America’s public defenders are overworked and underfunded. The situation has reached crisis levels in some states.
The plight of public defenders was highlighted in a recent article in the Guardian.
The problem means some cash-poor defendants are falling through the cracks. They are languishing in jails when they should have been released. Or their court-appointed attorney is not giving their cases the time and attention they deserve.
Over the last 50 plus years, the issues have mounted up. In 1963, the landmark Gideon v Wainwright U.S. supreme court ruling gave indigent criminal defendants who cannot afford to pay for a lawyer, access to legal counsel.
The Guardian article stated how 53 years on, the rate of incarceration across the country has more than quadrupled compared to 1963 and the vast majority of defendants are indigent. The system is at crisis point.
In 2008, states and counties spent about $5.3 billion on public defenders. It sounds like a lot but it’s just 2.5 percent of about $200 billion spent on criminal justice every year.
States like Louisiana face particular problems. Budget cuts have decimated the public defender system. The Marshall Project highlighted how just one public defender is responsible for helping people who have been arrested in a 1,000 square mile area north of Baton Rouge.
For many years the public defenders depended on traffic tickets, an unstable source of funding at the best of times. Now their budget has been cut even further. Budget cuts mean 33 out of 42 public defender offices are restricting their services. The Orleans Parish alone is facing a $1 million deficit.
Although the problem is not this severe in Texas, it certainly impacts defendants.
An article in the Washington Post noted how Texas death row inmate Hank Skinner raised concerns about his court-appointed attorney. He requested DNA testing on evidence found at the scene of the murder of his girlfriend. The Post reported his court-appointed attorney disregarded his request and didn’t to present this important DNA evidence at the trial,
The article noted the judge appointed a friend to defend Skinner. The attorney in question had earlier prosecuted him on assault charges.
Some jurisdictions in Texas have been giving vouchers to defendants to go out and hire a private criminal defense attorney rather than relying on court-appointed attorneys, the Post reported.
The underfunding of public defenders threatens very grave consequences for the justice system in Texas and elsewhere. We hear about people who have been charged with minor crimes remaining in jail because they are poor. Harris County Jail in Texas has one of the worst records in this regard. Often public defenders are too busy to give these cases the time they merit.
If you have been charged with an offense like a DWI or DUI or any other criminal offense and you need representation, call our experienced defense lawyers today at (682) 204-4066.