Inadequate Public Defender Funding Is a Problem That Won’t Go Away. Bob Donley Explains

LBN’s Bob Donley reminds us that everyone who has ever seen a police show on television has heard that familiar Miranda warning that includes these words: “If you cannot afford an attorney, one will be appointed for you.” The warning is part of a set of rights announced by the Supreme Court in Miranda v. Arizona almost fifty years ago. Those rights come into play every time someone is questioned as a suspect in a felony.

But problems arise when government can no longer afford to pay for competent lawyers to represent indigent defendants. That, Donley says, is what is happening all across the country. Louisiana’s public defender system has dealt with large budget shortfalls by laying off about a fourth of its lawyers. The state doesn’t have the money. The Pennsylvania Supreme Court has decided it will hear an appeal in a case by a former public defender whose lawsuit alleges that the state did not properly fund legal services for poor defendants. A similar situation exists in Florida.

Missouri has had a long-standing funding issue for the public defender system (see LBN’s report on Missouri’s public defender problem.) Michael Barrett, state director of Missouri’s public defender system, has said that inadequate funding over the years has led to fewer cases being tried and more being resolved by guilty pleas. Plea bargains put people in jail. As Donley notes, “jails are overflowing with people who might otherwise not be behind bars.”

Nationwide, public defender agencies are left to struggle with ways to balance their budgets and carry out their mission. Using traffic ticket fines to pay for part of the defender budget has been an option. One solution to the problem has been private attorneys provided by state bars to fill the gap. Among the problems with this solution is the possibility that a private lawyer will not be a criminal law specialist and thus not provide effective assistance to an indigent defendant. As Bob Donley says, “You may not be giving up your right to an attorney, but a lack of a proper attorney may indeed be held against you in a court of law.”

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