you cannot afford one, one will be provided for you at no cost to you..."

We all know this refrain, echoed time and time again by cops on TV and cops on our neighborhood streets. But is this promise actually fulfilled for those who cannot afford to hire a lawyer?

Fifty years ago, a courageous man named Clarence Gideon, impoverished and forced to represent himself in court for a crime he didn't commit, won a major legal victory and changed the American justice system forever. In a unanimous decision, the U.S. Supreme Court found in Gideon v. Wainwright that all individuals have the right to legal representation, even those who cannot afford it, when their freedom is at risk.

Sadly, a half century later, the promise of Gideon remains only a mirage in much of the country, but especially in Pennsylvania, which has one of the worst indigent systems in the nation. Put simply, the commonwealth has utterly failed to meet its constitutional obligation. One of only two states that provide neither state funding nor state supervision for indigent defense, Pennsylvania instead shifts the burden entirely to the counties, which set their own public defender budgets. Philadelphia, which has the best public defender office in the state, spends roughly nine times the amount on indigent defense that Columbia County spends per capita. As a result, access to justice varies wildly across the state.

The biggest problem is inadequate funding. Too little money means too few staff and resources, which translates into each lawyer representing too many people. Consequently, most public defenders struggle with workloads that far exceed limits set by the American Bar Association and other professional organizations. Most public defenders also lack adequate training and crucial support staff, such as investigators and social workers. Even the most polished advocate could not do an adequate job without these necessary resources.

What can be done to fix Pennsylvania's broken system?

In December 2011, the Pennsylvania Joint State Government Commission's Task Force and Advisory Committee on Services to Indigent Criminal Defendants issued a report. Several years in the making, it provides recommendations for improving Pennsylvania's broken system and bringing it in line with national standards by creating a state office to oversee and guide county programs. Unfortunately, this report has been largely ignored by the General Assembly.

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