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‘The need is great’ for money to pay public defenders, Shapiro says after proposing $10M increase

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Peter Hall, Pennsylvania Capital-Star
February 12, 2024

A year after taking the first steps to end Pennsylvania’s “shameful distinction” as one of only two states that did not pay for public defenders, Gov. Josh Shapiro and state lawmakers said Monday they would negotiate to make more money available for indigent defense. 

In a news conference that followed the first meeting of the Pennsylvania Commission on Crime and Delinquency’s Indigent Defense Advisory Committee, lawmakers and Shapiro spoke about the importance of investing in public defenders’ offices. 

“When we talk about public safety, it’s not only investing in law enforcement,” state House Speaker Joanna McClinton (D-Philadelphia), who is a former public defender, said. “It is also inappropriately funding public defense, because what we can never afford is for even one wrongfully convicted person to spend a second of their lives behind bars.”

As part of his second budget proposal, Shapiro has called to increase funding for public defenders’ offices across the state by $10 million. That would be on top of $7.5 million in the current state budget. He credited McClinton with beginning the process several years earlier, by introducing legislation “two or three terms ago”

The Indigent Defense Advisory Committee is tasked with developing statewide standards and a statewide funding system for public defenders, who are required to represent those charged with crimes who cannot afford to hire a private criminal defense attorney. 

Until the 2023-24 budget was finalized last year, Pennsylvania provided no financial support to county public defenders whose funding was at the discretion of county commissioners. As a result, many public defenders’ offices are woefully underfunded.

In addition to laying groundwork for a future system of grants to pay for public defenders, the Indigent Defense Advisory Committee is also responsible for: 

  • Proposing minimum standard for indigent defense services for the state Supreme Court;
  • Developing standards for counties and partnerships with other agencies to collect data on indigent defense;
  • Establishing a training library for public defenders;
  • Adopting standards for case management systems; and
  • Reporting on trends and the effectiveness of services to the General Assembly. 

Sara Jacobson, chair of the committee, and director of the Public Defender Association of Pennsylvania, said the $7.5 million in the current budget is a good downpayment and provides a historic opportunity to make Pennsylvania’s justice system more fair. 

Jacobson described meeting with a new chief defender in a county in Western Pennsylvania — the county’s third chief defender in 12 months. The county’s previous chief defender had resigned because he didn’t think he could ethically fulfill his duties, Jacobson said, due to the size of the workload, which amounted to hundreds of cases. The new chief defender didn’t know how many cases she had exactly, because a flood had damaged paper records and the office didn’t have digitized records.

“That’s what inadequate funding looks like on the ground,” Jacobson said. “Pennsylvanians deserve better, and the Constitution requires more. That better, that more? Starts today with the Indigent Defense Advisory Committee.”

“The need is great,” for public defenders, Shapiro said — 54% of criminal defendants are represented by public defenders across the Commonwealth, he noted — and even before the committee has performed its full analysis, it was clear that the cost would be more than the $17.5 million he proposed in the next budget. 

“We shouldn’t let the perfect be the enemy of the possible. We got done a big thing last year in coming together to get this started. Now this commission can identify the need across the state,” Shapiro said, adding that he would return to lawmakers for the money needed to champion indigent defense. 

Kim Lyons contributed.

Pennsylvania Capital-Star is part of States Newsroom, a network of news bureaus supported by grants and a coalition of donors as a 501c(3) public charity. Pennsylvania Capital-Star maintains editorial independence. Contact Editor Kim Lyons for questions: info@penncapital-star.com. Follow Pennsylvania Capital-Star on Facebook and Twitter.

This article is republished from Pennsylvania Capital-Star under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.