Inadequately Funded Public Defender Services Threaten Criminal Justice System, ACLU Testifies

For Immediate Release

Contact: 

Linda Paris, (202) 675-2312; media@dcaclu.org

Inadequately Funded Public Defender Services Threaten Criminal Justice System, ACLU Testifies

Michigan and Other States Fail to Ensure All Defendants Receive Quality Representation

WASHINGTON - American Civil Liberties Union attorney Robin L. Dahlberg testified
today before a House subcommittee about the need for congressional and
state oversight of inadequately funded and administered indigent
defense programs.  The hearing held by the Subcommittee on Crime,
Terrorism and Homeland Security of the House Judiciary Committee was
entitled, "Representation of Indigent Defendants in Criminal Cases: A
Constitutional Crisis in Michigan and Other States?"

"The
state of public defense services in this country is in crisis," said
Caroline Fredrickson, Director of the ACLU Washington Legislative
Office.  "Public defense services have become a popular budget cut for
many states in these tough economic times.  The impact of these budget
cuts is that attorneys for poor criminal defendants often have
overwhelming caseloads and grossly inadequate resources.   If we are
going to have meaningful constitutional protections, Congress must help
fix our broken criminal justice system." 

In
testimony, Dahlberg, a senior attorney with the ACLU Racial Justice
Program, discussed the United States Constitution's Sixth Amendment
guarantee that in all criminal prosecutions the accused shall have "the
assistance of counsel for his defense."  The United States Supreme
Court has ruled that as part of this constitutional right, states must
provide counsel to anyone accused of criminal wrongdoing and unable to
afford private counsel. 

"The poor are frequently provided with counsel in name only," said Dahlberg.  "The
failure of states to adequately fund and administer public defender
services infects the entire criminal justice system. This failed system
compromises our ability to produce just results.  Consequently, the
current state of public defense services jeopardizes public confidence,
perpetuates racial disparities and endangers public safety, wastes
taxpayer dollars and diminishes the United States in the international
community."

Dahlberg
highlighted Michigan, which has one of the worst indigent defense
systems in the country, as exemplifying the many problems that riddle
indigent defense systems across the nation. The state delegates to its
83 counties the responsibility of funding and administrating
trial-level public defense services. But Michigan provides no fiscal or
administrative oversight and does nothing to ensure that the counties'
funding, policies, programs or guidelines enable their public defenders
to provide constitutionally adequate legal representation  As a result,
it is not unusual for the budgets of prosecuting attorneys offices to
be as much as three times greater than those of indigent defense
offices.

When
public defenders do not have the necessary resources, their clients are
wrongfully convicted, plead guilty when they should not, and spend too
much time in jail or prison.  For example, Michigan
resident Allen Fox received a 12-month sentence for trying to steal two
cans of corned beef from a convenience store. Fox sat in jail for six
months before ever meeting an attorney. In another case in 2002, Eddie Joe Lloyd was released from a Michigan prison after DNA testing confirmed that he was innocent.  He spent 17 years behind bars because his trial lawyer did not present a defense. Lloyd's wrongful conviction cost Michigan taxpayers over $4.5 million. 

In
fact, between 2003 and 2007, attorneys in the Michigan Appellate
Defender Office found sentencing errors in one-third of the guilty plea
appeals assigned to their office.  When they corrected these mistakes, Michigan taxpayers saved $3,675,000.

To address the crisis in indigent defense, Dahlberg urged Congress to take four steps: 

  • Encourage
    parity between state prosecutorial and indigent defense services that
    receive funding from the federal Justice Assistance Grant Programs; 
  • Require
    the federal Bureau of Justice Statistics to collect, publish and
    analyze data on the funding and operation of such programs nationwide
    as part of an effort to provide needs-based financing for indigent
    defense programs; 
  • Recreate the federal death penalty resource centers to avoid the monopolization of indigent defense resources; and 
  • Encourage
    lawyers to become public defenders by funding the College Cost
    Reduction and Access Act, which forgives certain types of federal
    student loans.

Dahlberg's testimony is available online at:

www.aclu.org/crimjustice/indigent/39154leg20090326.html

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The American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) conserves America's original civic values working in courts, legislatures and communities to defend and preserve the individual rights and liberties guaranteed to every person in the United States by the Constitution and the Bill of Rights.

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