Chris Uggen's Blog: cuts to public defenders

Tuesday, June 17, 2008

cuts to public defenders

in gideon v. wainright (1963), the u.s. supreme court ruled that state courts are required under the constitution's sixth amendment to provide counsel for criminal defendants who can't afford their own attorneys. the decision greatly expanded public defender offices to provide for such defense.

now abc news is reporting that the severe budget problems faced by these offices may be compromising their ability to provide adequate counsel:

Statewide public defenders in Kentucky and Minnesota and local offices in cities such as Atlanta and Miami say budget cuts are forcing them to fire or furlough trial lawyers, leaving the offices unable to handle misdemeanor and, in some instances, serious felony cases.

The cuts leave states scrambling to find a solution to a constitutional dilemma: The Sixth Amendment requires the government to either provide poor defendants with lawyers or release them.

in the jurisdictions i know best, they've trimmed away every ounce of fat in the budgets over the past five years. so today they are cutting muscle and bone -- paralegals, investigative staff, administrative support, and, finally, the attorneys themselves. for a strapped mayor or city council, it can be easier to cut the defender's office than to trim the DA's budget or that of the police. that's why it could take some major wrongful conviction lawsuits -- or another clarence earl gideon -- to preserve the right to counsel for indigent defendants.


At 3:04 PM, Blogger Brad said...

In Minnesota, the Public Defender is a State Office, so these are state cuts by the legislative branch and executive branch.

County Attorney's, City Attorneys and Police are locally funded through property tax.

It's really not one or the other in MN, though the cuts for PD's have hit poor clients hard and may eventually effect the system through such outcomes as increased time to adjucication (not enough PD's to effectively cover court in a timely manner).

At 5:43 PM, Blogger christopher uggen said...

good point, brad. i should have known better, having interned for the hennepin county defender's office! about five years ago, i remember a minnesota proposal to charge indigent defendants a co-pay ($200?) for public defender services. do you know whether there is such a charge today?

At 10:03 AM, Blogger Brad said...

You probably worked at Hennepin before the state took over public defense. Hennepin still contributes to the public defenders office, the only county that does in MN.

I checked the Strib archives. That law was stuck down by the MN Supreme Court in Feb 2004, shortly after it was enacted in July 2003.

Many people supported striking down the law, including Walter Mondale. There were the assorted "blood from a turnip and/or rock" comments about spending money trying to collect fees from people without resources.


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